A confession: I rely on teaching to keep me on the straight and narrow in my own practice. One of the biggest changes in my approach over the past decade is an emphasis on the mental game in parallel with solid technique. I introduced the adult students to it first, but fittingly, it’s been the stressed adolescents who have truly adopted and benefited from a disciplined mind. It seems that the adults, much like me, can fall into the mindset of “Yeah, sure I’ll work on my mind. Just as soon as I nail this passage…with tremendous stress in an untenable way…and not enjoying it at all.”

Here are the three things that seem to make the biggest difference when students (of any age or ability) adopt them:

1. Be a cool customer.

This means no expectations, not low expectations. Cultivate a frame of mind where you’re just open to noticing what happens and are able to quantify it: “Hmmm, that wasn’t quite it. Maybe I’ll experiment with [insert technique here].” or “That seemed more successful. I’m going to repeat it many more times for quality control.” Don’t let your pulse spike if you miss the shift or fumble the technique; just notice and make adjustments. Don’t permit a rush of adrenaline if you have a great pass through it. The goal is to have an open, easy awareness whether or not you love what you’re playing. The point is to make all practice edifying. If only successful passes through a section allow you to enjoy the experience, you won’t get down to practicing the hard stuff.

 

2. Breathe, the right way.

When I ask students to breathe during an activity, 9 out of 10 will take this insane gasp of air…and then hold it until a pause in workload, when they have an equally desperate sounding exhale, like a balloon flying madly around the room. Take in air like you do when you’re speaking at a low volume: in sips. This can be hard to implement, so try things like counting sotto voce or saying “tick” along with the metronome. Sure, it feels a little silly at first, but it’s how lots of folks learn to have a quiet, soft respiration as they play instead of feeling like some sort of classical whoopee cushion.

 

3. An oldie but a goodie: Have PHYSICAL goals. 

The previous two tips only work in a context where you can tell if your approach is on point or not. In order to do that, you have to come up with goals that are trackable for success/failure, and that a non-musician could tell you if you’re doing or not.

Sure, we all want a great sound, but getting there is a matter of many layered techniques: bow speed, pressure, location; good contact with the fingerboard and intonation; curating notes for attack, sustain and type of ending or release. The powerful thing about moving down a list of physical goals is that if one alteration radically changes your sound (for better or worse), you know what to repeat or modify. One of the most defeating things is a great practice followed by a terrible one, not having any idea what made the former so much different from the latter. Being organized in your practice makes this happen far less. It is one of the greatest artistic contradictions: the more methodical one is during the learning process, the more freely art happens.