Last week I introduced several ideas for how teachers can protect the deep work at the core of their professional lives.
I shared that my deep work happens daily in violin practice, lessons with students, weekly deep writing sessions, and a deep thinking and planning session at the beginning of each semester. My routines for scheduling and doing that work is clear in my mind. And because deep work profoundly increases my ability to provide value, most around me are directly or indirectly supportive of the deep work that I do.
Knowing that the deep work I did with violin, running, and academics growing has shaped the person I am today, I think critically about how to coach students and parents to do work in that mode. Through parent conferences, practice, and a regular reiteration of one is important to me, I think my students cultivate an understanding of deep work that many of their peers don’t have the chance to.
From the very beginning, I make it clear that families in my studio do daily, rhythmic deep work. If a parent is considering joining my studio but hesitates when I mention that daily commitment to focused practice, I am wary of bringing them onboard without a very seriousness discussion of expectations.
See my primary goal as a teacher is to coach my students to an understanding of mastery. In other words, I want them to know what it takes to learn and understand incredibly complex skills. It doesn’t concern me if a student leaves the violin and applies a similar process of learning to computer programming, or speaking a foreign language, or delivering powerful speeches. That is exactly what I want to happen! I want them to mastery the process of mastering something. I want them to use that process to learn anything they want (perhaps even the skills that we can’t even predict will exist in 40 or 80 years?).
If a parent wants a casual diversion for their child that takes little energy, time or commitment, then my studio is not for them.
THE FIRST LESSON
That being said, I don’t expect parents and students to come into their first lesson aware of and skilled in deep work. Few people are.
In the first lesson I introduce three things
- foot chart
- the bows
- the bow hold
The foot chart defines the spacial parameters for parent and student. They know that when they are in the lesson, they have a spot that belongs just to them — the child on their foot chart and the parent right next to them. When they aren’t practicing, they don’t need to be on that spot, but when they are practicing they certainly do.
Similarly, the bow at the beginning and end of the lesson define the temporal parameters. Parent and student have a ritual they both engage in to start and end the lesson appropriately. Discussions of games, exciting news, wriggling, dancing, and questions can all be saved for outside the lesson parameters.
The bow hold is the skill being worked on. I ask parent and student to build five bow holds every day for a week within the parameters of the foot chart and the bows. This is a skill that has clear right and wrong parameters (curved pinkie, bent thumb, soft like a marshmallow, etc.) and is quick. Student and parent will be able to feel the skill getting easier immediately.
The power of the first lesson and the first week that follows is that student and parent get a taste of what mastery feels like. They know that with a named commitment, clear parameters, and an ounce of focused energy things will be made easier. This is their first deep work session — and certainly the most important.
And what happens after that first session is the teachers commitment to always guide parent and student back to that simple model of deep work. No matter the complexity of their schedules, their pieces, their life events and adventures, they should know that commitment, parameters, and energy will make difficult things easy. If they fall away from that understanding, you bring them back.
The house rules that begin to apply as students age in my studio are really just the tactics I use to protect my own deep work…
- always begin and end with a bow (parameters, ritual, clear start and stop)
- keep phones in airplane mode
- things that come up in the practice are saved for after the practice (white board)
- plan your session (name lesson goals or outline before you start)
- take breaks if longer than 50 minutes
If my goal as a teacher is to teach mastery, not just violin, to my students, then the most important skill I help them develop is the one of deep work. Because teachers only have half an hour with our private student every week, we must resist the temptation to hyper focus on violin technique and leave the actual understanding of practice to chance. We must have serious conversations with parents about what our goals and expectations are. We must, from the very first lesson, train parents and students in how to reliably develop skills. And we must take responsibility for the continued understanding of mastery at every level and know that when student and parents fall off the deep work wagon it is our job to pull them back on.