Self-Monitoring, and How “Happy Face” May Have Been a More Potent Practice Strategy than I Realized…
One of my enduring childhood practice memories is of the binder my mom maintained, in which she would write out a list of all the things I had to practice in every practice session, with an empty circle next to each one.
The idea being, once I had finished working on that part of my practice to-do list, she’d fill in the corresponding circle with tiny eyes and a smile, transforming it into a smiley face.
She called this whole process “happy face.”
Did this make practicing all unicorns and rainbows?
Um…no, it certainly did not. But while I’m pretty sure there were times when I grabbed a pen and drew in frowny faces and tears when she wasn’t looking, I did do the work.
And when I look back, I feel like in many ways, my most dedicated years of practice were in my first 10 years of playing the violin. Much of which involved using this “happy face” method of planning and monitoring my practice activities.
On the face of it (ha, pun!), this seems like a relatively inconsequential part of my actual practice routine. But I came across a study recently that brought all these memories back, and made me wonder if it was more significant than I realized at the time.
Because the act of keeping track of your practice process is actually a strategy known as “self-monitoring,” which is part of an approach to learning known as self-regulated learning.
We’ve explored some of the research on self-regulated learning in the past, but the gist, is that self-regulated learning involves taking charge of your own learning process and being your own coach or teacher. Taking the initiative to set your own goals, monitor your progress, and make adjustments as you go.
(Which, by the way, is somewhat distinct from self-regulation, which usually refers to the ability to control your emotions and impulses – as cookie monster explains, and even demonstrates, in this recent NPR bit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0YDE8_jsHk)
In any case, activities like “happy face” seem pretty trivial. How much of a difference in learning could self-monitoring possibly make?
On occasion, I’ll eavesdrop on my daughter as she does her daily piano practice. And I’ve noticed that one of her recurring practice habits is the tendency to repeat a tricky passage only as many times as it takes to get it right just once.
Sometimes I’ll poke my head out into the hall and ask her to try it again. To see if she really did fix the problem, or just got lucky.
And sometimes she’ll give it another go – but usually she just continues to play on and make her “I can’t hear you” face…
Which brings up an interesting question.
Namely, is it ok to move on after we’ve gotten a passage right once? And maybe come back to it later?
Or is it better to give each problem passage a preset number of repetitions, or a certain amount of time? And move on when we reach that number?
It’s been a couple years now since our dog was a puppy, but I still remember when he was afraid to go down stairs.
He’d sort of peer down the steps and scamper nervously from side to side a bit, and eventually plant his butt firmly on the ground and resist taking the next step.
So we’d cajole and encourage him, saying “C’mon DJ! You can do it!” And eventually, one day, he did make it down the stairs.
Of course, this sort of encouragement is not unique to puppies. We do this with our kids, our students, our friends, our colleagues. But perhaps more importantly, we also do this for ourselves.
Because when things are a little uncertain, it’s common to try to building up our confidence and courage with a little internal pep talk. And studies on self-talk suggest that this can indeed facilitate greater learning, accuracy in certain motor skills, and even strength and endurance.
But sometimes, self-talk doesn’t seem to work, and instead, we feel doubts creeping in. Where saying “I got this” is met by another voice that says “No you don’t. You’re totally going to screw this up.”
So is there a way to get our words to sink in better, quiet those fears and doubts, and help us perform up to our abilities in these moments?Well, a recent study suggests that it may not just be our words that matter, but our physical motions as well.
E.E. Cummings once said “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
For many years, I didn’t understand what that meant. But it’s starting to make more sense. After all, it’s easy to follow a well-worn path, to do the safe thing, or to take others’ advice when it comes to figuring out what we should do with our lives.
But artists seem to find their own way. Artists learn to listen to that inner voice, and have the courage to follow – even if they have no idea where it will take them.
And whether we fall in love with their art or not, we respect the artist within them. Because we see their courage, and that resonates with the artist within us – which wants only to do the same. To follow our own path.
Pianist Menahem Pressler has had a remarkable career spanning more than seven decades. As founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, he has recorded pretty much the entire piano chamber music repertoire over the trio’s 50+ years.
And in his 60+ years of teaching at Indiana University, he has guided students to prestigious teaching positions around the world and prizes in all of the major international piano competitions.
In this inspiring 30-min chat, you’ll hear the wisdom and insight he has gained from a lifetime of performing and teaching – and what it takes (and means) to truly be an artist.
In addition, we’ll explore:
-How he prepares for performances, and identifies the potential problem areas in advance.
-The importance of finding your own voice
-How he has, for himself anyway, figured out how to connect to an audience
-What he is thinking about during a performance on his best days…and on bad days
-On dealing with critics and bad reviews
-He acknowledges that awards are nice, but identifies something more profound that he finds more deeply rewarding
-I ask him if there’s anything he wishes he would have known when he was starting out in his career; he responds with what I think is the best possible answer