The Episcopal Student Center, an organization I am a part of on campus is in the process of starting a community garden. We have three large raised beds full of soil and compost. This week we are busy planting seeds and seedlings with a grid system in each of our boxes.
As I was watering the newest plants I began to explore the relationship between gardening and teaching. The four essential steps to establish and maintain healthy crops parallels those needed to develop confident and capable musicians.
1. Preparing an healthy environment
2. Planting the seeds
3. Watering the seeds
4. Waiting Diligently
As we have seen, the process to grow a healthy garden garden can be seen as a metaphor for growing a healthy studio. The environment necessitates intentional arrangement to yield results. Seeds–like new skills–must be planted with exact clockwork. Seeds must be watered and skills must be practiced the proper amount at the proper time, all in an effort to facilitate independence. And finally, after all of this action, there is one thing left to do. Wait.
At the Episcopal student Center we are now transitioning the garden from spring into summer, and now tend squash, artichokes, and strawberries. Those strawberry vines are vibrant, green, and far reaching. A few weeks ago they produced one strawberry and the entire community celebrated. It was a tiny, fuzzy, and unfortunately sour tribute to the work put into the garden. Since that strawberry, warm and concentrated with flavor, nothing else has grown on those beautiful healthy vines. We must wait. Our anxiety and excitement cannot be manifest in doing, as there is no doing left to do. With a healthy environment, seeds, and regular watering, it is the gardener’s singular responsibility to wait for harvest. So to with teaching and parenting.
This wait is not easy, especially in a culture of immediate gratification. Unlike a one click purchase and two hour delivery from Amazon, the development of skill happens long after the slow work of practice. Losing weight, paying off debt, and starting a meditation are all examples of practices in which waiting is long and results are slow. Immediate results occasionally come in the form of just one small strawberry, like the Episcopal Student Center garden yielded. Just a taste of what is to come, we often mistake the first impression, quick yield results as a sometimes disappointing dud with results far from the life changing effects of practice we were promised or expected. Heaven forbid someone might think this one elusive glimpse at self development is a reflection of their student’s capability as a musician (read: mistaking the one strawberry for the whole season’s harvest). These fears overwhelm the process and result in environment tweaking, practice moderation, and a reordering of skill sequence. Before skills even have the opportunity to bear the fruit so desired by parent, teacher, and student, the unit is off attempting another feat. Strung along in a series of unsatisfactory yields, student and parent decide the “violin is just not for them.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. To make our diligent waiting bearable we can modify our gaze and tools of measurement to see success in the moment. This will ensure success in the long term. Below are three approaches.
(1) DEFINE SUCCESS. Tim Ferriss likes putting his podcast guests in the hot seat. During a series of rapid fire questions he asks, “Who is the first person that comes to mind when your hear the word successful?” A fascinating discussion of success always ensues. Pablo Coehlo, in response to this question, said, “A successful day is when I suffer in the morning and have fun in the evening.” He was talking about writing in both the morning and evening, and illuminated the different attitudes in a single day an expert can have about their practice. What I love most about this quote is Coehlo’s success comes in the process of toil and enjoyment that hard work necessitates and provides. Success is embodied in the commitment to the vulnerable pursuit of daily growth. Parent, student, and teacher can make waiting bearable by defining success as the process and not the result.
(2) SMALL CIRCLES APPROACH. Josh Waitzkin, already discussed several times in past posts, dives into the profundity of small circles in his book titled The Art of Learning. By reducing a skill to its smallest, fundamental processes and mastering it to intuition, humans can grow to be highly skilled. Waitzkin did this in chess and Tai Chi, but I have seen his approach succeed in the form of the Suzuki method thousands of times. When a complex skill is distilled to its most basic form, for example a one hand punch or a chess endgame with only two pieces, the benefit is two fold. First, the student is handed a manageable chunk of work which they can master completely (think right seed, right time). Second, their gaze is on the small circle, not the nebulous, complex sphere. Put another way, student and parent now target the mastery of a bow hold versus the mastery of violin playing. Masterful violin playing comes from grappling with gradually larger circles, rather than tackling the whole skill at once. To leap back to our metaphor, we are making the waiting bearable by patiently watching one leaf grow rather than the vegetable crop from every plant for the entire season. We make waiting bearable by managing only the smallest circles.
(3) SMALL STEPS APPROACH. Sid Garza Hillman in his book Approaching the Natural, presents a philosophy on holistic health. He theorizes a successful approach of our most natural state will come in the form of very small steps. He argues it is impossible to return to our 100% natural state, just as it is impossible to go a season without a lost plant or impossible to be a “perfect” musician. A recent study conducted by Bob Duke and Lani Hamilton at the University of Texas at Austin demonstrated musicians perceptions of their own mistakes don’t change as they mature in ability or age. Pre-proffessionals and professionals alike heard the same number of mistakes in their playing despite a disparity in capability. As musicians mature they don’t eradicate mistakes, they continue to become aware of the ways they can improve. Musicians must take the smallest steps possible in the approach of quality playing, and increase their awareness gradually along the way. So as Hillman encourages his clients to choose one seemingly effortless task a week to add into the routine until automaticity, I encourage students and parents to set sights on a very small opportunity for skill development. The week long correction of a rough pinky finger is a HUGE accomplishment, even though it feels minuscule at takes only a tiny dose of intense concentration once per day. Most important is to acknowledge small steps as the way the journey to mastery must proceed. There are no shortcuts, patient waiting is necessary. I try to get across to parents in pre-education, private conferences, and practice charts that we are looking for very small changes on a path toward long term skill building. Twinkle, I always say, is going to take at least one year of your life. Our Suzuki method is designed for small steps. And every member of the triangle, parent, student, and teacher, must be ready to take small steps, patiently.
Target small circles by taking small steps forward and defining success by practice itself. Through this process you will grow a beautiful garden in the form of a beautiful skilled human being, who bears the fruit of healthy labor each day of his or her life.