Sunday, June 8, 2014

True Confessions: Why I Think Practicing is Like Doing the Dishes

True Confessions: Why I Think 
Practicing is Like Doing the Dishes

Only because I am so passionate about helping flutists find happiness and freedom in their practicing will I confess to you now my dirty little secret.  It's a secret I often face on Sunday mornings before my private flute students come to my home for their lessons and I madly scramble around trying to manage it.

My secret is...

I hate doing dishes. 

Though I am a reasonable person and realize that simply rinsing dishes after they are used makes the world an easier, brighter place, I often skip this ridiculously easy step because of the extreme measures I will take to avoid looking at the dishes in the sink.  If I rinsed my current dishes, I would have to face the old dishes!  

I have tried everything to help change my ways.  I even wrote a poem and taped it right above my sink:

We can do this with effort or do this with ease,
To facilitate the latter, won't you rinse your dishes, please?

Right beside the poem, I have taped this quote:

Sadly, I often don't even see the signs that are supposed to motivate me, because there are dishes piled in front of them. In my imagination, I feel that if my students didn't come to my home on Sundays, I would never, ever do the dishes and the pile on the counter would simply grow larger and larger until it spilled out into the kitchen and took over our entire living space like a giant, stinky blob.  In reality, there's only ever a sink plus a counter full of dishes and a good half hour scrubbing does the job, but I am quite talented at forgetting this little nugget of logic.

So what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with practicing? The following list of common practice problems and their solutions will hopefully help you see the similarities!

Dirty Dishes Denial Issue #1: If I don't look at the dishes they don't exist.

Have you ever avoided recording yourself because you don't want to hear how much work there is to do?

Dirty dishes and facing how you really sound right now are both very much like the monster in the closet when you were little.  When you are in the dark and too scared to examine what's really there, your imagination can run wild and conjure up all kinds of horrors that seem way too intense to face.  Luckily, just like the monster in the closet, when you turn the light on, you realize it was something you could handle all along.  The monster was a coat or a shadow, the dishes just needed to be soaked in water for a bit and the recording revealed your flaws, but you can hear what they are and can therefore start taking action to change them!  

Just like the worst dishes sometimes need two or three passes with the hot water, soap and scrubber, when you record yourself you may need many attempts before you start hearing the meaningful differences you create with patient practice.  Keep soaking, scrubbing and patiently chipping away at anything keeping you from the shiniest, sparkling clean version of the music that you want to hear!

Dirty Dishes Denial Issue #2: It will take way too much time and energy to do the dishes.

How often do you know the practicing tasks that would make a huge difference for you, but you gloss over them because you feel like you don't have time?

One lesson I have learned with practicing (and occasionally get over myself enough to apply it to the dishes, which really does work) is that 5 minutes is always doable.  Rather than stressing about how long it would take to gain muscle memory for an entire page full of hard runs, I pick one challenging run and commit to doing patient, creative repetitions for five minutes.  

One of two things will happen.  I either feel better from the tiny dose of tangible progress which provides me momentum for the next time I practice, or I suddenly realize that 15 more minutes wouldn't kill me.  After all, if I got this much done in 5 minutes, how great will I feel after 15?  When my energy is good and my mind is clear, an hour will often go by without me noticing.  Usually, that hour I thought I couldn't spare turned out to be "spare-able" after all.  

Conversely, the more I stress about how much time the practicing will take, the more I put it off.  The more I put it off, the more stressed out I get (and so on, and so forth).  It's very easy to turn into the white rabbit when worrying about time, "the hurrier I go, the behinder I get!"

Dirty Dishes Denial Issue #3: I'm just not good at cleaning.

Have you ever said to a teacher or another flutist, "I'm just not good at... (double tonguing, high notes, high Es, lyrical pieces, technical pieces, etc.)?

Considering the fact that our brains are constantly swirling with a seemingly infinite amount of sensory input, information connections, memories and more, thinking or speaking words is basically the equivalent of typing in key words for a Google search. When you ask questions like "how can I make this high E comfortable and beautiful?" your mind instantly begins the task of retrieving all related information.  When you say or think, "I'm not good at playing high Es," your brain responds just as quickly with all the memories and evidence it can find to back that statement up.  

One of my favorite quotes by Henry Ford is, "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right."  When you realize that your mind has equal access to evidence for either scenario ("I can" or "I can't"), it becomes clear that it's up to you to perform the brain search you choose.  Rather than labeling a difficult situation ("I'm just not good at..."), ask questions instead. Tony Robbins says, "Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers."

Dirty Dishes Denial Issue #4: It's not fair that I have to do the dishes, I would rather have a maid come and do them for me.

Be really honest with yourself and think about the times in your life when you've wanted your flute teacher, a masterclass or even an article to come and "save the day" by giving you the perfect advice that whisks away all your difficulties and magically solves your flute playing problems. 

I often stare at the dishes and joke with my husband saying, "Our maid either quit or she's doing a horrible job."  We actually have been tempted to hire a maid a number of times, but I am strangely stubborn and still feel like there's got to be a way to kick start my desire to clean (this article is helping!).  When it comes to practicing flute, however, the truth is that there is no maid to clean up our messes. There's no fairy godmother or flute guru either.  No matter how magical, wise and insightful a teacher's, author's or even friend's advice is (or isn't), there is no getting around the fact that progress must come from the individual musician.

So... if the maid quit (or never existed!), it's time to put on the rubber gloves, crank up the tunes and start singing along while doing those darned dishes.  I can read articles, collect tips and try any number of tricks to make the dishes easier, but in the end, the motivation and the follow through has to come from me.  You can take copious notes during every lesson and masterclass and save every brilliant article you ever read, but there's no getting around the fact that you've got to turn on the metronome, have your pencil ready and put in the hours with your flute on your face. 

Dirty Dishes Denial Issue #5:  If only I had rinsed the dishes when I should have, I wouldn't be in this mess now.  

Do you ever let the fact that you "should have" practiced more up until this point affect your mood and energy level when it's time to practice now?

Another Tony Robbins saying I love is "don't should all over yourself."  Everything we've done, good or bad, ideal or not, is an experience.  More often than not, we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes!  If you find yourself regretting the poor decisions you made previously (i.e. "I should have rinsed the dishes" or "I should have practiced this two weeks ago"), I highly suggest choosing a different perspective.  

I like to think of what the lovely, recently passed away, Maya Angelou had to say on the subject, "You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better."  Acknowledge that you had your reasons for choosing differently before and now you will do better!  Whether or not I rinsed the dishes right after using them and whether or not you practiced like you should have weeks ago, we can both dive into the present moment and make something happen right here, right now.    

Dirty Dishes Denial Issue #6: I'll just use paper plates for right now and then do the dishes later. 

One of the most common statements I hear from college and adult flutists during their lessons is "I just need to practice that more." The basic meaning is, "I get the concept you are explaining, I just can't play it, yet.  Leave me alone so I can just fix it myself later and we can move on for now."

It's so temping to think "I get it, I get it!  I know what I need to do... I'll just do it later and then it won't be a problem."  Unfortunately, because of the ripple effects available in flute lessons and practice sessions, when you decide to put off trying something now, you are not just missing out on one experience, you are missing out on many.  

Consider this example.  When I avoid doing the dishes, I am aware of them in the back of my mind while I am teaching and going about my day.  Because I know I need to do them later and my home is not as fresh and clean as it could be, my energy and attention is not as available as it could be.  I might miss out on any number of great writing ideas, spontaneous bursts of motivation to practice or even simple moments of laughter and lighthearted enjoyment of my day that would have been accessible if I had been more available.  

When you put off following through on a new concept or skill until later, you miss out on the ripple effects of great ideas, momentum and breakthroughs you could have had for the rest of the lesson or practice session.  Next time you become aware of something you understand intellectually but you might be uncomfortable with if you tried it now without "practicing later," go ahead and try it!  You might very well start a chain reaction that leads to an amazing practice session and a change in course for your path as a musician.

Dirty Dishes Denial Issue #7: I don't feel like it today.  Tomorrow, I'll be in a much better mood to do the dishes. 

When you are tired, hungry, stressed, frustrated or disappointed, do you ever think to yourself, I'll just wait until tomorrow and practice after a good night's sleep. My practicing will be so much better in the morning!

In a way, waiting until you are in a good frame of mind to practice is smart.  If you are loaded down with the problems of the day or feeling tired, run down or otherwise unable to give practicing your best, maybe it is better to take a much needed rest and give it a go tomorrow. On the other hand, waiting for the absolute perfect mood before you practice might mean you never get around to practicing.  

Rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, why not spark some inspiration now?  If you're tired, take a 20 min. power nap or grab a coffee.  If you're hungry, have dinner!  If you're frustrated or stressed out, take some time to write down the problems cluttering your mind on a piece of paper, fold the paper and put it in your pocket.  Your problems will still be waiting for you (and maybe not even seem so bad!) after a good practice session, so you can let them go for now.  Start your practice session with something you love to do and enjoy the natural rise in enjoyment that kicks in while you are breathing in and out and making beautiful music. 

Need ideas for how to spark inspiration now?  Try reading  Inspire Yourself to Practice (another post in which I equate practicing to doing the dishes...).  

In summary, I just want to point out that a lot of you reading this might think my issue with doing the dishes is quite a simple one to solve.  Great!  That means you know exactly how I feel about many common practicing issues.  Just like the dishes, it's a matter of facing reality, starting with the little things, thinking positively, taking responsibility, having no regrets, seizing the moment and creating the mood and energy levels you need to get the job done.  

When in doubt just remember, "For every job that must be done there is an element of fun..." I firmly believe that a spoonful of sugar transforms dishes and practicing from chores into joyful experiences!  

Now off to the kitchen...

Happy Practicing!
Terri Sánchez