Don’t Prepare for the Super Bowl by Losing the Next Game. What Students Can Learn From the NFL.
I was recently thinking of a way to explain an important concept to a student and I found an analogy to pro football worked well. Then I realized it was Super Bowl week, and then I remembered I love football! So here is my super week Super Blog. . .
I have a saying – setting goals is great, setting deadlines may not be. They can sometimes be a trap for the student.
Have we eyed a performance that is 10 months away, and choosing some works that a concert artist might program, vow that we will work intensively over that time? If we manage to keep this commitment what happens at the recital? Those pieces don’t sound anything like the concert artist do they? Do you think you lack talent? After all you worked hundreds of hours over months; surely a talented student would have been able to pull it off with that kind of work.
When, oh when, did Mother Nature promise you that the things you need to build in your brain to do that would take only 10 months? Why not eight, why not fifty, just why?
A performance of high level repertoire in which you genuinely wow the general public beyond belief is far away and is called a distal goal (long term objective), and your next recital, even better your next practice, is a proximal goal (short term objective). Psychologists have been debating the merits of proximal versus distal goals for some time. However, in specific situations like music education, we can use both in tried and true ways.
Take the NFL. It is the goal of every football team from the beginning of training camp onward to perform well enough to win the Super Bowl, just like it is the goal of every student to perform well be it math performance or music performance.
While a team’s goal is the Super Bowl, they do not go about their business that way. They have a set of goals in front of that to focus on. Ask any team and they will tell you goal number one is winning the next game, then winning the division to get into the playoffs, then winning the playoff game in front of them, and finally, getting to the Super Bowl and winning it. That was always the goal, but other, much less glorious goals were met first in order to get there. Each of those goals was hard, very hard to achieve and required a lot of work within themselves. As Hall of Fame and Super Bowl MVP quarterback Roger Staubach says, “It takes a lot of unspectacular preparation to get spectacular results.”
Imagine if by some miracle a team could know which of the 16 possible teams in the other conference would be that conference’s representative in the Super Bowl. Would it make sense to start preparing to play that team during training camp? What if that team has a great passing offense and your first opponent has a great running game? Your defense shut down their passing game, but they rushed for 450 yards and you lost by 30. You may be getting better and better at facing the eventual Super Bowl representative, but you are not going to get there at all because you are not addressing the goals in front of you. This is what student recitals, other performances, and for that matter practice can be like.
The important work starts in your next practice, and then the one after that. Win those games.
Go Small or Go Home
We prepare like crazy for a period of time for the big performance (game), expecting with that amount of work that we should sound like a top performer (Super Bowl). When we don’t (losing the game) we get disappointed, perhaps even chalking it up to lack of talent. That can be discouraging.
If you are a music student your Super Bowl is likely far in the future, and you certainly cannot set a date in which you will be able to complete the massive amount of changes that need to occur in the brain. It is neither easy nor quick for anyone. If someone else can learn more difficult repertoire than you then that person, over the course of time, has done more or better practice than you. Is it possible to choose repertoire far beyond your ability and work on it until you get it? Yes, and it will take much longer than 10 months. You are likely looking at years of working on the same 20-30-50 minutes of repertoire if you want to complete the process that way.
But what do most of us do? We somehow convince ourselves it will happen in 10 months and build weak neural representations in the brain for clunky performance. If that continues then then we’ll continue to get the same results.
The recital is your next game, not the Super Bowl, and practice is training camp. Set that goal accordingly – not too big. To quote Smithers from the Simpsons on taking care of his boss, “caring for Mr. Burns seems like a big job, but… actually it’s just 2,800 small jobs.” Learning to play well is the same. Win your next game, take care of the small unspectacular jobs. Keep winning the games and the distal goal of top notch performance will take care of itself.
Finish What You Start
When we put everything into preparing an, “Almost there,” performance what do we do afterward? We drop that music and start another impossible task to finish within the next deadline.
Learn to master what you perform. If you’ve got 10 months then pick things you can perform respectably after six months. Once you have learned to play something then you can begin working on it! You can drill down on all of the little things that need to be repped over and over, and in different ways in order to bring about the changes in the brain mentioned earlier. Etudes are one good source for this.
This process of bringing something to exceptional performance is the same for any repertoire and any skill in life. In order to learn the process you should consider choosing proximal goals that are just beyond the fine motor skills you have built up to that time, so that when you are finally able to get the notes right you can begin practicing to the point where you can’t get it wrong – the distal goal. This does exist, and you can get there. It feels really cool, and is a ton of fun, but takes a lot of unspectacular work.
Of course this requires an ego check in order to take on simpler repertoire than the more intense stuff that would make you look really cool. Is your ego really any better off after the recital with all the great music and not so great playing? Has the way you met that proximal goal served the distal goal of great performance? It is going to be two years from now in two years, and there is nothing you can do about it. Where will you be then? What do you do now to make sure you are thrilled with your playing at that time? Will you look back and regret trying to program too difficult music and never giving a top level performance?
The concept is easy to understand, but harder to execute. Here is the bottom line; you are not going to get very good any other way. Either decide to work the right way, or put in a bunch of time to continually come up short and tell your friends in 10 years that you worked to be a musician, but did not have the talent. If you are going to put in the time, however much time that may be, then why not do it right? Do it or not, but don’t wonder why you are not happy with your performances if you don’t.
Few can discipline themselves to do this. We have a word for those that do – gifted.
You can choose to be gifted.
Go get ‘em