How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Take a cab. Trust me.

I’m coming up on 25 years of being a flutist. No, wait, make that 30. Aaaaand…now I feel old. Please pass the support hose and ear horn.

So as I was saying, I’m coming up on (sigh) 30 years of being a flutist. It doesn’t feel that long, mainly because some ten years ago I pretty much burned out. I still played, I still taught, but it wasn’t as enjoyable as it had been. Actually, nothing was enjoyable as it had been, something directly connected to the fact that I had a very high-intensity firstborn and was pretty much wiped. I’m just now getting back into playing more seriously, and with that comes daily near daily as often as possible practice. Hold this in one hand of your brain, I’m about to jump to something completely different.

The aforementioned firstborn is my 2e son. I spend a lot of time fretting over how the hell he’s going to make it in life. While intensely bright, the other half of the “e” makes life, well, challenging. Executive function skills are poor, he’s a perfectionist who’d rather not try than fail even a little bit, his resiliency level is somewhere under the Mariana Trench. (And if I read one more study claiming that resiliency is the one thing a child must have in life to succeed, I’m having a marshmallow bonfire with it) Hold this in the other hand of your brain.

When things went south years ago and I burned out on my flute (and everything else), I stopped practicing with any regularity. I would work up music for the occasional gig, but I had to time it just right. If I attempted to practice with the boys around, nothing-and-I-mean-NOTHING got accomplished. I’d have one kid running for our trumpet to “play along,” with the other alternating between climbing my leg and climbing the music stand. Not exactly conducive to concentration. In addition to losing the skills I’d worked so hard to gain, something else happened.

They never got to hear or see me fail.

And when I practice, OHHH is there failure. There is very loud and obvious failure, over and over and over. Repeat ad infinitum. There is also struggle, and work, and forced patience, and even the occasional creative profane utterance. Ok, more often than occasional. But then there is improvement. There is very loud and obvious improvement, over and over and over. And then I repeat the cycle again and again and again.

I’ve been practicing more lately. There’s a new wind ensemble starting up this fall, and by God I will be in that ensemble. So I practice, both flute and piccolo (my dog and my neighbors just adore me right now). The boys have been hearing me fail nearly every day, and returning to do it again and again. They’ve also been hearing me work on tiny little sections of music, with great patience, over and over and over until I get it better. They’ve been learning the occasional creative profane utterance. And they’ve been hearing me improve (when there’s more music than creative profane utterances, they know I’ve made it better). They are unconsciously learning that failure often must happen before things improve, that hard work doesn’t always show immediate results, and that mom can worm the dog simply by practicing full range scales on her piccolo. And they are learning that hard work and failure and patience and struggle are not only necessary to get ahead, but can even be a little bit fun.

Neither boy plays an instrument nor wants to (excuse me while I…sniff…get this dust out of…sob…my eye), so I hope they learn these skills in another area. They won’t learn them by direct instruction from me, simply because it’s mom talking. But it’s my hope that in the meantime they’ll pick them up simply from exposure to me failing daily, picking myself up, and doing it again and again and again.
Jen writes over at Laughing at Chaos, where she really should post something new and interesting and fun, but summer schedules and flute practicing keep demanding attention. She’s also the author of If This is a Gift, Can I Send It Back?: Surviving in the Land of the Gifted and Twice-Exceptional, to be published Summer 2012 by Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Press.


10 thoughts on “Practice makes better

  1. Thanks! It really brightened up my morning to see this different perspective on how demonstrating failure -> perseverance->  the eventual payoff is really a beneficial example for children to observe. It has helped me remember that it’s not only ok, but actually an important thing, to loosen up on the usual strangle hold my own perfectionism has on me.  I’d rather model persistence toward a goal than how-to-live under the strangle hold of unattainably high, unrealistically self expectations. 

  2. Awesome, Jen, and really interesting. It sort of dawned on me that maybe our high-spirited seemingly nonresilient kids are failing over and over in front of us (which is necessary) and it’s hard for us to bear. I’m going to show my son your post. He told me a few months ago his new piano teacher made him realize everything he ever played he played wrong. I said, “That’s evolution, honey. It wasn’t wrong, it was your journey here.” But your post is much better. I show him through my writing but it’s more potent in the same discipline. Thanks again!

    1. This comment reminds me of when I was so upset with myself for being “non-resilient” on my first job 20 years ago: inner-city teaching. Every day I would come home and cry and every night I would regain my hope for the next day’s lesson plan and stay up late planning. I made it two years like this. I guess it was resilient of me that I kept going back. Just like my daughter keeps going on stage or to a class or whatever because she wants to be “brave” even though it is so hard.

  3. So. True. As a perfectionist, it’s hard to let ANYONE see you fail, even less your child(ren) who are supposed to look up to their parents, right? Music practice is a terrific example of using resiliency and practice and bad-turning-good. You go girl! Practice away! 🙂

  4. This is a perfect post for this household. (I hate resiliency articles too.) If perfectionism and rigid expectations weren’t an issue here, my life would be about 100% easier. Okay, well maybe I’d just come up with a new problem to focus on.
    Anyway, thanks.

  5. It’s *so* hard to make mistakes out loud and comment on them so kids really notice that parents don’t magically spring to perfection the first time we do something.

    My daughter’s perfectionism was helped by her ballet classes. In ballet you’re supposed to want corrections. The worst thing a teacher can do to a good ballet student is to ignore them and not give them any corrections.

    One easier way for us to practice is with new recipes. We find something and try it. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes everything works. Sometimes it needs tweaking. I badly burned some zucchini chips the other day because I blindly followed the recipe and didn’t check on them.

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  7. Perfectionism is such a funny thing bc it’s “perfectionism” right up to the point that it’s genius. I don’t know if this makes sense but so many people tell me to put my writing out there (not to say it’s genius) but I just know it’s not ready. Folks like us are born discerning. ie My 1st grade kid knew the difference between the winning toothbrushing poem at school and Yeats. The difference between kids’ drawings and Van Gogh. People want to see our work before we’re done with it. But we don’t want to hand it over before it’s as far as it can go. I don’t want someone else fixing it, I want that experience myself. Not to mention who else is as personally invested? This sounds romantic but I really feel it and I wouldn’t be saying this if I hadn’t worked on a novel for 12 years and felt the last two were the pivotal ones. 🙂

  8. Thank you, Jen!! I’m here in Texas having the EXACT same experience on the harp with my two highly gifted/highly demanding sons. Thank you for confirming that what we used to do daily in the practice room we should do again for the benefits of everyone in the family, even though it often feels like “selfish me-time”.

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