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Monday, April 23, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Practice Awesomeness!


I have a young student in the first half of book 1 who loves to play and perform. Music is one of her languages, and she loves to entertain. The problem is that she is so eager to get playing that she does not take the time to do her set up steps and get into proper playing position. If we do not stay vigilant every moment, she will let things slide, and bowing gets messy and her posture falls apart completely. She has such a good time though that she does not notice how she looks and sounds.

At her last lesson, I had to step in and remind her to do her set up steps. That reminder was not enough, however, as her posture fell apart within a short time once she started to enjoy her playing. Before I had a chance to get her sorted out again, her mother spoke up:

“Practice Awesomeness!”

When the child heard that, she immediately straightened up, corrected her bow hold and left hand, and improved how she sounded. I looked at her mom with amazement.

“What’s that?” I asked. “Practice awesomeness?”

My student’s mom, Michelle Robinson, explained that they had spent some time during the week talking about awesomeness and trying to remember to make awesomeness part of everything they did during the week, no matter what it was. I think this is a great tip, so I want to pass it on to you.

What does it mean to “practice awesomeness”? What is awesomeness to you? When someone experiences awe, they are witnessing something terrific or excellent – so terrific or excellent that the person is amazed to see or hear it. The "something" must be really amazing though to cause the witness to experience awe. Ordinariness does not inspire awe. The commonplace does not inspire awe. Just getting by and doing what is required does not inspire awe.

Awesomeness is something more than mundane, average, or ordinary. It is more than routine and commonplace. Instead it is unworldly, exceptional, and extraordinary. What does that look like to you? Sometimes I encourage students to give me more than their ordinary best by asking them to pretend that they are playing for God or the president of the United States or a special person in the student’s life. Just as I find that people straighten up their posture and speak with grammatical correctness the minute they find out that I am also an attorney (retired), so my students stand up straighter and play with better tone and attention to detail when I ask them to do this pretend game.

In the case of my young student, awesomeness meant fabulous posture and something more. I watched her straighten up and correct her posture, but she had an additional sparkle to the way she looked. I find it difficult to define what the extra sparkle was other than to suggest it was charismatic. She was reaching out to me, her listener, and working to make a connection between us with her music. That was truly awesome!

Once you define what awesomeness entails in your particular situation or moment, look to something specific that you can work on to add the awesomeness factor. One of my favorite instructors at Texas State is Dr. Joey Martin, the director of Choral Activities and Assistant Dean of the School of Music. I have watched Joey coax marvelous performances from his student chorales. He explained his technique to me once. He takes a small section of the piece the students are learning, and he rehearses it until it reaches the highest level of perfection. It may be just one phrase in the music, or a small section, but Joey teaches the students how to attain awesomeness one detail and one layer of complexity at a time. Joey explained that after he spends this time teaching the students what his expectations are and how to place similar demands on themselves, Joey finds that the students apply these same principles elsewhere throughout the music.

I call this technique the “specific to general” principle. Start with something small and specific, work on it, and then let that specific work effort grow to influence a larger, general area. I center on this principle in the “Bits & Pieces” practice days (for more about this practice tip, click here). When we focus on small areas and really work to perfect them, we will find that our efforts spill over into the bigger picture. We will have raised our standards and expectations, and we will view other areas of the work before us with a new eye toward improvement.

This week, look for areas to practice awesomeness. Hang up a few signs in your home or studio and talk to your students and family about what awesomeness is and how everyone might be able to practice it together.

Happy Awesome Practicing!

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