Saturday, April 25, 2020

Motivation in a Covid-19 World

A colleague recently asked me to spend some time in a Zoom class with her Orchestra students. She explained to me that her kids were a little low on motivation and asked me to speak with them about strategies for staying motivated in this time of social isolation. I was thrilled to be asked and decided to prepare for our meeting by bringing up the topic with my own students. This was the impetus for some vibrant discussion among my Piano and Guitar students and I was able to use some of the data I collected to develop concrete ideas to share with my colleague's class.

My classes are currently in their 5th week of social isolation and remote learning. I began by asking my own students to articulate their motivation on a scale of 1 to 10; 10 being highly motivated and 1 being struggling to get out of bed. Many of you know that my students are all enrolled in a school for academically gifted students who are have a strong interest in science and math. So, my classes are not necessarily a cross-section of all students. That said, I was a little surprised to find that the average stated level of motivation among my students was about 4.5. No response was higher than 6 and no response is lower than 3. Next, I asked my students if they had any recommendations for staying motivated in this social distancing atmosphere. They had a number of good thoughts which included the following:

  • Trying to see the bigger picture
  • Academic curiosity
  • College preparation
  • Keep a regular schedule
  • Staying motivated keeps them in a good mood
  • Be conscious of their momentum
  • Avoid distractions like the phone or television
  • Deadlines as a source of motivation
  • Remember not to be content

I felt like many of their answers were quite thoughtful and I will expand on a couple of them later in this essay. In the end, I took their responses to heart but also shared some of my thoughts with them. Several students told me later that they truly appreciated the ideas and dialog. After all of this conversation, I really felt like I was ready to present my ideas to my colleague's class.

My thoughts on staying motivated are multi-fold. I think that there are definitely some actions we can all take that will impact our overall level of motivation. First, I do believe that it's important to recognize the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. We all experience both on a regular basis. Humans are obviously extrinsically motivated in many ways. We go to work to earn a paycheck. A paycheck is extrinsic motivation no matter how you slice it. So, we get up in the morning, get a shower, and go to work everyday as a result of some sort of extrinsic motivation. However, folks like me, also develop a true sense of intrinsic motivation in our work and career. I have certainly learned during this period of social isolation that I am motivated to go to work not only for a paycheck, but also for the social interaction and the opportunity to interact with my students and colleagues.  This has been a good reminder for me that music education and perhaps all education really begins with relationships. I have stated this for years as a basic principle of my work and interaction with students, but this period of social isolation has certainly reinforced this concept in my mind.  So, with this as a guide for some of my remarks, let me share my thoughts.

First, endeavor to be a "creative" not a consumer. My thoughts here grow from a great deal of personal experience. I find that my motivation diminishes greatly when I am consuming someone else's creativity. This could include watching a television show, scrolling through Instagram, or playing a video game. All of these activities are primarily passive. There is no final product at the end of a period of time and truthfully, I find these activities to be more tiring than relaxing. I also notice that when I complete any of these activities or others like them, I am generally not happier than when I began. They may stimulate my brain at some level during the activity, but there is very little positive by-product afterwards. 

Rather, I would encourage folks to seek out activities where their imagination is strongly at play, their intellect is highly engaged, and there is some final product. This can take lots of different forms. While practicing and creating music is an obvious one in my life, there are certainly many others. Reading a book, baking cookies, trying a new recipe, drawing a picture, or even rearranging one's furniture in a room are all creative activities. We use our brain in a different way when we are creative. Last weekend, I built two awesome bridges in my backyard. I am not a particularly experienced woodworker or craftsman, but I went for it anyway. One of the great byproducts of creative endeavors is that we can admire our work after the activity. This falls into the category of intrinsic motivation. As I write this, I am sitting on my back porch looking at the bridges. I am proud of my work and satisfied that I spent my time well last weekend. When we read, we use our brain in a much different way than we do if we consume the same or similar material through a movie. We can sit back and admire the number of books or chapters we have read after that creative activity.  I remember as a kid I used to rearrange my bedroom quite frequently. There is something very satisfying, as far as I am concerned, in admiring one's handiwork after the work is done. So, consider painting a room, repairing something that needs a little updating at your home, make a great meal, or read a good book. All of these activities will certainly stimulate one's motivation.

A second recommendation is to make lists. The number of years ago I read a fantastic book by Atul Gawandi, called The Checklist Manifesto. The thesis of this book is essentially that checklists make us more accurate in everything that we do. I committed to this in my personal and professional life and can attest to the accuracy of that thesis. And, I would take it one step further. A checklist can be incredibly motivating. This, falls into the category of extrinsic motivation.  When I have a list of tasks to complete on any given day or week, I am significantly more likely to achieve completion of those tasks. And, I feel a great deal of satisfaction as I check each task off the list. I find this to be particularly important in the relative monotony of social isolation. I wake up every morning and make my "commute" to my office in my home and go to work. Everyday looks a lot like the one before and the one after. Checklists certainly help me to distinguish one day from another and help me to get my work completed.  Right now, every day I have a variety of tasks in front of me including meeting with my students, providing meaningful assessment for my students, administrative work for school, the number of recording projects, and maintaining my home life as well. It is easy to get overwhelmed with the number of tasks that needed to be completed. A checklist truthfully allows us to be more efficient in the way we think about the things we need to do on any given day or week. 

At the beginning of the social isolation, I created a list of some home-improvement tasks that needed to be completed. On a couple of occasions when I felt particularly down and unmotivated, I pulled out that list and was able to identify a short activity that I could complete without a great deal of stress. Completing these activities truly increased my motivation and as I finished one after another, I began feeling much better about myself and our current situation.  

Another way of thinking about the concept of lists would be to simply say don't lose sight of the forest for the trees. The small steps in our day and life eventually lead to large gains. This is been a concept that has always been easy for me to remember, but I do know that it can be difficult for others.

Another strong recommendation that I can make is to remain physically active. I have found that the extrinsic motivator of a step counter on my phone has been quite effective over the past several weeks. I am certain that there is a correlation between my motivation and happiness and the amount of physical activity that I get in a day. Yesterday was a low activity/high screen time day for me and it really showed in my level of motivation and mood at the end of the day. In fact, yesterday was probably my lowest day of the past six weeks or so. As I look back on the day, there were no creative activities and very little physical activity. Both of these factors contributed to my down mood. Fortunately today is a new day and even this blog post is representative of a new creative activity. Actually, Saturdays can be a little tough for me in this environment because the checklist of school work is a little bit lighter. I am quite aware that I need to create a list of things to do, even if some of the things on that list are relaxing activities. These might include taking a nap, going for a walk, reading a book, or enjoying a nice dinner with my family.

I want to come back to a comment that one of my students made about motivation. He mentioned that he feels there is a strong correlation between contentment and motivation. He suggest that when one is overly content, their motivation can certainly go down. He mentioned this in the context of school work and academic motivation. I certainly relate to his thoughts and wanted to share a personal anecdote. Back when I was 14 years old, I was very aware that my best friends were all better athletes than I. I, like many readers of this post I would imagine, was a musician and a very good student. But, athletics weren't necessarily a priority in my home. I was discontent with my level of physical talents and fitness. So, that discontentment led me to commit to a routine of push-ups and sit-ups in my bedroom every night. I decided that I needed to do 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups every single day. Over a period of time, I got into really pretty good shape. I started looking a little more thin and a little more fit. And, through those small successes began to have more successes on a fitness level. I was never a scholastic athlete or a member of a sports team. But, I developed somewhat of a reputation in the weight room and remember receiving a lot of positive feedback from my athlete friends about my strength and also my cycling abilities.  As a young adult, I went on to live a vibrant life of recreational athletics. I became a very strong windsurfer in the 1980's and have also spent a great deal of time both mountain biking and road cycling over the years. My life in the weight room continued well into my 40's and I am proud of many of my athletic accomplishments. While I was never a natural athlete, I definitely achieved a great deal in the area of fitness and activities as a result of my early lack of contentment in this area. I guess the broad idea here is as follows: if there is some area in your life where you are discontent, take steps to change it. Start small. Make a list. Be creative.

I see a great example of this in my 17 year old son during this period. He is a baseball player and is currently missing his junior year baseball season. This has been really tough on him as he has really been pointing toward this season as a opportunity to attract the attention of coaches at the next level. He, like many other high school athletes, is not quite sure what this setback will mean for him. He has committed to physical fitness during this social distancing environment. He works on his batting in the batting cages several times a day, lifts weights everyday, and has started a routine of running as well. I guarantee that he is in the best shape of his life. I am excited to see what gains this level of commitment will manifest on the baseball field when we get back to playing games. I am betting that there will be a huge upside. His discontentment has motivated him to become better.

So, these are my thoughts on motivation in the Covid-19 social distancing environment. I am sure there are many other strategies for increasing motivation. These are just a few that resonate with me. I would certainly recommend The Checklist Manifesto and I would also recommend a book which I read recently called The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. This book gives many concrete strategies for staying creative. It has nothing to do with our social isolation age, but there are certainly many great ideas in the book.

I wish you all well in this new working environment. And, as always, I welcome your thoughts and reactions to my ideas.

Stay healthy and be well.



Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Score Prep

I was recently asked about my process for studying and preparing scores for my classroom and rehearsals. I have seen many seminars and master classes on the topic of score preparation over the years and have always been impressed with the variety of approaches and detail with which conductors prepare their scores.  I always take something away from these seminars and apply it to my own work.

My answer to the question this week was necessarily shorter than the sometimes one hour or longer seminars I have attended on score preparation. This required more of a "quick hit" concise response do the question.

As I thought about it, I really came up with three important categories that I use for score preparation: Listen, Analyze, Play.  These three elements have become incredibly important to me as I squeeze score preparation into my already busy academic schedule. These apply to every level of score preparation that I endeavor. So, this would include string orchestra, full orchestra, Grades 3 to 6 and the standard repertoire. (These days I rarely find myself in the grade 2 and below setting but these concepts still apply.)

First, I typically begin the process by listening. I like to find a period of time where I can sit quietly with the score and a pencil in my hand and listen to the piece multiple times performed by multiple performers. At the beginning, I am looking for basic material: what voice has the melody? What voice carries the fundamental? Others include: specific entrances of winds, first entrance of every voice, tempo changes, meter changes, and other pertinent basic material. I try to clearly mark everything. As I become more familiar with the piece with the score in hand, I begin looking for places that I can make the score my own. Where does the tempo push, where does it pull?  What voice has the important rhythmic material at any given time? (Who is the rhythmic student and who is the rhythmic teacher?) Where do I need to be particularly conscious of any given voice or specific conducting techniques? This process of listening and marking the score is absolutely vital to my preparation. It allows me to be confident in rehearsals and frees up my intellect, permitting my imagination to move in different pedagogical and artistic directions throughout any given rehearsal. I would call this the nuts and bolts of score preparation for me. It is foundational and it is vital.

Second, in recent years I have spent a great deal of time analyzing a work. For me this includes form but is not exclusively form. Obviously, I want to have a clear vision of the various sections of the piece. I want to be able to articulate form clearly to students during rehearsal. Understanding form also allows me to be imaginative in my approach to phrasing, musicianship, and expression throughout the piece. But, in addition to form, I have been quite committed to harmonic analysis for the last several years. As I am preparing the score, I typically pick up my guitar and sketch out the chords, allowing me to really see inside the harmonic structure of the piece. This is a game-changer for me. By understanding the harmonic underpinning of a composer's ideas, again, my imagination can go in more complex directions as I endeavor to articulate function and meaning to my students.  In my early years of teaching I would skip this step. In fact, I really didn't even consider it. Now I understand how vital it is to teaching true functional musicianship in every single rehearsal. This process also permits me to step to a guitar or piano quite easily during a rehearsal process and explain harmonic function. It is so nice to be able to do this without analyzing on the spot. If I have done my homework, it is seamless and easy.

Finally, I play the parts. Those of you who know me well, know that I play in rehearsal rather than conduct during one out of three rehearsals per week. This process is vital to my score study. It informs how I approach technique, difficult passages, fingering, shifting, watching, and expression in profound ways. I find that I hear the score differently from within the orchestra. I hear mistakes more clearly with my instrument in hand. I am able to identify tricky sections in a significantly more holistic manner when I am playing with the orchestra. I am also much more able to articulate the performer's thought process when I have my instrument in my hand. Sometimes I sit in the front of the section, sometimes the back. I alternate between each of the stringed instruments. I'm not a very good cello player, so I often play cello parts on the violin or viola. It still makes a difference. A side benefit of this is that my students realize my proficiency at each of the instruments and (I believe) are the beneficiaries of my holistic thinking about ensemble performance and technique.

Obviously, there are more than just these three elements in solid score study. But, as I think about my top priorities, these hit them pretty strongly. I hope that you find these thoughts valuable and can possibly apply some of them to your own teaching and conducting.

What did I miss here? What are your priorities in score study and preparation? I would love to hear from you and add to the tools in my tool belt!