Practice Thoughts vs. Performance Thoughts: How to Think Your Way to Success

Practice Thoughts vs. Performance Thoughts: How to Think Your Way to Success

Do you think differently during practice and performance? You should! To explain why, here’s a conversation I had with a student recently. Preparing for an upcoming performance, she told me, “It’s so hard to keep everything I’m working on in my head while I play! I don’t know how I’ll do it when I perform.”

Here’s the secret: you shouldn’t think about what you’re working to improve when you perform, only when you practice.

When we practice, our thoughts are circular. They look like this:

In practice, we find a technique or a tripping point we want to master, then make any corrections we need, then move on to another technique, and so on. We check in with all these points continually throughout our practice, circulating between them so that we can change our habits and improve in the long term. Practice thoughts are about giving repeated attention to fine details. The practice mindset works on the premise that you can play something a thousand times, each time a little better than the last.

Here are some examples of good practice thoughts:

  • “Is my pinky on its tip?”
  • “Is my left wrist straight?”
  • “Am I bowing with flat hair?”
  • “Did I play the correct notes?”

When you perform, your goal is not to create new habits or improve your playing through many repetitions, as it is in practice. After all, you can’t play a tune a thousand times in a performance—usually, you’ll play the tune just once. 

For some folks, these seem like high stakes, but I think these parameters can actually be very freeing. Hear me out: since you can only play the tune once, your goal in a performance is not to improve your playing or to play it perfectly. Your goal is to do your best with the skills you have in that moment. In a performance, you are enough exactly as you are, whereas in practice, you’re always striving for a goal a little beyond your reach.

With this in mind, it’s probably evident that juggling six thoughts about challenging techniques is not going to help you give your best performance. What will help you is being mindful and present in the tune as you perform. That means that in a performance, our thoughts should be linear, not circular. They should look like this:

When you perform, it’s not your job to revisit notes you’ve already played. It’s not your job to hold all your technique goals in mind. It’s your job to be calm and collected. Your body will remember what you’ve taught it in the hours and hours of practice you’ve logged, if only you let your mind get out of the way. 

Think about it: why is it that, during performances, many people struggle with mistakes they would never make otherwise? It’s because their thoughts look something like this:

When you get out of the way and focus only on what’s before you, you’ll be amazed how your performance improves.

Here are some examples of good performance thoughts:

  • “I’m ready to start my song—it sounds like *this* and begins on the A string.”
  • “I’m in the second A part.”
  • “Here comes that variation in the B part.”
  • “This is fun!”

See the difference?

And for those of you freaking out right now, don’t worry—you’ll still have a chance to check on your technique before you start playing. When you’re getting ready to start, make sure you have a solid bow hold, you’re in tune, and you feel relaxed. After your initial set-up, though, give yourself permission to let go of technical thoughts. 

At that point, calmly talk yourself through the song part by part, section by section. Think of where you are and what comes next. That’s it. No need to think about what you’ve already played, and no need to think more than a part ahead of where you are.

You’ve got this. Play because you love it and play because your audience loves it. When you perform, those are the most important things you can remember.

Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

I think new year’s resolutions are kind of crap. I’m all for self-improvement and goal-setting, but tons of research has shown us that setting resolutions is a terrible way to do both of those things. 80% of people give up on their New Year’s resolutions by the second week in February, according to U.S. News, and that’s just sad. 

We’re not the reason that new year’s resolutions don’t work. We’re totally capable of achieving our goals. It’s just that we have to set the goals better, and we have to set better goals.

When you make a new year’s resolution, it might seem like you’re doing yourself a favor. You’re holding yourself accountable, right? You’re finally changing that thing you wanna change, getting some momentum going and making this year the start of something great. Except, that mindset doesn’t work. Why not? Because you’re trying to get your brain to function in a way that human brains just don’t function.

We’re creatures of habit. We like to think we’re more than that, but really, anything we do is a habit, or we won’t do it more than every now and then. That means that if you want something to stick, it takes more than a desire or a decision. That thing has to be a habit, and habits take a long time to build. We often hear it takes 21 days, but frankly, building a long-lasting habit takes a lot longer. Just for example, when I googled how long it takes to make a habit, the top result said “18-254 days.” That is a lot of variation, and 

most of those answers are bigger than 21 days. 21 days also has an endpoint, and that’s misleading too, because real habits don’t have endpoints. So let’s throw out that 21-day number, because it’s not helpful.

The other thing about habits is that they’re built gradually. You don’t just flip a switch and see your discipline and skills go from zero to sixty like that. The first few days, you do a little bit, and then you do a little bit more, and eventually, you can achieve a lot like that. But if you try to start at what you hope will be your endpoint (practicing three hours a day, for example), it’ll feel overwhelming and unsustainable. You won’t be able to talk yourself into doing it for very long because it’s too much and it’s unrewarding.

These two facts about habits (that they take a long time to stick and they are built gradually) means they don’t feel super flashy in the beginning. They feel like baby steps. We don’t like taking baby steps when we believe that we can achieve the same result when we just jump in headfirst and “go for it!” That’s a lot sexier. But that’s also a lie; instead, it leaves us burned out really quickly—say, maybe, the second week of February. That’s why the baby steps method works so much better, even though it goes against our natural desire for quick gratification.

Set your goals, but also set yourself up for success. Here’s a good test of whether the goals and methods you lay out are sustainable in the long run: ask yourself if this plan would work if you started it in the middle of September. If it doesn’t sound so appealing without the new year date plastered over it, you should probably ditch it for something that caters a little more to reality. Remember, you can do these things you’re setting out to do. But first, do yourself the favor of giving yourself all the tools you need.

Want specific tips on how to set goals in a way that helps you succeed? Check out our Habit Hack series here.

Musician’s Self-Care: Five Things to Do When the Burnout Hits

Musician’s Self-Care: Five Things to Do When the Burnout Hits

Even in a normal year, the final months can bring some burnout in all areas of life, and that includes music. If you’re feeling that burnout, it can be tempting to wonder if it might be best to take a break from your instrument. To keep enjoying playing, many people try putting their instrument down for a few days. But so often, I’ve seen those few days turn into a few weeks, a few months, and often even longer. 

Why don’t breaks work like we intend them to? It’s twofold. First, it just takes more energy to begin something again than it does to continue it. If you take a break and come back later, you run the risk of “Day 1 difficulties,” the feelings that make it hard to begin something even when you want to. Secondly, even when you get over that Day 1 hump and begin playing again, you may find yourself frustrated because of all the progress you’ve lost in your time off. 

What you really need when you feel like taking time off isn’t to put your instrument away, only to come back with more challenges facing you. Instead of taking a break from your instrument, have you thought about changing your approach to it for a while?

Think back for a minute to why you began playing music: I’m guessing it was because it brought you joy. Burnout can make that joy harder to find, but it’s not solved by putting your instrument down. Burnout and exhaustion usually come from other mental baggage we bring to our music, and at the end of the year, especially this year, there’s plenty of baggage that may have hitched a ride. Instead of walking away from music to try to remedy that exhaustion, shifting the way you approach music can be a much more effective way to rediscover the joy in playing. Think of it as musician’s self-care.

Here are some ways that I practice self-care in my musical life. I hope they help you too.

1. Be gentle with yourself. When we play music, we naturally need to self-evaluate to improve. But evaluation easily turns into criticism, and criticism can easily turn into negativity and even meanness in your self-talk. Here are some keys to identify negative thoughts:

  • Look for absolutes. “I’m always ___” or “I never ___” probably aren’t true, and they don’t help you.
  • Look for judgments directed at yourself personally. “I learn too slowly” or “I just can’t get that right” are not about your playing, and they don’t help you.
  • Look for comparisons. Measuring yourself against your friends or trying to “beat” some arbitrary standard does not help you.

Instead, replace negative thoughts with gentler, positive thoughts. These thoughts evaluate without criticizing and are curious, kind, and patient:

  • “I often make this mistake here. I wonder why and how I can improve it.”
  • “I am allowed to learn at whatever pace I need.”
  • “I will improve one thing today, and that is enough.”
  • “I enjoy playing this tune.”

2. Measure what you put in, not what you get out. You can hold yourself accountable for effort, but not for outcome. If you set the goal to play one part of Soldier’s Joy perfectly by the end of the week, you are aiming for something that is out of your control and may very well discourage you from practicing for fear of failure. But if you set the goal to put in thirty minutes of attention to that part every day, odds are that you will make much more progress and feel much better while you do it.

3. Play things you enjoy. This seems simple, but it’s often overlooked. If you focus all your playing time solely on improving, you may miss out on the sheer enjoyment of playing for the sake of playing. Make time every time you pick up your fiddle, even if it’s the only thing you do, to play something that makes you feel good. Don’t try to “fix” anything—just play. It’s called “playing” for a reason, after all. Let your hair down a little bit.

4. Listen to music you love. One way I love to get reinspired is to listen to music I really adore. Usually, it’s music that makes me want to dance or sing or laugh or cry, something that really speaks to me. It helps me remember why I play music.

5. Remember the ebb and flow. Sometimes you’ll feel gung-ho and want to practice for hours every day. Sometimes you don’t have the energy or the time for that. That’s okay. Music is something that can fit into your life as your life changes. It’s not limited to people who have hours to practice uninterrupted every day. It’s something you can do with kids, with jobs, with limited time and energy. It’s something you can mold to your needs. If your normal practice routine doesn’t fit into your life right now, change it! It’s okay. Better to do it messy than not to do it at all.

I hope these tips help you rediscover the joy of playing this winter and going forward. Any time you feel like taking a break, ask yourself why. Usually, it’s because one of these self-care pieces is missing. Are you exhausting yourself with negative self-talk every time you play? No wonder you want to walk away. Are you putting too much pressure on yourself? Music shouldn’t be a source of pressure. Instead of putting down your instrument when you feel these things, return to it in a different way. Be curious, be kind, be gentle. Return to the joyful bits and leave the rest. You’ll thank yourself (and so will your fiddle).

 

Performing on Zoom: 7 Tips for a Smashing Success

Performing on Zoom: 7 Tips for a Smashing Success

In the era of Zoom, performances look a little different. Preparing for them is a little different too, but ultimately, performing online can be a rewarding way to connect with an audience. Here are our top seven tips to bring the virtual house down with your online performance. 

Tip #1: Set the stage. Well before your performance, get your performance space set. If possible, find a spot with plenty of good light where you feel comfortable playing. Get yourself an armless chair and set it up in front of your camera. Test out the camera angle and the look of your “set” by opening Zoom and starting a new meeting. It often works well to have the camera of your device at about eye level, but find a shot that looks good to you.

Tip #2: Check your setup. If you’ll be playing with an accompaniment track, set up speakers and test their volume level to make sure you and your listeners can hear your backing track. Also check your video call settings to make sure they’re optimized for musical merrymaking: on Zoom, you’ll want to enable original sound and disable automatic volume adjustment and background noise cancellation. A quick Google search can guide you through how to adjust these settings.

Tip #3: Be prepared. Practice makes permanent, so practice the way you want to perform. That means first slowing down your tunes and breaking them into small pieces, then working them up so that you can play them solidly and reliably. In addition to this, you should practice “putting on your game face”: each practice session, dedicate time to playing as if you’re performing. No stopping, no fixing. Practice playing the tune as if there were an audience in front of you.

Tip #4: Warm up. The day of your performance, you don’t want to rush to your computer at the last instant and dive in cold. That’s why the last three steps are important: so that the day of your performance, you can dedicate the time beforehand to a thorough warm-up. Your warm-up is a time to prepare physically and mentally, and the best thing to do is to follow the same routine that you do in your practices. This way, your body and your brain will feel at ease because you’re not throwing any curveballs.

Tip #5: Imagine your audience. It’s easy to get caught up in our own self-talk, but when we do, we overlook one of the most important parts of a performance: the audience! The exchange of energy and emotion between the audience and the performer is often what makes a performance special. That connection is not lost on Zoom. Before I perform, I love to think of how the audience will feel during the performance. You’re giving them a gift by playing, and they’ll be so happy and grateful to hear you.

Tip #6: Relax your body. Movement helps get the jitters out. Try doing some stretches that feel good or taking a walk around the block. Another thing that helps me before a performance is to take a minute or so just to focus on taking deep, calming breaths.

Tip #7: Choose good thoughts. Before a performance, there may be a lot going through your head, especially if you’re nervous. Out of everything swirling around in your head, choose to listen to positive, supportive thoughts and let self-doubt go. Those doubtful or negative thoughts have nothing to offer you. Listen to your inner cheerleader instead. You’ve got this!

An American Three Hours from Paris, or: The Story of Many Baguettes

An American Three Hours from Paris, or: The Story of Many Baguettes

Coucou! As I write this, I’m sitting in my new home for the next seven months: a lovely, many-windowed apartment at the heart of La Réole, France, where I arrived almost three weeks ago now. La Réole is a tiny town of less than 5000 people situated about 40 minutes southeast of Bordeaux by train. It’s nestled along the beautiful Garonne river, which flows by peacefully within view of my bedroom window. 

The apartment where my roommate and I live is on the second floor of the town’s high school (or the first floor, if you want to count like the French do). We’re both here to work as language assistants in our respective tongues, mine English, hers Spanish and Italian. For twelve hours a week, I’ll be conducting conversations and activities with high school and middle school students to help them improve their English skills. In return, I have the privilege of living in La Réole among its very kind people, drinking wine, and eating a lot of bread (oh, so much bread).

The schools have just spent two weeks on vacation (quelle chance pour moi), but before the break started, I had two days of in-class observation during which the students asked me questions about myself and where I came from. Some of my favorites:

“Do you really make the bacon and eggs for breakfast?”

“Are American high schools really like they are in the movies?”

“What is a… a fy-dle? Feedle? Fiddle?”

And, from a young student who wanted to ask if I had a boyfriend, “Do you men?”

Many students also asked me what I thought about La Réole. “How do you feel about living in the middle of nowhere in La Réole?” one demanded. 

“I love it,” I said earnestly, and the whole classroom erupted into laughter. To many of them, it seems there’s not much to see in La Réole. But for me, everything is thrilling. Just walking down the cobblestone streets feels like a treat, let alone the fact that each day I get to marvel at incredible architecture, delicious food, the intricacies of the language, beautiful natural surroundings, and warm, friendly people. I can’t think what could be better.

Right now, that marveling is slightly more limited, because France went back on lockdown on October 30th. We’ll be locked down until at least the 1st of December, and until then, I hope to read plenty of books, play lots of fiddle, and maybe learn a few words in Spanish from my roommate. I’ll also still be working with students at the schools here, since they are staying open during the lockdown, and with my own music students online.

Highlights from my time here have included my first meal in France, which was cooked and shared in the home of the family of the assistant principal who lives above us; a four-hour promenade with my roommate to a beautiful, still stream lined by yellow-red trees; a stroll through the outdoor Saturday morning market on the strip by the Garonne; a morning spent enjoying a chocolate éclair and reading beneath a tree in the local park; and an evening spent over glasses of bordelaise wine and conversation with my roommate. Even in quarantine, I’m thrilled to be able to practice my French all day, every day.

And speaking of that mysterious instrument, the fiddle, I’ll still be teaching and playing while I’m here. I hope to make some new musical discoveries during my stay (France is, after all, the home of jazz manouche). I’m still happy to offer online lessons from my new home, and I’ll still be involved with many Fiddle School projects (there are lots of exciting things coming down the pike!) I’m grateful that I can bring music with me wherever I go.

I’ll be posting more updates throughout the year as this adventure continues. Until then, send out a song for me.

À bientôt!

 

Session 2 Q & A: Am I Ready for Session 2?

Session 2 Q & A: Am I Ready for Session 2?

What is a Fiddle School Session ?

Each Fiddle School session is designed to include one year of material broken into twelve month-long lessons. Fiddle School Session 1: Texas Fiddle Foundations is perfect for the new or returning fiddler, whether you’re just getting started or you’re coming back from a break.  Session 2: How to Reach Your Next Level is perfect for the intermediate/advancing fiddler or the classical violinist who wants to explore fiddling.

How is Session 2 different from Session 1? What will I learn in Session 2?

Session 2: How to Reach Your Next Level focuses on advancing fiddlers and how to refine, renew, and improve your fiddling through intermediate techniques and tunes. Building on all of the Session 1 techniques, Session 2 begins by taking your bow arm to the next level and creating a relaxed left hand. After that, you’ll be ready to take the leap in difficulty when you enter the three lessons that delve into Texas-style fiddle history and listening. In those lessons, you’ll learn two breakdowns, two waltzes, and two tunes of choice unique to Texas style fiddling and perfect for fiddle contests or jams. Other skills taught in Session 2 include how to build speed, practice effectively, eliminate bow bounce, and become an all-around stronger musician. We also dedicate a whole lesson in Session 2 to music theory, which comes in handy for jams, contests, songwriting, and more.

What’s included in Session 2?

Session 2 includes almost 100 guided technique videos (called Practice Buddies) and a guided practice (called Practice Pals) for each lesson, along with 24 intermediate tunes and corresponding listening examples, play-along tracks, sheet music, and written notes. Session 2 and Session 1 are both included in any Fiddle School membership.

Is Session 2 right for my level? How do I know when I’m ready for it?

Here’s a short recommended skills checklist for Session 1 (check these off and you’re ready for Session 2):

  1. Solid bow hold: fingers and hand fall into proper position
  2. Reliable bow arm: upper arm remains still
  3. Comfortable with fingerings, including 4th finger, low 2/high 2, and high 3
  4. Comfortable tuning the instrument
  5. Solid left hand: straight wrist, fingers on tips, and solid frame of hand
  6. Bow stays straight
  7. Accurate, consistent bow lengths (short and long)
  8. Minimum of eight fiddle tunes memorized from Session 1

For you more experienced fiddlers who are joining Fiddle School, there are a few videos in Session 1 you’ll want to catch: My Bow Hold, My Bow Arm (Lesson 1), and Bow Division #1 and #2 (Lesson 2). Though these are basic techniques, they are fundamental to the genre and will give you the proper sound as you learn all of the Texas-style repertoire. Other skills not to be missed: Lesson 9 – The Bow Arm, and Lesson 12 – Contests and Jam Sessions. Of course, if you find you need to brush up, you can always go back and review concepts in Session 1.

What songs are taught in Session 2?

Dixie Hoedown, Streets of Laredo, Turkey in the Straw, Florida Blues, Texas Quick Step, Soppin’ the Gravy, Walk Along John, Red Fox Waltz, Missouri Waltz, I Don’t Love Nobody Variation, The Plainsman, A & E Waltz, Sally Ann, Lily Dale, Speed the Plow, Blackberry Rag, and six more tunes to come in Session 2, Part IV!

Do I have to finish Session 1 to do Session 2?

We’re not the fiddle police, so if you start Session 2 without going through Session 1, the sky (probably) won’t fall. Session 2 is definitely a step up in difficulty, though, so make sure you’re prepared for it before you dive in. There’s nothing wrong with taking your time with the Session 1 videos before you hit Session 2. The most important thing is learning so that the concepts stick, not so that you can get through the session faster. You’ll thank us later, we promise.

How long does Session 2 take?

With one lesson for each month, Session 2 has enough material to keep you busy for a whole year. Every lesson topic is different, so the material feels fresh throughout the whole session.

I already played violin/fiddle when I was a kid. Should I start with Session 1 or Session 2?

The great thing about Fiddle School’s design is that you don’t have to choose before you buy a membership. Both sessions are included, so you can go back and forth between sessions as much as you need. We advise that you start by reviewing the concepts in Session 1 and then moving to Session 2 when you feel comfortable. If you find that Session 1 is not quite at your level, dip your toe into Session 2 and see how it feels.

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