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Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: The Road to Excellence (Part 2)

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

Last week, I wrote part one of an article entitled: "Monday Morning Check In: The Road to Excellence." In that article I discussed what excellence is. If you missed that article, click here. In today's article, I want to address one enemy of excellence.

We may encounter many enemies on our road to excellence, but I believe the main enemy of excellence is our way of handling time. We all start out the day with the same amount of time allotted to us, yet some of us have more difficulty finding or using our time well than others do. How we view time or our ability to manage time will also impact how much ability we can develop.

The time problem has many different names and related expressions: lack of preparation, hurriedness, inattention to detail, misguided priorities, changing priorities, too many activities, time-wasting, lack of direction (no goals), laziness, idleness, frustration, boredom, doldrums, discouragement, emergency, depression, and lack of creativity. Even ill health, spiritually or physically, will affect our use of time.

How to Walk the Road of Excellence

First, get a good handle on your time. Analyze where your daily time is being spent. Decide what your priorities are and eliminate those things in your schedule that do not support your priorities. If your child's ability development is one of your highest priorities, be sure that your daily schedule reflects that.

Set aside the appropriate amount of time necessary to accomplish your priorities. Plan your day, your week, or your month if that is what it takes to find the necessary time to spend time with your child's practice. Do not artificially force your child's learning pace to fit your poorly-managed schedule. Do not inflict too many activities on your child. I see too many stressed out children in the studio and at group classes. There was a time when I would expect to see tension in a child's playing when they reached middle school age. Now I am amazed to find students as young as four and five who exhibit the same sorts of tension problems. Slow down and enjoy your child's learning process.

Set goals and devise a meaningful plan to achieve those goals.

I would not set off on a trip without having some idea of where I wanted to end up. There may be a choice of roads to take to reach the destination, but I would expect to reach that one destination. In the same way, be sure what your destination is. In the case of my students, I try to make that as easy as I can by writing down specific assignments in the student's handbook. Please look over the handbook daily before beginning the practice session in order to plan what your goal for that daily session will be. If you feel you are weak in this area, please talk to your child's teacher about it. Sometimes your child has an idea of what goals he or she would like to accomplish.

After setting your goal, break the goal down (analyze) into the steps necessary to achieve the goal. For example, how does a student play short, staccato notes? There are so many ingredients: strong thumb, soft fingers, soft arm, correct bow hold, correct bow placement, relaxed bow weight. Which area would your child benefit most with improvement and practice? What will you work on tomorrow?

After setting a goal and analyzing the steps to reach the goal, start practicing: repeat the steps, over and over and over. Look for ways to encourage repetition. Ask the child to discover new things with his ears, eyes, and other senses. Make up new games or revisit old ones. Recently one of my students and I invented a game for Etude, and she has delighted in playing the game again and again, while I have devised new challenges and funny penalties and rewards that occur during each playing. Yes, it took us a little time to work out the game, but we had such fun doing it and playing it. I do not regret a single moment spent in those several lessons, and I am fully confident that the student will always know Etude really well as a result.

After setting the goal, analyzing the steps to reach that goal, and actually practicing, there comes the most important time of all -- the time of self-reflection. This is the time when we analyze the progress we are making. This is when we evaluate whether we are headed in the right direction, whether we should stop and catch our breath, or whether we should take a side-trip. If something is not working, our reflection time is important to figure out why it is not working. Are we practicing correctly? Have we followed all of the teacher's directions? Have we practiced daily or have we allowed a few empty days (note the hollow ring to the word "empty") to sneak in and interrupt our progress? Have we found ways to encourage our children if they are in a slump? Do both parents show interest and encouragement in the child's progress? Do siblings also support the child's learning? Does the child's schedule support the child's and parent's practice goals?


And finally, the most enjoyable step of all -- celebration. After completing the steps to a particular goal, take the time to celebrate in an appropriate way. In my studio we have found that ice cream is a great way to encourage students to achieve all sorts of varied goals.

A Few More Words About Time

If finding time is your main problem, try keeping track of how you spend time for one week:
  • Divide each day into 15-minute increments and note the activities of your day. Include meals, television, driving time, and other areas of your time-sucking life.
  • Highlight flexible-time activities, like television, video games, movies, talking on the phone, and computer time.
  • Add up the total time that you spent in various activities and consider ways to eliminate time-wasters or shrink the time used up by flexible-time activities.
  • Evaluate whether an activity is really productive and consider eliminating, delegating, or combining it with some other activity. I routinely do odd jobs while I am talking on the phone, such as watering plants, dusting, putting away dishes, folding clothes, and straightening up.
  • Set up a tentative schedule that incorporates the amount of time that you wish to devote to various activities.
  • Test drive the new schedule. Keep track of the time spent and re-evaluate how the new schedule works at the end of the week. Set up another schedule for the following week. Keep doing this for at least a month in order to build a new habit. After a month or two, you may want to go through the time-tracking process again to see if any old or new time-wasters have crept back into your life.

Know Thyself

The most important trick to time management is to know yourself. Be aware of your own personality style. Do you feel more comfortable with leisure activities? Are you more rigidly type-A in your approach to your and your children's schedules? Are you laid back about what best is done when and how? Do you lose track of appointments or activities?

Remember that your personality style and your child's personality style may differ. Be careful that you do not unfairly imprint your style unnaturally on your child. You may be a type A personality, but your child may be more laid back in his approach to life. Neither style is right or wrong, but be careful that by trying to instill your values about time management and priorities in your child that you are not artificially stunting your child's natural personality. We do not want to stifle or stunt a child's development.

For example, a type A personality may grind a more naturally laid-back child's practice schedule into the ground by insisting on unnecessary repetitions. Instead, it would be better to evaluate your child's personality needs and adapt a practice schedule that promotes your child's success. One mother I had would schedule her phlegmatic son for every possible activity at an institute, only to have her little boy plead with her to lighten it up because the heavy schedule made him so tired. This mother learned how to find and follow her son's natural energy rhythms in scheduling activities and in practice sessions.

Successful practice should motivate and encourage a child, not frustrate or discourage him. Successful practice should be what is necessary and should not involve unnecessary repetitions or procedures. Always have a goal in mind to accomplish in each practice session. The goal may be altered to suit the weather, the circumstances, and the child's desires or mood that day.

But what about internalizing a skill or building muscle memory to the overlearning state? Yes, that is a goal sometimes, and I would help a naturally phlegmatic personality child to understand how to work toward that goal.
"Could you play that piece in your sleep? Then we probably need to work on it a bit more. How about we put it on your practice list this week, and on two days, why not just play the third part four times extra?" 
"We still have a spot of trouble in these two measures here. Let's do a Squares of Eight Game this week on this section."
This is not to say that a laid-back child cannot learn the valuable skill of repetition and daily practice. Following up a diligent practice with the following comments may go a long way to instilling the value of repetition:
"Doesn't it feel good to do that so many times and actually get it?" (Nod your head "yes" while you ask this.)
"Wasn't that a great lesson! I'm so glad that we put in so much work this week so we could have so much fun at your lesson (or group class, or recital performance, etc.)?"
Then there is the reverse problem of a laid-back parent and a child who may or may not mirror that personality style. Do you really want your child to copy your personality traits of time management? Perhaps you do, but I suspect that many laid-back personality types would like their children to grow up with better control of their time management and ability development. If that is the case, then consider developing some better habits yourself as you also try to instill these habits in your child's personality. Consider how to keep better track of your time and to help your child to do the same. Your teacher will help you with charts and goal-setting. If necessary, set time limits (or aspirations) to get going. Make a commitment to follow a particular program for at least three weeks, and four weeks would be better to really get a good start on a new habit.

In my studio, my parents and I use the student handbook to assess problem areas. Are Fridays empty days? Sundays? Try varying the practice plan on those days to address the problem. Perhaps a shorter practice session early in the day would avoid the end-of-the-week exhaustion. How about a home concert on Sunday for family or a phone concert for a grandparent or other relative? Maybe your child would like to volunteer to play for others on those days at school or church. Recently several students have entertained nursing home residents. One student played for fellow campers at summer camp. Another played for preschool classmates. These types of performances motivate children and also help them prepare for recitals.

Health Issues

A few words about poor health, which is something that can really slow a child's progress, whether it is the child's or the parent's health issue. Try to keep the child as healthy as you can, but be alert for health problems when practicing. Children do not learn well when they are tired and not feeling well, so do not push during such times. If the parent is ill, try to make alternate arrangements to get your child to lessons, group classes, and practice sessions. Your child's development should not have to follow the same path as a parent's health dictates. This is not to say that a parent can never be ill, but please take note of the number of times that your child may have had to wait through your illnesses. There have been many times when I was discouraged as a teacher because a student and parent were beginning to progress quite nicely during lessons only to be interrupted by one or two weeks of illness. We had to regroup and start over each time and lost the marvelous momentum we had built up before the illness.

Divided Family Issues

Let me add a few words about divided families. Most of my readers know that I once was a practicing family law attorney, so I have some experience in this area. I found it interesting that divorced or separated parents were quick to espouse the philosophy that the child was better off in the new family situation rather than the parents staying together in a relationship that was fraught with discord and unpleasantness. Maybe that is so, but I would like to point out that the child's home situation is quite different once the parents have set up separate households and visitation plans. Unless the parents are the ones who take turns visiting in the home, the child is the person who bears the burden of maintaining belongings and routine in two different households.

If the child were in one home with one set of parents, the child would be following a routine that did not need to shift during weekends or summers or holidays. However, with visitation plans and divided households, the child has to make special arrangements to maintain any sort of routine or schedule that was established in the custodial home. As a teacher, I find it sad that both parents are unable to work together well enough to make the child's schedule and routine as similar as possible between both households. It is not uncommon for me to find complete white spaces on a child's handbook from weekend visits with the other parent where nothing was accomplished, not even a home concert for the child to show off newly-acquired skills to the noncustodial parent. There are ways to avoid this issue if the parents would sit down and focus on the needs of the child and come up with a plan to work together. Even a short practice is better than no practice.

One parent I knew would go over to the noncustodial parent's home and practice for 10 minutes. Another parent would call the child on the phone and do a practice over the phone. A final resort could be to remind parents of the philosophy that all judges and family court personnel focus on: "What is in the best interest of the child?" Let me answer that with what is not in the best interest of the child. When a child is taking music lessons, it is not in the best interest of the child for the parents to interrupt the child's learning in order to take care of court-ordered visits. It would be better for the parents to work together and come up with a plan that better suits the child's needs. Both parents can come to group classes and recitals and lessons. Both parents can be involved in the child's learning. As the teacher, I can just as easily send home homework assignments to both households.

When You Fall Down

There will be bursts of emergencies, unexpected deadlines, illness, special events, and family bumps in the road. This is to be expected from life. The important thing in this situation is how well you handle getting to your feet when you have been knocked over. My university students experience this issue regularly, and I believe the university experience helps students to understand how to handle these issues as a grown up. There will be times in life when a parent will have been up all night with a sick child and will have to show up for a big presentation at work the next day. There will be times of crisis when the family will be handling unexpected emergencies.

How a person handles these times of overloaded circuits can be determined in advance. For example, I tell my university students to decide whether they are the type of person who tries to anticipate such moments in advance so that there is some preparation for handling the crisis (proactive approach), or whether they are the type of person who is buffeted about by the winds of fate and handles things one by one as they occur, like a whack-a-mole game at a country fair (reactive approach). University students can learn the appropriate management and coping skills during their university experience, so that they are able to handle shifting life priorities as adults and parents. Parents can make the same choice about how they will handle family emergencies and can practice appropriate preparation or coping skills.

Creativity and Enthusiasm

And lastly, creativity and enthusiasm are the key ingredients to achieving excellence. Always show interest in what effort your child expends. Always be excited about what your child is doing. Be creative about how you get to a particular point. Do not let yourself get stuck in a ditch on the side of a muddy road just because that is the way you chose to go. If a particular pathway does not suit you or your child, consider an alternative. Ask other parents or your teacher for suggestions.

Remember, Dr. Suzuki said: "People either become experts at doing the right thing, which is seen as a fine talent, or they become experts at doing something wrong and unacceptable, which is seen as lack of talent. . . . Depending on these two things -- practice and practice of the right things -- superior ability can be produced in anyone."

"[T]here is no need for any of us to despair. We are all born with a high potential, and if we try hard we can all become superior human beings and acquire talent and ability." Let us take Dr. Suzuki's words to heart. Let us not waste our children's high potential to be superior human beings. Let us help them to acquire talent and ability. Let us help them to achieve excellence.

Today is the eighth Monday of the year 2013, so take out your eighth penny from your penny jar (what's this?). How many pennies are left? What have you accomplished so far? What is left for you to do and how will you spend your remaining pennies? Where are you on the road to excellence?

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