April 2014

Goals vs. Processes

April 22, 2014 16:55

Are you goal-oriented or process-oriented? I used to be the former kind until I noticed the pattern of my emotional ups and downs; I was never entirely happy with my achievements and felt greedy. Slowly I started to realize that if I don’t enjoy the process of my pursuit, I will never be happy.

Obviously, not all processes can lead to happiness. The process of smoking leads to bad lungs and bad companionship. A process of undisciplined daily practice will quickly bring me boredom and deterioration of my playing.

What I am talking about is a productive process, which has built-in mechanism that not only will guarantee success but will also be enjoyable in its own right. To me, such a process must contain goals that can be carried out and even replaced by a sound system. For example:

I want to be able to play the Mozart violin concerto #4 by the end of this year.

1. Objectives: Play all the notes in tune and in tempo with good tone, musical and stylistically correct.
2. Strategy: details on what I will do to practice each day and how to get the help from my teacher to achieve these objectives more efficiently.
3. Performance measures: concrete numbers are preferred so my success will be quantifiable (e.g. week 1: page 1, play all the notes in tune, quarter note at 60bpm).

You may say, we are doing this all along so what's the big deal to write a blog? If you are doing this, congratulations! But I believe it is useful to have a rational account of something we are doing right and something is worth pointing out:

First, I think there is a danger in focusing too much on the goals. Goals can be short-sighted or unrealistic. They are always future-oriented so their success of which is neither entirely predictable nor within our control, also the satisfaction of achieving goals is often short-lived: “So I’ve done this, what’s next?”

On the other hand, the beauty of a good system as I outlined above is that, because of this disciplined approach, each step we take is reassuring and confidence-building. You know you are getting something big down the road so moments of obstacles and plateaus don't stop us but only enrich the journey.

Goals can be movable targets as we improve but a system is constant so long as it works. We often hear beginners saying they just want to be able to play some songs and they’ll be so happy if they could do just that. Once they have reached that point, many of them usually look for more.

With a sound system, we are safe even when goals start to slip; in fact, goals are not even necessary if each step of the system is working: by following a system, we can live a life in a monastic way, and wisdom, spiritual enlightenment and character building are just a few additional benefits to the violin practice.

This blog is inspired by Scot Adams' book "How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life", specifically, by the chapter called “Goals are for losers. Systems are for winners”, details of which can be found in his blog . Check it out if you are curious but don’t want to read his entire book.

1 reply

Too Many Books Not Enough Precision

April 16, 2014 13:45

Last a few years I've been thinking about when to stop relying on written materials and really learn how to practice. I think might start to get somewhere.

After more than ten years of violin learning (not counting the 20-year gap in between) and worked with a pretty amazing teacher for the past seven years, I slowly realized that the stubborn habit of wanting to learn everything in a systematic and orthodox way through research and books could be one of the chief obstacles in my approach to the violin and music making.

As a child, I followed my teacher’s advice and practiced diligently and read anything I could get my hands on. As an adult, whenever major problem pointed by someone in my playing (e.g., tone production, intonation, etc), I immediately research and buy books and materials that promise help. I know why I did it. Years of academic trainings and consumerism all have something to do with it. My library is pretty full and the materials I’ve got are all wonderful and helped me a great deal over the years; however, allow me to state the obvious, there is always a gap, sometimes a huge one, between what is written in a text and the extent to which I as can fully apply. The approach of mine perpetuates what is desperation in disguise – the diligence allows the root of the problem unsolved: the lack of surgical precision in diagnosing the problem, breaking it down to the finest detail and quickly fixing it.

Lately there seems to be a lot of discussions around practice less advocated by some very prominent masters of the day such as Pamela Frank and Christian Tetzlaff. I’ve also discussed this issue with some top prize winners of international competitions whom practice no more than one hour/day. I watched my teacher learned and performed Ligeti concerto within six weeks on top of leading a string quartet touring and performing other demanding programs the same time. I’m convinced that some of them can even though some violin god allegedly couldn’t in the past.

How they did it is more fascinating and I hope someday I’ll know. One thing though I’m certain is that, other than special innate talent in music and years of experience these violinists possess, what separates an exceptional violinist to a competent one is efficiency of learning and how they practice. As Pamela puts it, “the way you play is the way you have practiced”

In absence of such talent and experience, I think I could at least try to learn to listen and observe my playing with surgical precision. For instance, when I play a long line of phrase that I have all the notes but the line still doesn’t seem to work, learn to spot the exact problematic note, or a space between two notes, as the source of the problem and then find a way to fix it.

I’m not saying learning by research and buying books are wrong; these are necessary educational steps and I’ve learned tons by doing so, but these are also the easiest things to do to get sidetracked. Being a good violinist means we need to always push beyond our own comfort zone and learn to do what are hardest things for us to do. For me, less material acquisition and more surgical precision in practice is one of them, and I'm having fun working on it.


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