June 2010

The 168-hour challenge

June 26, 2010 10:40

Last week I did something called the 168-hour challenge.  It was started by my friend, Laura Vanderkam, in association with the publication of her time-management book, 168 Hours: You have more time than you think.

In the book (which I have only read about 1/3 of, occupying approximately 1.5 of my previous 168 hours), Vanderkam suggests keeping a time log for a week to find out where your time really goes.  She notes in her book that most people overestimate the time they spend working and underestimate the time they spend sleeping.  

The next step, after you find out where your time is actually going, is to evaluate the proportion you spend on each activity, and see if that's what you really want to be doing.  For example, do you really want to spend 5 hours/week on "misc email and Facebook"?  (especially when you could be practicing those 3-octave scales . . . hmm)

However, since I found out about the book, and the challenge itself, on Facebook (Laura is FB friend of mine), that question, like so many others on this topic, is a bit more complicated than it first appears.

So, what did I learn?  The first thing is that I actually have less time than I think, not more.  K.J. Dell'Antonia pointed this out too, in an online review of the book in Slate.  My problem tends to be that I assume I'll always have time for everything.  Learn that quartet and those fiddle tunes for the Farmers' Market?  Learn another movement of the Franck sonata?  Practice violin with my daughter?  Clean the house?  Weed and water the garden?  Oh, sure, I have a free morning next Thursday when I'm working from home. . . I'll just do it then.

I also learned that I'm sleeping about 7 hours a night.  Not too bad, especially since I installed light-blocking curtains (with home improvement/care--not including cleaning--occupying a surprisingly whopping 9 of my 168 hours), but ideally I'd feel better if I got 8.  I also only spent 1.5 hours on exercise, which would be better if it were at least doubled, if not tripled.

All that aside, however, this is a violin blog, so it's time to face the music, so to speak.  How many of those 168 hours did I spend practicing last week?  Um, one.  Just one measly hour.

Like some of the people Vanderkam profiled in her book (and whom I knowingly tsk-tsked at in the back of my mind when I was reading it), I can protest with some legitimacy that this was an unusual week for me.  Orchestra is over for the season.  I had to postpone my scheduled lesson due to a work emergency.  I also attended the annual meeting for the orchestra (potluck dinner, budget report, and other business 1.5 hours), and presented my idea to start an annual chamber music concert, in honor of and named for our longest-serving member and former concertmaster, Phyllis Spence (chorus and orchestra reports 0.5 hours).  This idea was well-received and the board is taking up the planning.  The board, of which I am also now one of the newest members (election of new board members:  0.5 hours).  So, I went out socializing afterwards with my new friends on the board (appetizers and a beer in Arlington, 1.5 hours).  

I mean, it's not as if I did nothing violinish at all last week. 

Vanderkam's next point is that you should spend most of your time on your "core competencies," things that you can do well, or better than most other people, and minimize time spent on things that you dislike and/or are not good at.  This idea occupies a great deal of the beginning of the book and has been a bit controversial.  For example, in this review, Publisher's Weekly says that "Vanderkam's vision may yield plenty of time to pursue worthy activities, but it's a life leached of color or spontaneity." 

I wouldn't take it nearly as far as Publisher's Weekly did, but the idea of the core competency, and the idea, directly quoted from the book, that “There's little point... in spending much time on activities in which you can't excel” do make me a little uneasy, especially in a violin context.  It opens the door to a question that has no good answer, one that I usually try not to think about too much.  Do I, can I, "excel" on the violin?  

It depends on the context, of course.  Relative to beginners, even relative to what my youthful beginner self could do, yes, I excel.  Certainly relative to the millions of people on the planet who do not play an instrument, have no musical training, have no interest in music, I excel.  Even in my little world of orchestra and lessons and church, I can at least see excellence, sometimes I can touch it.  But in the real world of real musicians, of people who get paid to play the violin, I don't excel.  I don't belong there.  So is violin a core competency for me, or not?

I have noticed that among musicians, I tend to be more organized and more administratively conscientious than many--even than many who are much better players than I.   I do this sort of organizational work at work as well.  Administration and organization may be a core competency for me too, more so than playing the violin is, but I enjoy it less.  I also find that it is not really valued very much by society.  Everyone loves to heap praise on creative types, but administrators are considered boring, colorless, and lifeless--bean counters--even, sometimes, by themselves.

Where this leads is, I think, to an argument for diversity.  Organizations need people with different core competencies, and they need to value both.  And individuals, too, need to make their own decisions about how to spend their time.  I am still going to try to spend more time practicing next week--but I also am going to try not to feel guilty about having used some of my precious violin time for administrative things. 

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Franckly, my dear . . .

June 8, 2010 04:20

 I was a little concerned about how giving up viola and concentrating on violin was going to play out.  I suspected, and was right, that there had been a certain amount of avoidance/procrastination involved in playing the viola.  There were things I enjoyed doing and playing on the viola because they were "easy."  Practicing was satisfying and the reward to sacrifice ratio was, in my calculus, pretty high.  My worries were that if I just concentrated on the violin, the sacrifice would go up, and the reward would go down.  

I had worked on the Franck sonata movement 4 off and on, but it was not anywhere near performance level when I stopped working on it several months ago and concentrated on the Stamitz viola concerto instead for my recital.  Now I'm back at it.  This movement is not that long, only 3 pages in sheet music and 6 minutes and some change on iTunes.  I am trying to memorize the first two pages.  This is really hard.  It's as if every day the piece is new again.  The melody is repetitive in ways that I don't notice when I'm not trying to memorize it, but which still trip me up.  Yet, paradoxically, there are also major style changes from section to section, such that I get in one groove or habit, and then there are a few measures rest and then I have to come in sounding totally different.  There's nowhere to rest, mentally, in this piece.  I'm nowhere near ready for the pianist, but I'm sure he'd make it sound better.

It takes me about 5 minutes to get "into" practicing.  There is this inertia that comes from knowing what I'm about to do is going to be difficult and frustrating.  I start out playing the A-major scale without inspiration or passion.  It is really going through the motions.  Emotionally detached.  I've started just watching the tuner and trying to make it as green as possible, as steadily as possible, to give my mind something to occupy itself until interest kicks in.  It is, as was mentioned in another blog, like brushing my teeth.  

But something does happen after about 5 minutes.  I've been up and down it several times, and the scale starts sounding like something.  My fingers are finally hitting where they should be more often than not.  Then I get into the Franck and look at my watch and, to my surprise, a half hour has gone by since I last looked at it.

Taking stock almost 4 years into my return to the violin, there are some things that have definitely changed.  Now, I can hear when my violin needs new strings, and I can hear the difference when I put the new ones on.  I never could before, I just changed them (or not) according to a schedule or something I read.  Now I even think I can hear when my bow needs re-hairing.  (I'll see, after I get it re-haired, if I was right).  I went to a chamber music concert on Sunday to hear a friend play, and after his group was finished there was a string quartet playing Mendelssohn Op. 44 in D.  They were high-level amateurs and quite good, but I also, for the first time, felt like I could hear subtle, occasional, intonation problems in the quartet.

My ear is getting better.  It is what I wanted, yet it is something of a mixed blessing.  I'm becoming more critical in general, both of myself and of others.  It's getting to be more painful to listen to myself play the Franck unless I am truly obsessive about intonation.  (And that has its own disadvantages--because there's a lot more to the piece than intonation).  It's getting to be more difficult to listen to beginners and amateurs and just sit back and enjoy rather than getting distracted by intonation mistakes.  I need to push through this.  I hope what it means to come out on the other side is that I'll be able to practice, and listen, more intentionally.  Able to do everything that I do in practice for a reason rather than just brushing my teeth.

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