Don’t go on auto pilot

“So, did you like the sound? Was it in tune?” I ask

“I don’t know,” the student replied

“Why don’t you? Weren’t you listening?”


I don’t know is the most common answer I get in my studio. So often we go on to auto pilot without even realizing it. I should know, I played that way for a very long time. I would pay attention to somethings when I practiced, but not everything. By the time I would get in front of one of my teachers to play I wouldn’t think about anything, and then I couldn’t understand why things were going wrong. You have to be present, you have to focus. It seems like such a simple thing, but it’s harder than you think.

I didn’t learn until my 30s that I was doing a lot of mindless playing. In grad school we would compare the number of hours we each practiced thinking that the more you practiced the better off you would be. In reality it just meant we spent a lot of hours playing the violin, which in itself is not a bad thing, but I have learned that the thing that is more important than quantity is quality. Looking back at all of those hours I know I wasn’t doing the highest quality practicing. Once the lightbulb went off it’s like a whole new world opened up to me. Oh, and I started getting better really fast. It’s amazing what you can do when you simply listen to what you’re doing.

So, how do you avoid going on auto pilot?

  1. Listen. It’s both simple, and hard at the same time. You have to be present enough in what you’re doing to listen to the sound coming out of the instrument. Are you playing in tune? Is the musical idea you’re trying to convey coming across? Do you like the sound? None of these questions can be answered if you don’t know what is going on.
  2. Focus on one skill. A lot of times I have students role a dice to see how many times they are going to play what we’re working on, but I make sure that they know what they need to listen or watch for. It can be as simple as making sure the bow stays straight all the way to more complex phrasing. The goal is to be consistent, and achieve the same out come with each repetition.
  3. record or videotape. Now, I admit that I tend to shy away from videotaping myself, and the reason is silly. It’s honest. Really, really honest, but you can learn so much more by stepping away for a brief second, and either watching or listening to yourself. Sometimes I don’t always hear the same things that others do. By recording yourself you know exactly what you did, and you exactly if you like it or don’t. It’s a big part of my audition prep right now. Not only does it help me understand exactly what I’m doing, but it also makes me a little nervous so I have an idea of how I may react at the audition.
  4. Hear what your going to play in your head either before or while your playing. This is particularly helpful with memorizing, but also works well with shifting, double stops, scales, and more. If you know what it sounds like then you know what to listen for.

So, here’s to many hours of auto pilot free practicing. You can put your seats up, and tray tables away, but don’t get too comfortable. You still need to know what’s going on 🙂


It was 11:30pm, and a light bulb went off in my head. A great big, bright, shiny light bulb. It said to stop stressing about things, and start finding solutions. So, I’m sitting in my bead googling the teaching ideas I have running through my head. Did I mention it was 11:30? Thank goodness the next morning had a strength workout instead of a run!

Since I’ve been working through the Soul Detox study with the ladies over at She Reads Truth I have thought a lot about what I say, how I react to things, and the relationships I have with different people. It’s also caused me to take a good look at my violin teaching. Am I being the best violin teacher I can? Or do I get to wrapped up in reacting emotionally to things? I’ve been frustrated with my teaching lately. I’m stressed that several students have left, and my studio is the smallest it’s ever been. But why? While some of the reasons people have left have been “interesting” I still feel that I need to examine myself. I don’t have the luxury of having a professor observe me teaching anymore to guide me when I may fall. I’m an adult. I have to figure out what works and what doesn’t on my own, which is why I was on my computer at 11:30pm googling things.

I have always loved learning. I am a big fat nerd in that sense. When I run I try to push myself to become better. When I practice my violin I am working out technique, and pushing myself to become better. And then it occurred to me that I’ve stopped doing that when it came to my teaching techniques. I’m not saying that what I was doing was bad or wrong. But instead of pushing myself to come up with new, and fun ways to keep kids engaged I would back off and hide when the going got tough. I need to be more proactive because let’s face it. These days if a kid isn’t having fun, learning, and getting better they aren’t going to hang around for a long time. We live in a society that expects instant gratification even if what’s being presented isn’t 100% at it’s best. So if you mention that the stars for a good job go away if you can’t make it through something there’s a good chance you may be less one student the next week. In some ways I feel more like an entertainer than a teacher sometimes.

I use to do teacher training all of the time. When the economy started going down hill I stopped going to training camps, and cancel subscriptions. I forgot how much I enjoyed getting back into the little details of how to teach music, what skills to work on, and how to engage kids. I got so bogged down in the things going on in my life that I forgot about recharging my teaching skills. I miss that! Thanks goodness for google! So now I’m sitting with flash cards around me creating me games, and trying to come up with creative ways to solve student’s issues with the piece they’re working on. I feel refocused, and re-energized.

Stuff my students do

One of my student’s brings her puppy to her lesson every week. Technically he shouldn’t be there, but he never makes any noise. He just sits there and listens. His favorite part is when I play the piano with her. He’s got a big loopy looking grin on his face, and a look of happiness.

The student took a spill on her way in to her lesson Monday. It meant that puppy and I were left alone. Who can resist a wimpering puppy who just wants love? Poor thing missed his people while the clean up was going on. The student came back while her Mom went of in search of a bandaid, and puppy still wimpered. He wanted mommy. I said all he wants is love. So she walked over and petted my head. I had to explained that I meant the dog as I was giggling. Typical Monday 🙂

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