A few years ago, the one of the faucets in our house developed what I would have described as a “little drip.” Nothing particularly serious. A little drip every few seconds. Certainly not worth putting right at the top of my to-do list. I’d get around to fixing it when I had the time, I thought.
And then the water bill for that month came in. I don’t recall exactly what it was, but I do remember that it was over ten times our normal monthly bill! I won’t soon forget that part.
So, I went straight to Home Depot, picked up the part needed to fix the leaking seal for, and with about 15 minutes of work, I had the problem solved. Next month, the water bill was back to its normal range.
My point? Even a little drip can add up to a whole lot of water when it drips steadily over time. In this case, the result was not so positive. But let’s turn it around and apply it to something productive.
I hesitate to refer to anything from the ’20-’21 school year as a “silver lining,” because it was such a difficult year for so many people. One of the realities for us at West County Strings, though, was that violin or viola lessons was in many cases the only activity that students were able to stay involved in, as sports and other extracurriculars had to take a break until they could be done safely again.
The result? Students had a lot fewer things vying for their time and attention, and a lot more time to practice! I dare say that a lot of the exceptional results we saw from students during the ’20-’21 school year were due to this reality.
And now, as things increasingly return to “normal,” we are also seeing students and families returning to balancing more and more activities and events, and practicing sometimes getting lost in the mix.
So why did I begin by mentioning our leaky shower and the water bill that ensued?
Because just as even little drip can add up to a whole lot of water, so too can a little bit of careful, consistent, thoughtful, focused practice add up to a whole lot of ability.
I’ve been thinking about it like this:
We’re all trying to fill up what we’ll call our “buckets of ability.” We try to fill them up before coming to each lesson. We try to fill them up on a larger scale over the course of a semester before recitals. And we try to fill them up on an even larger scale over the course of a whole school year, and over the course of many years of practice.
The problem is that all too often – and especially this year as we all get back to more and more different types of activities and events – we try to turn that metaphorical “faucet” on all the way and fill up our bucket in one or two big efforts over the course of the week.
And I suppose that would be okay, if our bodies and brains worked that way. But for better or worse, they don’t. Our bodies and brains work best, learn best, and develop best with high-frequency, moderate-intensity efforts.
Dr. Suzuki didn’t have all the science that we have today to back this fact up when he started teaching, but he knew it from observing life. And he wrote about it a lot. In the preface to Suzuki Violin Book 1 (Revised Edition, pg. 5), he says:
“It is the daily practice at home that leads to ability development. The key is how much and how well the student practices the teachers’ instructions.” (emphasis mine)
So, as we find ourselves roughly a quarter of the way into the Fall ’21 Semester, I’d like to encourage each of our students, and each of their families, to commit to this idea of a steady, daily filling of our “buckets of ability” through practice.
Ideally, this would mean focusing on the materials assigned in each students’ private lesson. It may be necessary to practice music for school or community orchestras, as well, but these should not be considered replacements for developing individual skill on lesson assignments.
Given that we are only human, not all days will be of the same length or quality, and some days it may feel utterly impossible to practice (Dr. Suzuki would remind you, “Only practice on the days you eat!”). On the most difficult days, it may be a good idea to simply practice a scale or review piece and relax with the Suzuki CD or recording of another work you are learning.
There is more we can all talk about individually in lessons as the school year goes on, but I’d like to think of West County Strings as a place where each and every student is slowly, steadily filling their “bucket of ability,” and will eventually find it overflowing!