Sense or nonsense?
The process is the reward. What kind of nonsense is that?
It sounds like nonsense because we’re conditioned to accept only the outcomes of a process as the reward for it. I hope to convince you otherwise. Our whole educational and work systems are built on the idea that we must endure hardship and countless hours of boredome if we’re to achieve some success later on. The bigger the reward, the more the suffering through the process of getting there - so goes the common wisdom.
What if that’s wrong?
In a passage from his recent book “A Liberated Mind,” psychology professor Steven Hayes talks about his experience teaching people play the guitar. He brings a psychologist’s insight into the process of teaching someone to make music:
I’ve taught dozens of people to play the guitar, and I’ve learned to predict who will learn to play well: those who enjoy the (pretty bad, maybe even atrocious) music they produce as a beginner. If someone tells me in the first session how they picture themselves being applauded for their great skill or how they want to be famous and play in a rock band, I know there is heavy sledding ahead. They’re a long way from any such outcome, and grasping at it will make learning the basics like fingering or playing simple scales that much harder…
Because we have a built-in biological bias toward immediate rewards, though, we can gravitate toward the eventual rewards. “My child’s playing right now is pretty sketchy; but soon she’ll be a soloist,” we think. But soon, the reality of just how much work it will be sets in. And so does the creeping disappointment and avoidance.
The only way we can defeat this line of thinking is to find, and help our children find, joy in the every step of the process. The first clumsy attempts to place the fingers on the bow seem like such a little step. What is there to praise there? Everything! The courage to try. Coaxing unskilled fingers to do the right thing. Even the smallest step is still a step.
Making the process enjoyable
- Make it lighthearded and low-stress. There’s a paradox at work here: the harder you try, the harder it gets. You could also look at it as a case of diminishing returns. With enough pressure, you could probably force a three year-old to practice for several hours. But the enjoyment that will sustain a lifetime of music-making will be elusive.
- Praise, praise, praise Sometimes it seems there’s nothing to praise; practice hasn’t yielded anything really remarkable today. Or did it? Did your child practice today? If so, she exercised her practice muscles. High-five!
- Forget the “what book are they on?” question. The longer I’ve been a violin parent, the less I’ve thought about books, and the more I’ve thought about sound. Tone, tuning, dynamic quality. Musicians control just a few variables - time, rhythm, pitch, tone - but everything musical is contained in them. Why waste time worrying about what book or what piece you’re on. The joy of being the master of your own sound? That’s something to be proud of!
- Gamify everything. - My daughter is 12 now and would roll her eyes at me if I suggested playing games during practice. But in the early years, I felt like I was more of a game-maker than a music parent. It meant that practice was enjoyable (usually); and it supported her growth as a self-motivated musician today.
- Be part of a community. - Suzuki envisioned talent education as a community process, not an individual one. Kids grow and develop in communities of like-minded families. And they develop an appreciation for the continuity and process of learning.
Goals and aspirations are important, but only when they’re secondary to the enjoyment of the process. No, it’s not fun every day. But if you can say “I practiced something and improved today,” you’re doing just fine.