How to Talk to Yourself When You’re Having a Bad Practice Day (or Week)

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By now, you’ve surely noticed that toilet paper is a hot commodity. And you’ve probably noticed that stores aren’t quite as fully stocked with eggs as they once were. So I guess I wasn’t totally surprised when I read a little while back that some folks began stress-buying chickens (as in real live ones, to lay eggs – not chicken, rotisseried, nuggetted, or otherwise).

Which reminded me of the handful of chickens my family had when I was growing up. Why did we have chickens? I have no idea, but I do remember that they left a little something to be desired as pets, even though they did lay the occasional egg.

Because chickens don’t play fetch. And they’re not interested in cuddling. So not being sure what else to do, I would occasionally run around and chase them.

Until one day, when the particular chicken I was chasing suddenly stopped, dropped to the ground, and just sat there like a rock. To be honest, the abruptness of this act of passivity kind of freaked me out, and I worried that something was seriously wrong. Fortunately, it was just temporary and she eventually got up, wandered back into the coop and went on to have a normal chicken life. But that moment always stuck with me. And it all came back to me when I took Psych 100 in college and read about “learned helplessness.”

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon that was first identified back in the 1960’s, and is essentially the observation that some people will passively accept their fate rather than trying to make things better, if the lesson they’ve learned from past experience is that they have no control over their situation.

And what does this have to do with music?

Well, I think everyone has had a bad practice week. One of those weeks, where nothing seems to get better, nothing sticks, and it feels almost as if you’ve hit a wall and no matter what you do, you just can’t get to the other side.

These periods of stagnation or extended failures are not a lot of fun, and can be pretty demoralizing.

So I was particularly intrigued when I came across an old study from the 70’s which suggests that the way we talk to ourselves when we’re stuck, could potentially be one of the reasons why some people seem to shrink and perform worse in response to failure, while others seem to bounce back and perform even better.

Let’s take a look!

60 fifth graders

A pair of researchers1 recruited 60 fifth graders, and gave them an assessment that measured how they explained failure to themselves. As in, did they tend to attribute failure to a lack of effort (mastery-oriented group)? Or to a lack of ability (helpless group)?

A challenge

And then, the students were presented with a game or puzzle of sorts. Kind of like the hot or cold game that you probably played as a kid. You know, the one where your friend hides something, and as you wander blindly around the room trying to guess where the object is hidden, your friend says hot as you get closer to the object and cold when you move further away.

There’s more to the game than this, but the gist is that participants were given a bunch of cards, on which two shapes were printed, in two different colors, with one of two different symbols inside the shape. The goal being, to figure out what the correct variable is. Like, is the correct answer the color red? Or is the shape of a triangle? Or the star symbol? Based on the experimenter’s feedback on whether the student’s guess was correct or incorrect (like your friend saying hot or cold), the participant should through process of elimination, be able to deduce what the correct answer is.

What are you thinking?

The students each completed eight practice problems, to make sure they understood how the game worked.

And because the researchers weren’t really interested in their ability to problem-solve, so much as what their thought process might be in response to failure, during the the last two training problems, students were asked to begin “thinking out loud.”

To say out loud anything they were thinking, whether it was related to solving the problem, or lunch, or whatever.

Set up to fail

And then, they were presented with four test problems to solve – but the game was rigged so that they would fail.

How so?

Well, no matter what answer the students gave, the experimenter always responded by telling them that their answer was wrong.

So how did the kids respond to failure? Would they continue to problem-solve effectively? Or would they give up and start using ineffective strategies – like continuing to say “triangle” over and over, even though they were already told that “triangle” was wrong?

Changes in strategy

Training phase

While working through the eight training problems, both the mastery-oriented students and helpless students used feedback effectively, keeping their hypothesis when they were told that they guessed correctly, and changing their hypothesis when they were told that they guessed incorrectly.

Test phase

But once they began the test, and started to experience failure, things took a pretty dramatic turn. 

On the first test, all 30 helpless students used effective strategies. But after the first failed test, the number of students using effective strategies went down to 73.3% for the second test, and then to 63.3% for the third test. By the fourth and final test, only 36.7% of the kids were continuing to use effective problem-solving strategies.

On the other hand, every single one of the students in the mastery-oriented group used effective strategies across all four test problems. Some even showed a tendency to up their game and use increasingly sophisticated strategies after experiencing repeated failure.

[insert table 3 chart, but reorganized/edited for study 2 only, side by side]

In other words, when the helpless students failed, they quickly abandoned the strategies that would actually have led to success, in favor of ineffective strategies that were more likely to lead to failure!

So…what was going on in these kids’ heads when they experienced failure?

Changes in thinking

During the training phase, the inner thoughts of participants in both groups was no different. But when the test began, and everything they did was wrong, their internal dialogue began to change in a pretty big way.

Approach

The helpless students began having more thoughts about ineffective strategies and a lack of ability (“I’m getting confused” or “I never did have a good memory”).

The mastery-oriented kids, on the other hand, through self-instructions like “I should slow down and try to figure this out,” or by self-monitoring their effort and concentration like “The harder it gets the harder I need to try,” appeared to focus their energy more on trying to find a solution to the problem, than on trying to figure out what it was about them that was leading to failure. In other words, they were less self-diagnostic, and more task-diagnostic.

Emotions

With repeated failure, the students’ emotional experience of the challenge also began to change.

A third of the mastery-oriented students continued to remain reasonably positive despite repeated failure, saying things like “I love a challenge.” On the other hand, two-thirds of the helpless students expressed more negativity, saying things like “This isn’t fun anymore.”

Almost two-thirds of the mastery students also expressed “positive prognosis statements” or thoughts which suggest they thought they were close to a solution, like “I’ve almost got it now.” None of the helpless students said anything remotely like this, and a handful flat out said “I give up.”

Focus

There was also a huge difference between the two types of students in task-relevant thinking.

Two-thirds of the helpless kids verbalized random thoughts like “There is a talent show this weekend, and I am going to be Shirley Temple” (and if you’re thinking gee, that’s kind of weird, just keep in mind this study was done in 1978). One poor kid kept choosing the color brown, and saying “chocolate cake,” even when repeatedly told that this was wrong. 

And as you’ve probably already guessed, not a single one of the mastery-oriented kids verbalized any such irrelevant thoughts.

So what are we to make of all of this?

The tl;dr summary

Well, the big takeaway for me is how different the internal experience of the helpless students and mastery-oriented students were.

The helpless kids were more inclined to figure out why they failed by looking internally at themselves, as opposed to the mastery-oriented kids who, to quote the researchers, were “less concerned about the cause of their failures than they were with a remedy for the failure.” (emphasis mine)

The helpless kids also experienced more negative emotions in response to failure, while the mastery-oriented kids remained pretty positive, even expressing more optimism about a successful outcome, even though, once again, unbeknownst to the poor kids, there was no way to succeed at this task. As the authors say later in the paper, “…it did not appear that the mastery-oriented children perceived themselves as having failed. The positive affective and positive prognostic statements suggest that the mastery-oriented children responded to the “wrong” feedback chiefly as information leading to problem solution, not as a failure or as a prediction of future failure.”

The helpless kids also had a lot of thoughts that were totally irrelevant and didn’t relate to solving the problem, unlike the mastery-oriented kids who tended to have more task-relevant thoughts.

So what are we to do with this?

Take action

Well, the researchers suggest that it might be helpful to practice monitoring your thoughts when faced with adversity, and to try to reduce the more task-irrelevant ones that pop into your head, engaging more with the solution-focused type of thoughts that tended to dominate the mastery-oriented students’ thinking.

To essentially get better at putting your teacher hat on, and staying more relentlessly task-focused rather than self-focused, even when things don’t seem to be improving at the rate you’d like.

Caveats

The authors note that while persistence can be a really good thing, there can be a dark side to persistence too. In that if someone believes that failing at a task means that they are a failure, this could lead to an unhealthy and unproductive level of persistence in a narrow sort of direction, and difficulty seeing other pathways to success.

Which made me think of something I remember seeing in a Star Trek movie at some point – i.e. the Kobayashi Maru test/simulation. But my brain is a little too fried right now to Google this further and wrap my mind around whether this example actually supports or negates my point… Maybe some of the more Star Trek-aware folks out there could give it a think and let me know if it does or doesn’t below in the comments? =)


References

Diener, C. I., & Dweck, C. S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in perfor- mance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 451-462.

Footnotes

  1. One of which is Carol Dweck, whose subsequent work on “growth” and “fixed” mindsets you’re probably familiar with.

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Comments

16 Responses

  1. You know the answer already, but the Kobayashi Maru test is one in which a Star Fleet Academy Cadet is confronted with a no-win scenario. Captain Kirk was the only one who ever “won”, but it was by breaking Star Fleet regulations. So it may be applicable in a way; it depends on one what or limitation you have to break to “succeed”. But can the rule or limitation actually be broken?

  2. I’ve read countless articles and books to this topic. The “Mindset” book by C. Dweck was one that gave rise to a pretty widespread “grow mindset” popularization. It seems also extremely in vogue in elementary schools counseling (which I think is a good thing, given that perhaps kids’ minds are more malleable and beliefs not fully established yet).

    As an adult, I tried to apply this to myself (I am mildly “helpless”, but only very mildly) with no improvements. So I went back to my sources trying to find what I could do to improve (told ya I’m only very mildly 🙂 and noticed one thing which I had missed before. Not a single study from the ones I’ve seen show what I was hoping to find (I am a physicist, so I like reading technical research papers, but I am not trained in psychology, so I may have missed things). There is overwhelming evidence and reports like the one mentioned here which show that the “helpless” category behaves this way and their behavior cause them to give up “too soon”, user “wrong strategies” and not instead “persist until success, with the good strategies they already know”. Yet, I haven’t seen any evidence that CHANGE IS POSSIBLE, let alone of the “HOW”.

    What I was hoping to find is something like this. I am this mildly “helpless”, some others may be even extremely “helpless”. We studied these things and we know our “mindset” is wrong. Now what? There are no instructions on how to change it. We improvise “self talk”, try to force ourselves to believe and behave differently. With great effort, I must say, at least in my experience. And limited improvements (again my personal, anecdotal experience). Am I doing it wrong? If so, where I can get better instructions please?

    Have you ever read a “follow-up” paper in which the “helpless” where given instructions to become less “helpless” and by following those instructions have improved not only the (silly) self-talk that is described in this paper, but ALSO and MOST IMPORTANTLY their abilities to succeed?

    Thanks,
    Davide

    1. We absolutely can change the way we talk to ourselves. It takes effort and persistence (the hard part is recognizing what we are saying/thinking to ourselves). Once we are aware of our self talk, then replacing those thoughts with other thoughts isn’t hard.

      This is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which can be an effective way to treat depression. The theory is that our mood is to a large degree determined by our thoughts, so if we change our thoughts, we can change the way we feel. I’m sure it doesn’t work for everyone regardless of their degree of depression, but it does work. You have to identify your thoughts that are leading to the negative feelings, and come up with alternative phrases to use as replacements. There’s a list of common “cognitive distortions” (Google it) that we tend to fall into. When we catch ourselves thinking in those terms, we say “stop!” and then replace the distorted thought with some other thought. That’s how you use CBT to treat depression.

      I see no reason why thought replacement couldn’t be effective in this situation as well. If we catch ourselves saying things that a helpless person would, like “I’m such a loser” or “I’ll never get this right”, we could say “stop!” to stop that line of thinking, then replace the statement with something the mastery-oriented group would say (like “this is hard, I need more work on it” or “ok, this isn’t working, what could I do differently to make it work better?”). It would take practice and persistence, but if we can identify “helpless” thinking and replace it with “mastery” thinking consistently, I see no reason why we couldn’t change ourselves over time into “mastery oriented” people. If it works for depression (and it does), why wouldn’t it work for this? But it would take some intentional effort to make that change.

      1. Thanks for your reply Tom.

        To give some context, I am an adult amateur pianist who started as kid and still is at the “Anna Magdalena Notebook” level. And I’ve been studying very seriously since early 2016, four full years (after 8 years as a kid, even though I believe that’s been almost wasted time).

        You answered partially the “how” part of my question with some Googling suggestions, which I haven’t fully explored yet, so thanks for that. They may help.

        Yet you haven’t fully answered the second part of my questions. You wrote “why it wouldn’t work for this?” but that is not a scientific answer. Yes, we can change how we talk to ourselves. I have. What I am looking for is, once I do change how I talk to myself, do I become like the “grow mindset” people? Correlation is not causation, and I do not see strong evidence in this particular case: are former-helpless-become-grow-mindset people become as successful as “native” grow-mindset ones? Sure, if you don’t try, you don’t succeed, no proof needed for that part. But you can keep trying-and-trying and still not getting it right. I feel like I am being stuck in this situation.

        Did I change how I talk to myself? Yes. Did I double down on my practice? Absolutely (yet, as an amateur with a daily job and a family there’s only so much I can do). Did I self-examine what was going right and what was going wrong. You bet. What else? I tried another teacher. Heck, as a professional software engineer I even learned Android (my profession is in a totally different software field) for the sole purpose of writing an app to help me with one aspect of my piano playing which I felt was my weakest and making no progress whatsoever. I have improved? Only marginally.
        Admittedly, I’ve been with the new teacher only for 3 months, and with the app for 4, so it’s too early to say if these most important changes will bring the results I long for. I hope they will for me.

        But I’ve seen no published evidence for this to be a widespread effect, so I had to ask (and ask again after your answer).

        Thanks again

        1. This is tangential to the topic of self-talk, but I can’t ignore a piano student who is suffering from lack of progress. I have taught many adult pianists , many as absolute beginners, and studied for years with my own teacher who was a master at teaching adults. Adults learn differently from kids, you need a teacher who understands this. In particular, the “athletic” dimension of piano playing is taught differently. Old paths of coordination don’t change without knowledgeable guidance from a teacher. Coordination, rhythm, tone, movement at the keyboard, balance and control, freedom and release, have to be specifically taught, because an adult body and nervous system will continue in the old paths, even with a new task. And without easy movement, there isn’t enough bandwidth to absorb and execute complex notation.

        2. I like your categorization of your level! Without ignoring your frustration at being there, from my Kitten On the Keys level, the Anna Magdalena Notebook level looks pretty fun!

    2. Hi Davide,

      Great input from Tom and Megan. And for what it’s worth, I think there is some outcome research out there which suggests that change is possible (https://labs.la.utexas.edu/adrg/files/2013/12/Yeager-et-al-RD-agenda-6-10-131.pdf); and this study was co-authored by Carol Dweck too, so the message probably sounded familiar.

      Interestingly, from reading your comments, my initial thought was that I don’t know that you need to put much more time or energy into trying to shift any further towards the growth mindset side of the continuum in music. After all, the “growth” mindset is just a means to an end – as in, having a growth mindset in and of itself isn’t going to lead to results, but is one of the factors which facilitates a certain type of action, approach, and work that leads to certain results. And that you’ve already developed an app to help you practice, and switched teachers, and are continuing to practice suggests to me that your mindset isn’t what’s holding you back. Otherwise, you would have quit, or wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of learning a whole new programming language, etc.!

      Have you ever recorded your practice, and asked your teacher to give you feedback on what they see? That might be a helpful way to see if there’s something you’re doing or not doing in your daily work that is holding you back. Especially if you experience improvement or gain lots of helpful insights during your lessons, but then things go back to a plateau during the week.

      Noa

      1. Thanks Noa and Megan (for some reasons there is no “REPLY” link next to her post).

        Yes the new teacher is more experienced with adults, and often asks me to record myself (especially in this time of remote lessons…)
        I had recorded myself earlier, but other than better realizing my mistakes I could not find a proper way to correct them.

        Looking forward to the new journey!

  3. I agree about the Star Trek reference — if there is no way to win following the rules, break (or change) the rules. I see the application to music practice (keeping in mind my dedicated, but mediocre talent amateur status), as “if what you are doing is not working, try something else.” The possibilities are legion, many of them already mentioned in these blog posts. For instance: (1) stop and do something else, even including practice another section, for a while; (2) change something — as a reed player, I change my reed, or even just change the position of the reed vis-a-vis the mouthpiece, or the position of the ligature versus the mouthpiece; (3) try the passage slower, or faster, or with a variety of rhythms; (4) try the passage in a few different keys; (5) with saxophone, jumps down are hard with the big saxes, jumps up with the small ones — try for a while with the jumps reduced — e.g. all at one octave. Maybe then widen the problem jump a note at a time until one gets to the full jump required. I am sure string, percussion, brass, vocal musicians can envision their own versions of all these variations. For another example, my tutor sometimes recommends that I play the passage backwards for a while — every form of musician could try this if they thought it would help.

  4. When I feel helpless on my double bass, I think of Edgar Meyer and Gary Karr. When they put in an additional thirty hours of practice, they may improve a slight bit. They are the elite level. If I as a beginner put in thirty hours, I will show significant improvement. Similarly, Steph Curry has a (game tested) 92% free throw average. Mine is 48%. We both warm up with 100 free throws, then test our accuracy. In all likelihood, my percentage will have a larger leap. Yeah, I know it’s kinda dumb, but it does keep me motivated.

    I do believe self-talk, which can be “silly”, as another participant said, can be helpful to a point, but putting the fingers on and the brain into the instrument, putting in the time, needs to be the most consistent aspect of musicianship. You’ve got to feed the pig more than weigh it.

  5. I have been on a quest for over a year to raise my shredding skills on the guitar. As one who has been plagued from time to to with feelings of inadequacies, I’m also the not the type to give up easily. I did hang in there long enough to earn a BA, MM, and a DMA, for goodness sakes, even if it did take me 23 years to get it done (Long story). My recent experience centers around a series of sustained persistent efforts in the face of something seemingly impossible raising the BPM with 16th notes). What I’m learning, for the first time in my 58 years, is that I’ve never been in this mind set where I doggedly document and evaluate each micro improvement. What this is beginning to feel like to me, is that I’m accumulating evidential fragments of reality that are shaping my perception of the here and now and my desire to forge ahead. The moral to my story? If I want to change something as ingrained as my behavior, I must accept the challenge and work at a level that I’ve never conceived of before. I’m still working on it and yea, I’m seeing improvement, even though my mind is still occasionally attempting to do a cost/benefit analysis on the value of my time and energy spent on this quest (which I believe is a constant in the realm of human mental activity).

  6. As soon as I read that the game was rigged, I thought of Kobayashi Maru. Kirk realized that the game was rigged and chose to engage the premise–the meta-game–on its own terms, and change the way the K-M was rigged. Kirk may be the ultimate mastery-oriented person–there’s a solution to any problem, it just has to be found, and he seemed willing to bet just about anything on that belief.

    And I think Rollie Cole is on to something about how it can apply to musical practice: if what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe it’s time to game the premise or approach. Like, if trying to build up speed in a passage isn’t working, maybe it’s time to try it at drastically slow tempos, a few notes at a time; or maybe it’s time to approach it from the other end and grab bunches of notes in blocks and work to separate them.

    To put it in more general terms: sometimes the fastest and surest way to get a passage or technique “right” is to purposely do it “wrong”, often in multiple “wrong” ways (don’t risk injury though). Not only can this confer context in which to more confidently place intent, execution and perception of “right”, more often than not some of those “wrong” ways turn out to be not so wrong, and really quite useful.

  7. The responses to date are very interesting.

    There are so many highly educated musicians responding here that I feel sort of overwhelmed by their responses , prompting me to “Give up” on putting in my 2 cents worth. 😊 But since I appreciate Noa’s blog so much and have enjoyed reading the above responses so much, I’m motivated to “Win” by sharing my response to to this “No win” post.

    I agree with those who say “Change the rules” “Break the rules” To my mind, find out what works and do it. How do you find out what works? You probably already know the answer to that, maybe not… That means several things to me with regard to learning a piece of music.

    1. Memorize, Memorize, Memorize. If you ever want to become truly proficient at your instrument you must memorize.

    2. Break the selection down into small units
    a. (Just two notes ???)
    b. (Short Term Memory) – 6 to 7 units of information in a string is the maximum!)
    c. Memorize “Chunks” of information, not individual notes – Recognize scales and the spelling out of chords so you are NOT reading individual notes … I like Chord Symbols!
    d. String each unit learned to the next unit. “Just Right” Goals. Read this – Article – This comment section will not let me include a Url?

    3. Check out Noa’s recent webinar on memorization. Check out Noa’s blog article on memorization
    Most musicians have developed learning strategies or have used good strategies, in their past, as they learned their instrument. It’s easy to forget what strategies work and having “Forgotten about those strategies” you simply stop using them. I have been guilty of forgetfulness.

    Music is not a “No Win Simulation.” To become a virtuoso is possible, but it is probably far beyond most of our reaches due to individual time constraints.

    4. Be satisfied with progress no matter how insignificant the progress may seem. 😊 (“Just Right” Goals)

    5. Use a metronome!

  8. I mentioned “Just Right ” Goals in my response to this post, but I was not allowed to post a URL? My solution? – You must Google The Flow Music Method to find out about “Just Right” Goals. This method has been used by the author for 15 years. The author is a music teacher living in Australia. I have been utilizing this in my piano teaching for several months with great success. Ask Noa if you can’t find the Webinar post on Memorization that includes Molly G.

  9. Hi – I am a retired psychology professional and amateur musician (classical guitar). My professional training was focused primarily on what is referred to as a systems approach to understanding human behavior and the problems people often find themselves entrenched in. One branch of this school of thought looked at the solution behavior that people may utilize as they attempt to solve or address their problems, and came up with three “fundamental” errors that are often used as problem solving strategies: a. simply applying MORE of the same, e.g. spending more hours in practice but not changing anything about how you practice b. utopian solutions e.g. to never feel angry, anxiety, fear, etc. c. seeing a problem where there is none, e.g. a “bad” practice day, which in reality is just part of the process and not really a problem unless you turn it in to one through the feedback you give yourself. Note: the solution behaviors may overlap.

    While this may seem like it is nothing more than common sense, if/when you are stuck in a problem, common sense often flys out the window especially if feelings of anxiety, frustration, depression begin to overwhelm/demoralize an individual. (keep in mind that this was back in the 60’s and 70’s when the theoretical model used by mental health professionals was very different, so this approach was quite novel at the time). These feelings then only add more weight to a problem that initially may have been more easily addressed. This approach also suggests that the exit to the problem lies in the solution behavior that is currently being utilized, but not enough room here to address that. This particular school of thought was broadly referred to as Brief Strategic Therapy. Its most creative theorists and proponents were Paul Watzlawick, Jay Haley, and John Weakland.

    Anyway, the Star Trek reference is an example of applying more of the same to the solution of the Kobayashi Maru, when what the solution required was a different approach. But it can take a lot of courage to do something different. Often, it is easier to stay with what we know, to continue doing more of the same even when it is uncomfortable or counter productive, rather than to change what we are doing especially if we are uncertain or fearful of the outcome. That was the genius, as well as the risk of Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru. He did something different, totally unexpected (by the way, a characteristic of the school of thought I have been talking about). But I think that Kirk being Kirk, knew what the probable fall out would be🙀

    Anyway, appreciate what you are doing.

    1. Thanks, Roxie! My advisor in grad school was a family psychologist and very interested in systems thinking. So Change (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch) and The Tactics of Change (Fisch, Weakland, & Segal) were incredibly eye-opening and compelling, and remain some of my favorite books to this day.

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