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Monday, September 10, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Choosing a Focus Point

Whenever I visit a Chinese restaurant, I am entertained by the place mats that explain the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. You may recall the 12-year cycle of animals, such as the dog, the rat, the sheep, or the ox. Each zodiac animal also contains a personality description and advice concerning what other animals to marry or avoid.

I like the idea of focus that the zodiac provides. Each animal in the zodiac represents a year. However, I do not know that I want to wait 12 years for my zodiac animal to come around again. However, the idea behind the zodiac – the focus point – is what I am interested in.

Our lives are full of distractions. There are many people and items that demand our attention. Life moves at a frenetic pace, as technological advances compete for our consumer approval. We need to constantly update our electronic devices lest we fall behind in our ability to communicate with each other. As a teacher, I see this communication gap widen between parents and their children and sometimes between authority figures and students.

For example, I find there are still some parents who have phones that are woefully out of step with the times. Please do not think that I am trying to argue for more consumerism. Instead I want to put forth the idea that parents should keep up with their children when it comes to technology. Just as I advocate that parents read the same books and view the same movies that their children read and see, so I also advocate that parents stay on top of the way technology works. The reason I advocate this position is so that parents are able to parent effectively.

When the Harry Potter craze started, I read the books because I wanted to know what my students were reading. When I got to book 5, I thought that the books contained incredibly frightening material for younger children. I discovered that many of my students read the books but that their parents had not kept up their reading. Sadly, these students were left to process the disturbing subject matter on their own. In the case of those parents who do screen what their children will read or see, please be sure to be timely about this. I know of several students who had to wait a year for their mothers to decide that some reading material was acceptable. Meanwhile, all the students’ friends had read the books, explained what happened to the non-reading students (and probably lent them the books to read secretly), and then moved on.

I recall a discussion with one student about something related to his phone. He remarked, “I don’t have a smart phone. I have a dumb phone.” This student was only able to make phone calls; his text message capability was prehistoric, time-consuming to use, and functionally useless. His mother joined our discussion, and I discovered that the reason behind the technology “lag” was that the mother was uncomfortable with the new technology. Instead of trying to figure it out, this mother opted to plead ignorance and lack of technological savvy. (Happily, this student is now in college, has purchased his own up-to-date laptop, and is humming along in step with the current technological trends, which fits his chosen profession related to sound recording technology.)

I understand that technology can cause a bit of fear and uncertainty, but I do not believe that ignorance and lack of technological savvy are really good excuses for not keeping up. I have seen two-year-old students use my iPhone. They knew exactly how to turn it on and work the buttons. (One of these same students actually called me one day on his mother’s new iPhone. This mother had more trouble using her phone than her little two-year old.) These same youngsters had mothers who still had not figured out how to use their phone. Do these mothers want their children to be able to use a smart phone in kindergarten when these mothers will not be able to do so? Think of the dangers lurking behind the Internet gateway, while these mothers will be clueless about how to protect their children. Why not just figure it out? If a two-year old can do it, then a grown-up will be able to learn how.

My favorite example of the technology gap can be heard at the university level. I frequently hear faculty complain that students do not keep up with their email. I am amused, because I have found that students have long passed by the email form of communication. Sure, they can still do it, but email is not the preferred method of communication. If I want to send an important message to my university students, I will send an email, because that is the preferred method of communication at the university level. However, if I want an instant response, I send a text message, and to cement the deal, I also send a message via Facebook. My students respond to the text messages first and foremost. I very seldom receive email responses, and occasionally, Facebook rules the day, but still the exception rather than the rule.

I started this article about the Chinese Zodiac and the idea of a year of focus, and I wound up with a discussion about the communication gap caused by parents who refuse to keep up with the current technology and trends. I know where I digressed and why, but let me get back to my original point. I know I had one somewhere. Oh yes, the many distractions that compete for our attention (and so many of these distractions are caused by technology and electronic devices). You wonder how I will relate this to the Chinese Zodiac?

I think we can take a page from the Chinese Zodiac and create our own focus points. Rather than devote one year per focus point, we can create our own calendar. Maybe we can devote a month or a semester or a season to each focus point, or maybe a week. I know that I use many different time frames for my focus points, and my points vary depending on the circumstances in which I need to use them.

For example, I typically begin the fall semester with an overall focus for my studio. This year, my focus is to help my parents and students to find a way to record and track their practice efforts. I went back to a handbook format that I had used for many years to keep my parents and students on task with practice and listening assignments. I have put this handbook back into play for the past two weeks, and already I have seen a big improvement in the organization that parents and students have put into their home practice sessions.

I may have a different focus for my university semester. For the fall, I may have one focus related to getting my students going for the university “year” and for the freshmen students especially. I may also have a focus for each of my various university roles: teacher, performer, scholar, and collaborator. Some of these roles and focus points may overlap. For the spring semester, I may have a different focus point related to student recital performances and opportunities to practice performing before others.

For the symphony or my performance opportunities as a professional musician, I may have additional focus points. For the past few years, my focus point has been “consistency,” where I strive to be consistent from one rehearsal to the next, and I practice so that I have the capability to maintain consistency. For my home, I may have focus points related to the upkeep of my home, my dachshunds, or the ranch animals (alpacas and donkeys).

I recommend that you select a focus point for the next month. Choose one word to represent this focus (or an animal, as found in the Chinese Zodiac), and put this word prominently on your calendar or somewhere that you will see it and contemplate it frequently. If you can, devote a morning page or two to discuss the meaning of this focus point to you:
  • What does this focus point represent to you?
  • How will it improve you or your life?
  • How will it encourage your growth of character or personal development?
  • What can you do to make this focus point happen?
  • How will you decide whether you have succeeded at meeting your focus?
  • How will you measure your success?

As many of you know, I am a big proponent of setting goals. I like having the “finish line” set before me. I like having a picture of an ultimate destination to aim for. I like climbing up mountains or running distance races. I like these things because they stretch me. These things demand more from me, and I grow stronger as a person of character, discipline, and knowledge because I strive to accomplish them. I think of focus points as those incremental stretches of road in between the larger goals. Some focus points involve more effort because they are those nasty road patches between miles 10 and 13 when the going is sluggish. Other focus points are those first few miles of uphill struggle to get started on a new project.

Please leave me a comment about your focus point this next month. I am interested in hearing what things other people are working around in their lives. If you have an animal to represent your focus point, then I want to hear what you have chosen and why!

Have a happy week!

P.S.: All this talk about keeping current with technology has a purpose. I recently discovered that I am unable to upgrade to the latest software update for my electronic device. It is time for me to purchase a newer, more up-to-date computer. As much as I love my current laptop (MacBook), I recognize that I need to move on to the next level for many reasons. I will move on to the next level in the next few months and hand down my current laptop to my dear husband, who would be happy to lag behind technology another year or two.


  1. Great topic, Paula. My goal is to be more on top of things and avoiding the stress of waiting until the last minute(doing laundry before it's absolutely necessary, making sure the bathroom is clean the night before guests and students are in my home, planning meals and shopping well in advance). In a word, PREPARATION. I think it will be liberating.

  2. Oooh, I like that one! I think I will use that too.