With the ever-increasing busyness of our schedules, the joy of “the process” can be lost in the tyranny of the urgent. As a music teacher, it is always important for me to balance the lengthy process of learning to play an instrument beautifully with the immediate tasks required to reach an intended outcome. Setting goals is always essential, which in the world of music could be a competition, an upcoming recital, an audition, or a concert in the community. However, short term events should never be allowed to overshadow the journey itself, which can last a lifetime.
If we change our perspective, slow down and enjoy the process of learning, the speed at which we acquire new skills for shorter term goals can be greatly increased. A study at the University of California-Irvine by Dr. Tallie Z. Baram showed that acute stress caused a detrimental change in how brains were able to collect and store memories. In other words, a pressurized environment, like a short timeline to learn new material, might produce stress which will, in turn, slow the learning process down! On the flip side of the coin, setting achievable short term goals is absolutely key to making steady progress. So, how do we balance these two opposing ideas of learning slowly without stress and pushing ourselves to hit a targeted outcome? The answer lies in two perspectives: long-term vision and short-term attitude.
Attitude is a key ingredient for inputting information into the brain. Negative emotions and stressful feelings surrounding an upcoming event will impact our ability to learn. For a music student who is competing, it’s important to realize this truth: Every competition is a rehearsal for the next competition. For the performer, every performance is preparation for the next performance. An excellent long-term vision will minimize the overall importance of a single event and maximize the absolute importance of every event in the growth process.
If a single event is never critical to the completion of a long-term plan, it also allows the learner to renegotiate the short-term goal if there has been a miscalculation. If you’ve ever used Google maps to reach a location, you know that any wrong turn will result in “re-routing” mode. You eventually arrive at the desired location, it just requires a few adjustments. Applying this concept to a music student, it can be beneficial to alter repertoire for a recital, if the student is feeling too unprepared as the day approaches. It can also be a wise decision to wait a year before entering a planned competition, allowing the student to maintain rapid progress in learning new skills. It avoids creating a stressful experience where a traumatic moment might occur, like having a memory slip. These adverse events can cause long term damage to the psychological state of the musical performer which can take years to overcome.
Keeping focused on the long term results is often the hardest. I’ve found the following experiment very helpful in cultivating a positive attitude which supports the overall journey of learning a musical instrument. Try this experiment: remove the words “have to” and replace them with “get to”. “I have to practice my scales” would become “I get to practice my scales.” Such an improvement in general outlook! As Gretchen Rubin said in her Secrets of Adulthood blog: “The fun part doesn’t come later; Now is the fun part.” It’s time to seize the one and only day you have for sure, which is today, and embrace all the things you “get to” do!