More lessons from my piano

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Many of us have plenty of  bad habits. But how many of us have taken the trouble to develop good writing habits?

Here is something that always astonishes me: Every time I cite a principle that I’ve mentioned what feels like a million times (let’s use mindmapping as an example) some readers are surprised.

Am I speaking Greek, I wonder? Are there really some people who’ve missed my mighty obsession with mindmapping?

But I had some insight into this quandary recently, with my own piano lessons.  I’ve noticed that my teacher has to mention principles many times before I respond. For example:

  • The 123 1234 123 12345 finger pattern of playing right-handed scales.
  • The wisdom of practicing as little as three bars in a piece many times (and playing the entire piece far less frequently.) This is so breathtakingly easy yet so damned difficult for me to do!
  • The need to play really slowly until I have both hands coordinated. (I’m constitutionally inclined to rush and then I become frustrated by the difficulty of playing.)

Although I am thrilled to be learning the piano – a lifetime goal of mine – and I adore my thoughtful and sympathetic teacher, I’m also receiving an unexpected gift from my weekly lessons: The insight it gives me into teaching others.

I may have the usual share of not-so-attractive qualities bedeviling all humans, but I’ve never been a slow learner. Nor am I inclined to shy away from hard work. So why do I find it so difficult to play the piano? (And, perhaps, why do you find it so hard to write?) I think there are five reasons:

1. There’s the inevitable two-steps-forward-one-step-back quality to the enterprise. Learning isn’t easy. It seems we have to be exposed to ideas and concepts many times before they become secure in our brains.

2. Not all teachers say things in ways that work for all students. I’ve always emphasized the importance of stories but I learned from a friend years ago that the word “story” meant nothing to her. She needed to hear the word “examples” before she understood what I was talking about.

3. Learning takes a little bit longer the older we are. (The upside, however, is that we tend to have more patience when we age. Here are my other thoughts on the benefits of the aging writing brain.)

4. Learning needs to be fun. Did you know that willpower is a limited resource? If you’re accomplishing something only through willpower then you need to know that at some point (maybe even soon) you will fail. You’re better off building some fun into your practice so that you increase your own motivation. (I’ve finally learned to save my favourite piece of piano music for the end of my practice.)

5. Practice is what makes accomplishment possible. No one gets better at anything — piano, running, cooking, playing tennis or writing — without practice.

Here’s the worst thing I did with my piano practice: I took a break last summer and didn’t touch the keyboard from June 21 to Sept. 20. I wanted to relax and take it easy for a while. This was a grave error because I broke my practice habit. It’s now November and I feel as though I’m barely getting re-established.  I won’t do that again. Next summer I’m going to try cutting my practice time in half rather than simply abandoning it.

And how are you doing with your writing habits? Now that I’ve started on my second book, I’m getting up early and writing for 30 minutes five mornings a week. Because I’ve done this before, the habit feels as comfortable as a soft leather glove, perfectly fitted to my hand. I began by setting my daily word count goal at a modest 250 words (seeking Kaizen). But I can see already that I’m going to be able to raise it to 400 words within a week.

Not everyone in the Write A Book With Me group is feeling quite so comfortable. But I’m confident that with enough support and exposure to the “rules” of a good writing practice, that will change. They too will learn to dispense with willpower and relax into the  practice of habit.

How are your writing habits? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)

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