Building Strength and Skills
Updated: Sep 7
When the Corona virus shutdown began, I spent a few weeks in shock as my normal teaching, performing, and social life were completely overturned. Then I decided that for my mental and physical health, I needed to begin a daily workout program. While I’ve started this particular 90-day exercise program a few times before, I’d never before managed to complete it due to schedule constraints (and, let’s face it, inadequate self-discipline). But now this was my release, a way to stay sane as the world changed around me. It was a way to take control in an otherwise powerless situation as I worked to strengthen my body in preparation for potential viral invasion. This time, I finished the program.
As an adult with an established career and family, the memory of what it feels like to develop a completely new skill has faded. While I pride myself on being a lifelong learner, I tend to develop my already existing areas of interest rather than branching out to something new. But since the last time I'd been in good shape was two kids ago, this felt completely new. As I worked through the exercise program, I started seeing parallels between learning new physical skills and learning an instrument. Once again, I gained a deeper appreciation for what my students are working through as they learn to play their instrument.
Learning new things isn’t easy. It takes time, dedication, focus, and investment. As we develop a new skill, we build our confidence. Following a daily discipline leads to greater self-respect.
Even though working out every day helps me work toward my larger goals, I don’t always want to do my workout in the short term. I want the results without putting in the daily work. “I want to be stronger and feel better, but I don’t want to work out today.” How often do we see our students deal with the same issue? They want to get to the next song/finish the current Suzuki book/reach that goal piece/get into All-State Symphony Orchestra, but the daily practice is sometimes a struggle. This doesn’t mean it’s any less their goal, it just means they don’t always feel like putting in the daily work!
I found it fascinating as I went through the program that when it was time to level up to the next set of workouts, I usually didn’t feel ready to move on. It became so predictable that I started to just laugh at myself—when the next set of workouts was about to hit, I’d experience a whole new wave of self-doubt. The new thing felt scary—I wanted to stick with the old and familiar. I was worried I might not be able to do the new moves. Do you see your student resisting practice when working on a new, more difficult skill? It’s okay! Let your student know that it’s normal to feel uncertain as you begin a new skill. During these “growing pains” periods, offer your student additional opportunities for review. A wonderful benefit of the Suzuki method is that we build confidence and skill with the older songs that we do well. Let your student enjoy these pieces that they play well, as they work on the new, difficult thing.
As I went through the program the first time, I was mostly focused on survival but I began to notice how the skills built on each other. Once I had gone through the whole program, I went back to the beginning with renewed appreciation and focus on those foundational skills. As I work through the program the second time, I can appreciate at a much deeper level how the individual moves of the first few weeks combine to become much more intense exercises as the program moves on. Sometimes your teacher may ask you to go back and work on something you did a while ago. This isn’t a demotion! It’s helping break down the new skills and build up the individual elements that will combine to facilitate a new technique.
I've been trying to teach my children to have a growth mindset, especially during violin practices. "We like challenges" and "I can do hard things" are common mantras around my house. My workouts have become the most natural place to model growth mindset for them in my own life, as my kids watch me face challenges and grow stronger in front of them. One morning in May, while I was struggling through a particularly brutal workout, my three year old gave an unprompted "Come on, Mama, you can do hawd things!" and in that moment, my heart exploded with joy. It means the world to me when one of my daughters cheers me on as I work hard. It even gives me a boost when the trainer for the program I’m doing breaks her “tough” persona to give encouraging comments such as “You’re ready for this! Look how far you’ve come!”
As one of the Suzuki Early Childhood Education philosophies states, “Encouragement is Essential!” Don’t underestimate the value of well-timed encouragement as your student works through their daily practice!
As in many things in life, getting started is the hardest part, whether we’re talking about working out or practicing. I’ve often said that the hardest part of practicing is getting my instrument out of the case. I’m more likely to succeed in both if I do them earlier in the day, and if I make them a nonnegotiable part of my daily routine. I recently took a break from my workouts for about a week and discovered the hard way that it’s so much easier to keep up a daily routine than to resume something that you know is hard, especially when you know it will be harder because you’re out of practice.
While we may begin with external motivation, the intrinsic rewards lead to internal motivation for following through with our goals.
As I work with my daughters, both fledgling Suzuki violinists, I find that a daily practice habit is so much easier to uphold than trying to practice when they know that it’s sporadic and there might be a chance that they could get out of it on any given day. For this reason, we recently started a new 100-day practice challenge, in which you practice for a consecutive 100 days. It’s long enough to form a habit, long enough to see the results of consistent daily practice, and a nice round number with an end that can be celebrated when it is reached. Last time we started a 100-day practice challenge, my oldest and I made it to over 300 days. We'll see what happens this time! In any case, I'll be physically stronger and she'll be be stronger at the violin. Both of these causes are worthy of celebration!