George Lakoff once said something to the effect that any time he came across anything that was regarded as common sense he knew there was something to be deconstructed. Or, as the great buffoon Buri once remarked, "The only function of an adage is to add-age." One of the directives we meet all the time in the violin world is "Practice this for a few weeks and you will notice an amazing difference." Nothing wrong with the idea per se; however, listening to a recent podcast interview of Simon Fischer I realized that it might be worth a little consideration.The great psycho-linguist
During the hour long interview (mentioned in the discussion section) Simon’s book Warming Up became the focus of attention. The charming, albeit a little gushy, interviewer remarked that even after a few weeks just the first exercise had an amazing effect on the left hand. At this point Simon gently chided her to the effect that the exercise had an immediate effect on the left hand, causing the interviewer to do a little quick stepping to get back on track.
Simon went on to add that he wanted to feel the result of any exercise within 20 seconds or so, or he did not consider that exercise to be of value. This must have caused a considerable amount of eye-raising among the many listeners and even engendered the quickly suppressed notion that Simon might be a tad eccentric and too heavily into instant-gratification when it comes to his own violin practice. Actually, this is very far from the truth. In fact, what Simon is indirectly showing us is an extremely important point that modern studies of how the mind works have a great deal to say about.
One of the most significant discoveries of modern psychology is, in my opinion, the notion of "Psychological Capital." This has spawned a whole new field of research which is generally referred to as PsyCap. PsyCap theory argues that humans have a certain amount of psychic resources such as hope, reliance, optimism and efficacy. These are not actual traits or tendencies, but rather states. This distinction is important because in the field of psychology a "state" can be the object of study and is under the control of the individual.
Furthermore these "states" correlate extremely strongly with not only our performance (on the violin or whatever), but with the degree of satisfaction one actually gets from the task in hand. The first implication of this is that we can increase our psychic resources (capital) by looking at things differently. The second is to understand that our expectation of "how things are going to go" is more important than how things are actually going. In other words, these expectations are actually moods. If we are in a good mood things will go well. If we are in a bad mood they won’t!
How does this rather long winded discussion pertain to violin playing? Well, it is actually quite simple to change our expectations (mood) about the future by constantly receiving unexpected rewards. (Can you see how this might relate to Simon’s point now?)
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states, "PsyCap is developed through a pattern of investment of psychic resources that results in obtaining experiential rewards from the present moment while also increasing the likelihood of future benefit." In short, our violin practice must be structured to produce significant rewards more or less straightaway - and also, increase the probability of future reward.
Thus, to do the best possible violin practice, we need to have psychological momentum triggered by constant rewards (yes, within 20 seconds.) In the same way, modern theorists are pointing out that in the work place people are frequently lumbered with big projects with few rewards except near the end (possibly). As a result, people working on large scale projects are often rather grumpy.
On a slightly different topic, Simon mentioned that when he had a concerto deadline, he often spent most of the day practicing things like tone production exercises and barely touched the work except at the end of the day. Anyone who want to write this off as classic procrastination is welcome to do so, but it is actually a different kind of procrastination that is actually very valuable.
What classic procrastinators do is minimize the value of secondary tasks such as technical work and attempt to force themselves to take on the main challenge. This causes severe stress and achieves nothing.
By contrast, what we actually learnt from Simon was that procrastination is actually a valuable psychological tool when used correctly. The negative feelings towards the major task in hand actually create energy that can be used to work on secondary level tasks of value. This is a very effective way of practicing indeed!
The underlying principle behind all these things Simon described is that for us violinists, the most important source of power for our practice is emotional energy, and the way we harness it may not always be the most efficacious.
I guess his idea of instant gratification is not so crazy after all!
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