Throwing Your Hat Over the Fence

First of all, let me say that Brendan Leonard has a great blog called Semi-Rad that is well-worth a subscribe. It’s not a blog about playing music. On the surface, it’s about travel and outdoor adventuring. Lots of content about hiking, camping, climbing, and that sort of thing.

But at the core, it’s a blog about connecting with the world and with the fellow humans who live in it. It’s about setting challenges, improving yourself to a level where you can maybe meet them, dealing with failure along the way, and falling in love with the whole process.

So yeah, I guess it sort of is a blog about playing music.

Case in point is this post on The Power of a Fear-Based Fitness Plan, which starts with a question:

Have you ever committed to something you weren’t sure you could do, and then found yourself in the best shape of your life the week before that something happened?

I bet that some of the most furious bouts of woodshedding you’ve ever done–and largest resulting improvements in your musicianship–have been due to some sort of gig/audition/recital you’d managed to (perhaps ill-advisedly) commit to, and the sheer, waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-thinking-about-it terror of completely botching it in a spectacular, white-hot fireball of suck.

Wooden Fence

I’ve always heard this referred to as “throwing your hat over the fence”. It might be a tall fence, and you might not even know if it’s possible to climb over it. But if you ever want to see your hat again, well, you don’t have much of choice, do you?

I’ll be honest, I’ve lost a few hats doing this.

But it’s funny how those fences somehow seem to get a little shorter each time.

Finished. Not Perfect.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is only three words long:

“Real artists ship.”

— Steve Jobs

Jobs was legendary for his perfectionism and for never settling for mediocrity. He saw the task of building computers (and the software they run) as inherently creative work, and he encouraged his team to think of themselves as artists.

But at the same, he knew that mere ideas weren’t enough. Products had to be finished, often on a deadline. These beautiful designs and creative solutions had to, at some point, make their way into the hands of consumers as tangible products. Real artists ship.

Along those same lines, here’s a wonderful short video where Jake Parker argues in favor of “Finished Not Perfect“:

What are you “not finishing” out of the desire for musical perfection?

Are you putting off posting a recording of yourself to SoundCloud or making a YouTube video?

Waiting to sit in on a jam, or play for your friends and family, or participate in a recital until you’re “good enough”?

One of the things I’m shooting for this year is recognizing when I’m letting perfectionism get in the way of “finishism”. Who’s with me on this? We’re “real artists”, aren’t we?Let’s start shipping!

Five Tips for Establishing a Daily Practice Habit

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is “practice every day”, here are a few tips I’ve discovered while establishing and maintaining my own (mostly) daily accordion practice habit:

#1: Define “Practice”

What counts as practice? What’s the least thing you could do that would justify checking the box next to “I practiced today”? Does playing a gig or teaching a lesson count?

It’s up to you, but I recommend going as basic and simple as possible. I’m talking absurdly basic. Author Stephen Guise calls these mini habits–habits that are “too small to fail”.

I decided to make the rule that, as long as I played a single scale on the accordion, I could “count” it. On those days when I’m not really motivated and would rather do something (anything!) else, I still force myself to at least play that scale.

And you know what? Nine times out of ten I’ll finish and think “well okay, maybe a quick tune.” Next thing you know, it turns into a full-blown practice-fest! But even when it doesn’t, that measly scale is still better than nothing. As Daniel Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent (which I highly recommend), even short sessions can be useful:

“With deep practice, small daily practice ‘snacks’ are more effective than once-a-week practice binges. The reason has to do with the way our brains grow—incrementally, a little each day, even as we sleep. Daily practice, even for five minutes, nourishes this process, while more occasional practice forces your brain to play catch-up.”


#2 Define “Daily”

Look, life happens. You gotta give yourself an out now an then. Put some wiggle room in the rules. (After all, even the Guinness Book of World Records lets you take a bathroom break now and then.)

I went with what I call the “three-hour rule”. If I’m home and awake for at least three hours, then that’s a practice day. If I’m away from home on vacation, or if it’s one of those crazy days where I’m out the door in the morning and not back until very late that night, then practice is “optional, but encouraged.”

You might want to also give yourself a few “whoops!” passes in advance for those times when you might just plain forget. And you should definitely give yourself a break if you’re nursing an injury (better to take a week off now than a year off later). The important thing is to not let accidentally ruining a “perfect” streak discourage you from completing a “nearly perfect, but still extremely helpful” streak.

#3 Keep Track

“I think the soundest management advice I’ve
heard is the old saw: ‘What gets measured gets done.'”

— Tom Peters

I’m a big fan of keeping a practice journal of some type, which not only keeps track of the days you practice but also allows you to record helpful notes about what you practiced, what you need to work on next time, broader goals, etc.

If it’s a paper journal, it has the added benefit of giving you a physical representation of your progress as you make your way through the pages (and, eventually, through more notebooks). You can also put it on your pillow, where it will keep you from going to bed without remembering to practice!

#4 Remove Barriers

The process of starting a practice session should have as little “in the way” as possible. Leave the music stand out with a chair in front of it if you can. Keep your instrument nearby, maybe even out of its case. Have your other tools-of-the-trade (metronome, pencil, tuner, etc.) at the ready.

The fewer steps you have to take to start playing, the more likely it is that you’ll do so.

#5 Be Grateful

How awesome is it that you can play a musical instrument? I don’t care if you’re a rank beginner or if you’re Joshua Bell. The fact that music even exists in the universe is a thing of wonder, and the ability to just conjure it up at will is pretty much a flat-out miracle.

A daily practice commitment is not a burden, even though it might feel like one now and then. It’s a choice to participate in something great, and we makers of music are fortunate to be able to make that choice.

So from this moment on, I want you to remove the phrase “I have to practice” from your vocabulary and replace it with “I get to practice.”

Become a Better Musician Using Your… Password?

Ah, the computer password. I’ve got several I have to keep track of, and between them all I’m easily typing in passwords dozens of times a day. You’re probably the same way.

Well someone finally noticed that we’re passing up the perfect opportunity to reinforce positive thinking and behavior: Can a password change your life?

Typing a positive and realistic personal message as a password is a terrific idea from a psychological point of view. […] People become the words and phrases they say the most.

Note that, despite the examples and advice in the article, a good password doesn’t necessarily have to be super-complicated. Arguably, a better way to make a hard-to-crack yet still easy-to-remember password is to just make it longer.

So maybe a password along these lines could improve your accordion playing?






I guess you can’t actually use any of those now that I’ve plastered them all over the internet, but you get the idea…

Four Truths for the Performing Artist

Last month, opera singer Joyce DiDonato gave a wonderful commencement speech to Juilliard’s graduating class. In it, she provides what she calls “four little observations” to those embarking on their musical careers. They may seem, at first blush, to be daunting, even contradictory. But hear her out:

1. You Will Never Make It

“It” doesn’t exist for an Artist. […] there will always be that one note that could have soared more freely, […] that one adagio which could have been just a touch more magical. There will always be more freedom to acquire and more truth to uncover. As an artist, you will never arrive at a fixed destination. THIS is the glory and the reward of striving to master your craft and embarking on the path of curiosity and imagination.

2. The Work Will Never End

When things become overwhelming–which they will, repeatedly, whether it’s via unexpected, rapid success or as heart-wrenching, devastating failure–the way back to your center is simply to return to the work. Oftentimes it will be the only thing that makes sense. And it is there where you will find solace and truth.

3. It’s Not About You

You have signed up for a life of service by going into the Arts. And the life-altering results of that service in other people’s lives will NEVER disappear as fame unquestionably will. You are here to serve the words, the director, the melody, the author, the chord progression, the choreographer–but above all and most importantly, with every breath, step, and stroke of the keyboard, you are here to serve humanity.

 4. The World Needs You

It is yearning, starving, dying for you and your healing offer of service through your Art. We need you to make us feel an integral part of a shared existence through the communal, universal, forgiving language of music, of dance, of poetry and Art–so that we never lose sight of the fact that we are all in this together and that we are all deserving of a life that overflows with immense possibility, improbable beauty and relentless truth.

Inspiring stuff! I encourage you to read the entire speech for yourself, or watch it here:

Accordion Resolutions for 2014

As she has for the last few years, Rita Barnea has posted her list of suggested “Accordion New Year’s resolutions” over on the Accordion USA website.

I particularly like the first one:  Practice every day. I know that it’s possible to carve out a few minutes each day to crack open the accordion case. It’s just a matter of prioritizing it. I know I could do a better job of that myself.

But just think of how much you could improve if you did this for a year? Especially if those few minutes were active practice, where you purposefully work on your weak spots (rather than just play through songs you already know well).

Regardless of your own accordion resolutions this year, best wishes for a happy and music-filled 2014!


Update:  I found another good “resolutions” article posted on the blog. Check it out!

Learning from Andy Murray

If you don’t follow tennis, you might not know that, this past weekend, Andy Murray became the first British man in 77 years to win the Wimbledon championship.

Tennis Racket and Ball

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

He had tried to pull this off when he made it to the finals the year before. Then, as now, he had the talent. He had the strength. He had put in an enormous amount of work training with one of the best coaches in the sport. Just like this year, nearly the entire country was following the match on television. Crowds packed the pubs and gymnasiums of his hometown of Dunblane to hold viewing parties and cheer him on. Over three-quarters of a century of pent-up British hope sat on Andy Murray’s shoulders… hopes that were dashed when he lost in the fourth set.

So what changed? How was this year different? I suspect the key was Murray’s mental game. He was noticeably more calm and composed this time. Mistakes and annoyances during the match seemed to more easily roll right off of him. He somehow found a way to shrug off the unfathomable pressure.

Playing music is not much different from playing sports in this regard. You can practice the material. You can run your drills, etc. But even then, an untrained mind can sabotage your performance.

It’s worth reading some advice from Murray’s sports psychologist. One tip stands out as applying especially well to musicians:

An essential truth to performing well: You won’t play at your best when you are focused on outcomes. “Focus instead on the specific task at hand […] When your mind starts tracking/wanting to know how the match is going to turn out, you have stopped PLAYING THE MATCH.”

Similarly, musicians can guard against pressure by focusing on their task at hand when performing. When your mind starts worrying about outcomes–whether you’ll pass the jury, or whether the club owner likes you enough to hire you again, or if anyone will remember that note you flubbed four measures ago–then you have stopped playing music.

Are You a Frog in a Pot?

There’s an oft-repeated story–I’m sure you’ve heard it–about how, if you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump right out. But if you put it in pleasantly warm water and very slowly increase the temperature, it will allow itself to be boiled to death without so much as a “ribbit” of protest.


“I’m not sure I like the direction this blog post is heading…” [Photo credit: James Lee]

This is most likely not literally true. But that’s okay. We’re more interested in the metaphorical truth of the story:  It’s difficult to notice change when it’s gradual and slow.

As musicians, we especially have to be on alert for this condition because it can hit us in two directions. The first direction is like our poor frog friend–we don’t see things deteriorating until it’s too late. Maybe it’s our playing skills that we let get a bit more rusty each year. Or maybe it’s the business/networking side of things.

But as students of music (and we’re always students, ideally) it can go the other direction too. We often don’t notice ourselves getting better. Improvement happens notoriously slowly in music, and it doesn’t call attention to itself nearly as loudly as our inevitable mistakes and backwards steps.

So what can we do about it?

Here are two ideas. First, record yourself frequently. Not only does this help you improve faster in the first place, it also serves as an audio record of where you used to be. I cringe with embarrassment when I hear stuff I recorded years ago. That’s a good thing, because it tells me that I’m better than I was.

Second, revisit old material from time to time. If you’re an accordionist, dig out that old copy of Palmer-Hughes book 1 and play “Vegetables on Parade” again. Or if you’re a Suzuki-trained violinist, you might run through “The Two Grenadiers” for old times’ sake. You get the idea.

Remember how you used to bang your head against the wall over these? Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Maybe you’re getting better after all.