On the Nature of Habits by James Dunham

In our fast-paced world, it has become usual in our music lessons to take for granted that which has gone well and immediately focus on things that are deemed “problems.” Frequently when teaching, after a student has played, we immediately start in with criticisms and suggestions for what should be improved and made “better.” I was impressed when my wife, a professional double-bass player, took teacher training to become a certified Yoga instructor. After each student demonstration, the instructor would ask: “What went well?” I loved the concept of starting with this recognition before moving into corrections and technical adjustments. I tried this in my Studio Class shortly afterward, and my poor confused student, who had just performed Weber’s Andante and Hungarian Rondo from memory for the first time, was at a loss. Finally he said: “Well, I didn’t fall down!” It’s a start.

I am especially interested in our notion of “bad” versus “good” habits of playing. When a new student tells me they have this or that terrible habit they have to fix, I try to point out that even with this “bad” habit (no doubt inadvertently trained over many years) they have still achieved a great deal: success in their high school programs, in All-State orchestras, and at summer camps, not to mention their recent admission into the Shepherd School of Music! My preference is to say, “Thank you” to the “old” habit for all it has done to get us this far and to begin creating a “new” and more helpful habit! How much trouble it is to undo something then attempt to retrofit it with a “better” way. I find it much easier simply to create a new habit from the beginning. Of course, the old habit is quite offended by this (!) and constantly tries to move back. Rather than being irritated, we simply say: “Thank you very much for all that you have done. We are now trying a new way.” It is not instantaneous, since the “old” habit has usually been around for quite some time, but it will eventually relax into retirement. (Mostly . . .)

The next stage, I find, is that the “new” habit quickly begins to feel so much better physically, and the results are therefore much better musically, too. Then comes “the” performance. Something feels a bit anxious, focus is perhaps lost a bit, and who shows up just when you don’t want it? The old habit, leaping in to save the day! Don’t be mad—it’s a very stubborn old “friend,” and all we do is say once again: “Thank you so much for your help. We are now playing in a new way.”

•Are there habits that don’t serve us well? Of course there are!

•Will it be in our best interest to be rid of these habits? Of course it will!

But see what happens if you acknowledge the “old” with gratitude and craft the “new” with care. Much less aggravating and perhaps a more streamlined road to the new, more streamlined you!

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