June 2014

Abstainers, Moderators, and Every-Day-ers

June 20, 2014 13:44

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.

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