A violinist friend of mine told me of her recent experience when she had a coaching session to improve her audition skills. She said the woman sat with closed eyes and listened to my friend play. After my friend finished playing, the woman began to list undesirable things that happened. For example, “your bow jumped a little in the second measure when you changed to the G string,” or “your articulation was uneven in measure 8.” My friend accepted the list of observations and waited expectantly for the woman’s suggestions, but the only advice the woman gave was, “you need to figure it out.” Huh? My friend’s story amused me, but I have thought about the woman’s advice quite a bit since I heard of it, and I think there is something valuable for us to learn from it.
Too many times we do things without really paying attention to what we are doing. We have all heard the advice to “live in the present,” “live in the moment,” or as one author puts it, “live deliberately” (Hrvoje Butkovic, Living Deliberately, 2011). We can gain great value when we discipline ourselves to stay focused and present, and to be deliberate in what we choose to do or say at any given moment.
If I had been in my friend’s place, I could have chosen to slough off the woman’s advice. At first, that was indeed my reaction to my friend’s story. However, as I thought about the story off and on for the few weeks after, I began to notice a new trend in my thinking. I started to notice times during my practice sessions and places in my music when things did not sound as I wanted. I found bowing skips and slipped articulation catches, and sometimes the bow would not bounce when it was supposed to. I began to pay attention to these moments, as I tried to “figure it out.” At first I did this to entertain myself; I may have giggled the first few times this happened, as I thought about what the woman would have said to me if I had played for her.
Then I realized that I actually did figure it out. I paid attention in a closer way. I noticed things, I observed problems, and I found that this type of thinking gave me the perspective of a teacher’s evaluating a student as he or she played, only I was the student in this scenario. I made a great deal of improvement in many areas since I started using this technique of figuring it out.
I want to urge parents and teachers to pay closer attention to things this week. Really pay attention to what is happening. Be sure to look at and listen to your child. Really look and listen. Notice the facial expression; hear the tone of voice. Sometimes I look at a student and see that they are not feeling well. There are circles under their eyes, and the skin tone is paler. Other times I hear the tinge of a whine or a tearful edge to a student’s voice when they have come too close to the maximum frustration level. Sometimes these little things signal a greater stress happening at the moment in the student’s life. I notice similar things in the faces of my students’ parents. When I pay attention to things outside the studio, I might notice that a colleague’s eyes no longer smile or that the shoulders droop. Perhaps I need to figure out why and see if there is anything that I can offer him or her that would help to brighten the day.
I could have titled this article “pay attention,” but that seems to be only one part of the exercise. When we admonish ourselves instead to “figure it out,” we give ourselves the mandate to ferret out the kernel of a lesson. From that kernel will grow the discovery and the education.
Since I have begun adding the “figure it out” advice to my life, I have discovered more things that need my attention. I have helped more of my students to be better teachers of themselves at home during practice sessions. I have shown more parents how to relate better to their children when they are truly involved with what is happening with their children at any given moment.
“Figure it out” means that we stay connected in a more meaningful way with what we are thinking or doing at the moment we are thinking or doing. We do not just glance our attention over things by sliding our focus from one place to another. Instead, we zero in on what is before us at the moment and consider what could be really happening below the surface of our attention.
If you have not been paying attention in your life as well as you might, I have some advice for you: “Figure it out.”