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Abstainers, Moderators, and Every-Day-ers

Karen Allendoerfer

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Published: June 20, 2014 at 8:44 PM [UTC]

Last year when I made a career move into teaching I also subscribed for a while to Gretchen Rubin's e-newsletter. I had become familiar with Rubin through her book, Happier at Home, which I was interested in because with my new work life, I was going to be spending more time at home than I had previously. I felt lacking in the homemaking department. A year later, it's not clear to me how much better of a homemaker I've become (although I did just get in from mowing the lawn), but I still enjoy reading her ideas.

In a recent newsletter, she asked the interesting question, "Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator?"

She writes, about herself:
"I find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately. When I admitted to myself that I was eating my favorite frozen yogurt treat very often–two and even three times a day–I gave it up cold turkey. That was far easier for me to do than to eat it twice a week . . . If I never do something, it requires no self-control for me; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control."

I thought about this question in my own life. Frankly, I'm an abstainer sometimes and a moderator other times. For example, I'm an abstainer with potato chips. I have to just say no to potato chips altogether or I'll eat the whole bag. But, perhaps surprisingly, I'm pretty good as a moderator with alcohol, a substance that many people find difficult to consume in moderation. I find that a few glasses of wine in a week, socially, enhances my quality of life without getting out of control. Overall, I find that I can understand and inhabit both of these mindsets reasonably well, depending on the circumstances.

But then I got to thinking, there is actually a third hand here: there's abstaining, there's moderation, and then there's doing something every day. Every single day. Only doing it on the days you eat: does that sound familiar to anyone here?

All of the sudden, I'm plunged into a mindset that not only do I not inhabit easily, it's one that makes me quite uncomfortable. In a way, being an "every-day-er" looks a little like abstaining. I've heard the argument posed, and I'm even pretty sympathetic to it, that once you establish a daily habit of doing a certain activity, it takes less self-control to stick with that habit than it does to do that activity 4 or 5 times a week.

Except, I guess, if you never seem to be able to develop the daily habit. Yes, that's right, it's confession time: I don't practice every day. I never have, with the exception of 6 months when I was 17, living in Germany, and had a lot of free time on my hands because I was taking a gap year between high school and college. I restarted the violin 7 and a half years ago, when I was 40, and I've made several attempts in those years to establish a daily practice habit, and failed.

Part of the problem, maybe, is that I don't have a such thing as a "typical day." My teaching schedule for the past academic year was different every day, and every week. I taught in 3 different venues, I taught students of different ages, backgrounds, and course materials. Some days I got up early and drove for 45 minutes to get to class. Other days I slept in and didn't have to work until 5 pm. I enjoyed this lifestyle: it was new, different, and challenging. It stretched my brain in all kinds of good ways. My life now is varied, interesting, full, and administratively challenging. But it doesn't leave me with a regular daily time for practice.

Instead, I fit practice in here and there. I am completely on board with the notion that it's better to practice regularly and consistently, spaced out with breaks, than to try to cram everything into one marathon session right before a performance. So I have followed that plan to the best of my ability: sometimes I practice in the morning right when I got up, sometimes I practice late at night before bed. Sometimes it is in the afternoon. And sometimes it just doesn't happen at all.

Recently on a Facebook group of violinists, one of the members posted that she finds that she needs to practice every day to keep up her level. Many others chimed in with that same feeling. I commented, feeling guilty and like maybe I shouldn't even post it, that that hasn't been my experience.

Yeah, I know, I know, Heifetz said "If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it."

Nonetheless, my experience has generally been different. When I came back to the violin after 8 years off, it really wasn't all that traumatic. I don't deal with critics or the public on a regular basis. (And thank goodness for that, I might add!) Some of the orchestra pieces I recognized from 20 and 25 years earlier in youth orchestra came back to my fingers in minutes, others took a few days or weeks. But none of them were gone for good. And even now, I often play better after breaks of a day or two. I feel fresher, more patient, I hear the music with new ears. Whatever cobwebs my fingers might have acquired get dusted off in a few minutes.

I might be a better player if I practiced every day. Or, who knows, I might have quit altogether, tired of the perfectionism and drudgery that having to do something every day without exception brings to my mind.

Later in her article, Rubin points out that "In my experience, both moderators and abstainers try hard to convert the other team." and "People can be surprisingly judgmental about which approach you take."

I've seen the same conversion fever with every-day-ers. It seems to be especially prevalent in school orchestras. My 11-yo son plays cello in his school orchestra and his teacher tried to get everyone on board with "March Madness." Practice every day in March and you would get a prize. I decided this discipline would be good for my son. I nudged him and practiced with him every night, dutifully fulfilled my parental role as the practice police, and signed the sheet every week. He practiced every day in March without fail and got his prize. He also improved as a player that month. But what happened in April? The cello sat in the corner, only to be taken out for school orchestra and lessons. He'd reached his goal, had enough, and was tired of it. Thirty-one days in a row and still, no daily habit was really established. He is his mother's son after all.

At the end of her article, Rubin goes on to make an argument for inclusiveness:

"But different approaches work for different people. (Exception: with an actual addiction, like alcohol or cigarettes, people generally accept that abstaining is the only solution.)

You’re a moderator if you…
– find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure–and strengthens your resolve
– get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something

You’re an abstainer if you…
– have trouble stopping something once you’ve started
– aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits"

I think I have some pretty strong evidence that I'm a moderator with respect to violin practice. I find that the occasional day off heightens my pleasure and strengthens my resolve. And I do get slightly panicky at the the thought of having to do something--anything--every day for the rest of my life. I'd like to echo Gretchen Rubin's call for inclusiveness. It's still possible to have a rich, rewarding violin experience if you practice regularly, consistently, and moderately.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on June 20, 2014 at 11:00 PM
Hi Karen, you probably already guessed, but I've struggled with being an "all or nothing" for years--just look at my blog entries (or lack of, recently)!

Quite honestly, this is a double-edged sword in my life that I've been glad to move away from. During the "all" phases, I may have been productive on the violin, but it was also rather self-destructive. The path of the perfectionist is an endless pursuit that can eat into mental sanity, not to mention the time consuming way that it takes away the rest of your living. This mentality actually manifested itself in many ways in my life, to the point that I worked myself into a breakdown last fall. I went to a doctor, who prescribed me medication for OCD/anxiety, and after adjusting, I discovered that I was able to moderate my life a whole lot better. Yes, I'm still practicing, but just because I want to, and I'm enjoying the freedom of putting it down if I feel like it. My life is a lot more chill now. I don't see myself as being as productive, yet, during rehearsal and performance, I do much better because I'm able to let things go and live in the moment. I'm not sure how this is all related, except that perhaps "all or nothing" people tend to take things to unhealthy extremes. I was extremely unhappy at times, being unable to escape the fact that I couldn't seem to stop obsessing about things. I feel much better without that in my life. And it's not like I can't still put in a six hour practice day when duty calls.

Posted on June 21, 2014 at 1:11 PM
"(Exception: with an actual addiction, like alcohol or cigarettes, people generally accept that abstaining is the only solution.)"

I liked your article, I just felt like commenting on the above. Addiction is treated in this way (complete abstinence) in the US. However, it's actually not a very successful model when put up to clinical evaluation. Programs like AA make many claims but their data supporting the position of complete abstinence is weak to non-existent and the success of their method, despite being popular in the US, is actually not confirmed in clinical trials.

This can in part be seen even by the second example you give (cigarettes) where multiple studies have shown that gradual decreases, with the aid of cigarrette-substitutes like nicotine patches and gum are in fact far more successful than going 'cold turkey'.

It is even more demonstrated by the expansion of the former 12 step programs into areas such as 'sexual addiction' where the idea that complete abstinence for the remainder of your life is neither healthy, nor attractive to pretty much anyone, much less the people who would be candidates for such a program. As such the 12 step programs for 'sexual addiction' (I chose this one as it is the most easily elatable, but there are others with modified 'abstinence' goals) redefines 'abstinence', most commonly to mean sex outside an established long-term monogamous relationship (and some would say this is a societal more, not necessarily a true measure).

Indeed, many addiction specialists and centers in Britain, the Commonwealth and many parts of Europe, outright reject this 'all or nothing' psychological approach as setting up people for failure, and instead programs for moderation, rather than complete abstinence' are widely available.

I know it's not strictly violin related. But if we are a public venue, and we are going to touch on some 'off-topic' areas like addiction, we should give them their due, as what people read they sometimes take as 'gospel'.

By the way: I don't practice every day either. And I think thats fine!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 21, 2014 at 1:44 PM
Hi Emily, Glad to see you here! I've missed your blogs, as I'm sure others have as well. But, as we know, "life happens." Thanks for sharing your story. I'm so glad you've been able to find a doctor who can help and a routine that's working for you. Maybe you can look at that phase of your life as being over now, but still reap the benefits of all that muscle memory and skill you built up.

One thing I do have to say for the every-day-er, all-or-none mindset: it does produce skilled violinists. I've spent much of my violin-playing life envying people who can ride that particular dragon.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 21, 2014 at 9:41 PM
Thanks for your comments on addiction. That little aside about abstinence for alcohol and cigarette addictions is Gretchen Rubin's. I was quoting her article and I didn't want to misquote her or misrepresent her views, so I left it in. She is a US author, and I think that her remark represents the current mainstream US view. She also gives herself as an example of an abstainer, so I would guess she's quite familiar with that mindset. My own personal views on cigarette and alcohol addiction and treatment are actually pretty close to yours, but I'm neither particularly well-informed nor experienced in that area so I'm sticking to violin practice for this post :)

I do think that trying to turn violin practice moderators into every-day-ers may not be the best approach. It may set them up for failure down the road, and it brings to mind the whole idea of students being "Punished by Rewards" set forth by Alfie Kohn:

All those stickers for 100 practice days in a row and so on . . . I think some kids do come to see them as manipulative, and the stickers and rewards start having the opposite effect to what was intended. That's kind of what I saw with my son. Although he survived practicing every day in March, he was burned out and disinterested by April.

Posted on June 22, 2014 at 1:48 PM
Thank you for taking my comments on addiction in the spirit (no pun intended) in which it was intended. Of course my point on the whole detour, as you made, and I forgot to (!) was that an all or nothing mentality contributes to 'mental fatigue', rejection of the idea, and 'falling off the wagon', and once this occurs as you have now "failed" (whether that failure in the case of alcohol is one sip, or in the case of violin practice one missed day), the barrier against continuing to 'slip' and not practice is already destroyed and people will often slip into apathy.

For myself I prefer to set concrete goals to work towards and to plan towards (piece X by Y date) but be somewhat flexible in that but have mileposts along the way to make sure I don't cram all my practice at Y date - 3 days! I also then get to enjoy the goal. Practice for practice sake makes, at least for me, complete drudgery.

Your blog is one of my favorites. Keep entertaining and informing us!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 23, 2014 at 4:49 PM
A very good blog, not only on its merits, but because we heard from Emily Grossman, whose blogs I miss. Leaving aside addiction issues, I would hope that most of us amateurs are moderators. I try to play as much as I can, if I feel like it, and I try not to get bent out of shape when I do miss. Now that I am retired, I think that it is both easier to practice as much as I want, and I feel less stress when I do miss a day or two or three, which happens more frequently for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, we amateurs, while always trying to better ourselves, should be relaxed about our music. Otherwise, it becomes drudgery. So, I am with you on this. I might feel differently if I were a professional, but I would hope that I would follow Emily's example.

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