What’s On Your Plate?

In your piano lesson journey, getting results may be the North Star to aim for.

So how’s your aim? 🙂

Once upon a time, I wrote about aiming not at a North Star but an archery target. I talked there about the wiggle room we have to make progress imperfectly, but the focus was on keeping in mind what the target is, however imperfectly we might launch our arrows. Let’s get a little more concrete about what we do to get results, and let’s use a different metaphor.

When you come to lesson, you bring a plate with you. It’s always already got at least one thing on it — keeping your playlist alive. With each part of each project I teach that day, I fill your plate a bit more with ingredients. When the lesson is done, you see how much is on your plate. When practicing at home during the week, it’s meal time!

Ideally, I fill the plate just right. If I pile things too high, you’ll come back leaving some things untouched or, worse, having gotten overstuffed. Either way, we’ll end up going over things again. If I don’t fill the plate enough, I’ll have missed an opportunity to help you to make the most progress you can. Sometimes my judgment isn’t perfect and I don’t fill your plate just right, but I always try my best. Which brings us to the first important question:

How big is your plate?

There is an answer to this, and it never changes. The size of your plate is whatever would be just right for processing everything through an ideal practice routine. Different people’s plates are different sizes, because people are different, and that’s to be expected. Your plate is your potential, and if you maintain an ideal practice routine then we both get to see just how big it is.

Each week, I’d strive to fill it the just-right amount. You’d eat up everything on it, and you’d come back the next time ready for more. Through all this, you’d be making the ideal amount of progress for you as an individual, with the least amount of effort. Which brings us to another important question:

How are your eating habits?

  • Do you eat at regular mealtimes or snack erratically? Ideal progress is fostered by practicing at the same time each day.
  • Do you eat every day or do you have fasting days? Ideal progress is fostered by practicing every day, with at least 5 days a week being the minimum necessary for solid ongoing progress.
  • Do you eat at a leisurely and healthful pace or wolf your food down in a rush? Ideal progress is fostered by practicing current projects for 15-to-20 minutes each day, or somewhat longer if you’re far enough into the program to have increased the typical number and/or complexity of current projects.
  • Do you read over your recipes to make sure you use all the ingredients and understand all the steps before you begin cooking? Ideal progress is fostered by reviewing your assignments notes and any assigned materials before you actually begin to process them into your hands.
  • Do you follow the recipes step by step, or do you ignore some or all of the recipe details? Ideal progress is fostered by fully processing each step of each project before moving onto another.
  • Do you cut your food up into appropriate bite-size portions and chew sufficiently before swallowing, or do you bite off more than you can chew and swallow more than you can digest and end up with heartburn or a stomachache? Ideal progress is fostered by using all of the Student Home Materials and all of the learning tools and strategies as instructed — including backing up to a previous step when you find yourself struggling with something.
  • Are you making sure to eat a well-balanced diet, including the minimum recommended daily allowance of all the fundamental nutrients you need to stay healthy? Ideal progress is fostered by keeping your repertoire alive.

When you do all this, you keep yourself firing on all cylinders. Your whole music-making “body” stays healthy, including especially your ability to keep taking in more musical learning as efficiently as possible.

If any of these things is being compromised, you may be unable to finish what’s on your plate, and we’ll end up going over things again. Or you may finish but only by spending more time and effort during the eating process than you otherwise would have needed to — and things may not go down so easily.

While these things may not be ideal, they can be okay. That’s because we may always aim for the North Star of results, but we’re human, and we’re allowed to be imperfect. Over time, both you and I get used to how much you tend to actually eat each week. I see how much you tend to process, and I adjust my lessons plans. I may even come to believe your plate is smaller than it actually is. As long as you feel sufficiently sated by what you’re eating, then all is well. And that brings us to our last important question:

Are you getting your fill?

If you’re sated by what you’re eating, then it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m filling your plate, or whether or not you’re eating everything on your plate, or whether or not it’s easy to chew and swallow and digest. If you’re satisfied, you’re satisfied.

If you’re not satisfied — or if you’re satisfied but want more than mere satisfaction! — then you must be eating less each week than would actually fit on your plate. Now, there’s a chance that could be happening because I’m not filling your plate enough, even though you’ve got an utterly perfect practice routine. If so, we’ll look to pile more on for you. Most of the time, though, if you want to eat more than you’ve been eating, it’s because of your eating habits, and it’s time to change them!

Hopefully you’re not in a dire state of malnutrition? If you are, there are strategies for catching up after falling behind, and I can support you by slowing down new content. Otherwise, you can address appropriate aspects of your practice routine mentioned above. By optimizing your practice routine, you can increase both the amount and efficiency of your progress.

The amount of progress is most basically affected by making sure you practice each project for enough time each day and enough days each week. Practice anything too little, and naturally you will learn less. Of course, how much you accomplish in any given amount of time is also determined by how efficiently you practice. Several aspects of a solid practice routine optimize your efficiency:

  • Practice at the same time each day — Similar to how we get hungry or tired at particular times when we have regular schedules for eating and sleeping, your brain primes itself for learning when your practice time is as consistent as possible.
  • Keep your playlist alive — This keeps you generally “fit” so that you’re always in the best shape possible to learn any new project — sort of like making sure to have green vegetables with every meal. And just as keeping your playlist alive increases your overall practice efficiency, you can multiply the effect by zeroing in on optimizing the efficiency of playlist maintenance itself. By practicing each playlist item only as often as it needs, you’ll spend the smallest amount of effort possible keeping your playlist alive. If you do this properly, then, even if you had a playlist of a few hundred items, you should only need to play an average of perhaps 10 or so items a day to keep your entire playlist healthy and strong. In this way, keeping your playlist alive only ever takes up a reasonably small portion of your plate.
  • Use all the materials, tools and strategies that are provided to you, in the ways they are intended to be used — These things help you get better results from every bit of time and effort you put in. Reaffirm your commitment to working slowly in order to learn quickly. Some of the most important tools and strategies are:
    • Control the Events (CTE) — Each next note is not played until you’re completely confident it is accurate in your mind first. Temporarily suspend rhythm in order to focus on a step-by-step unfolding of single events. Applies to Touching Fingers and Practice Pad as well as playing on the keyboard.
    • Speak Instructions Out Loud (“External Speaker”) — Speak instructions while enacting them in your fingers. Engages multiple neural pathways to reinforce accurate information, with the added benefit of overriding other distracting internal dialogue. Applies to Touching Fingers and Practice Pad as well as playing on the keyboard.
    • Touch Fingers — Establishes what to play cleanly and simply, away from the keyboard with minimal distraction.
    • Practice Pad — Process each new element of each project on the Practice Pad, striving to play it three times in a row on the Pad before moving to the keyboard, where you’ll then strive to play it three times in a row before working on something else. If you have an electronic keyboard, you can insert a step in between the Practice Pad and full playing — play it on your keyboard with no sound. Just like working separate hands before both hands, or notes and rhythm separately before putting them together, this process capitalizes on the benefits of breaking learning down into Single Thought Processes (STP) by focusing on just one of your senses at a time — first just visual (Practice Pad), then add touch (silent keyboard), then add sound (keyboard with sound).
    • Fragmenting / Advancing the Fragments — Master one fragment at a time, in sequence, repeating from the beginning as each new fragment is added. Like Controlling the Events but for larger chunks of music rather than individual notes.
    • Student Home Materials (SHM) — Refer to your materials every time you’re uncertain about something, supporting your ability to Control the Events and Advance the Fragments.

The closer you get to the ideal practice routine, the more we can fill your plate, knowing that you’ll be able to effectively process whatever’s there. And if you consistently maintain a practice routine as recommended, you’ll be able to clear a full plate every week and reach your highest potential.

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