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Asking Yourself the Right Questions

Questions are the answer. – Anthony Robbins

An important part of deep practice is introspection. Fixing any problem and improving any passage begins by first analyzing the issue at hand by asking yourself questions. In his book Awaken the Giant Within, Anthony Robbins asserts (with reason) that our questions determine our thoughts and, therefore, our actions. Still according to Robbins, quality questions create a quality life. In the violin studio, this could be translated as “quality questions create a quality practice session.”

The best way to deepen your focus during a practice session is by being fully aware and by maintaining an inquiring mind. By searching for solutions, keeping your inner radar active, and trying to find ways to answer your own questions, you can effectively extend the lesson time into your practice room, acting as your own teacher. To quote Robbins one more time: “Your mental computer is ever ready to serve you, and whatever question you give it, it will surely come up with an answer. They key then, is to develop a pattern of consistent questions that empower you.”

Robbins established for himself a checklist of five problem-solving questions which help him find solutions to his problems and guide his decision making process.

1. What is great about this problem? Find the silver lining. It gives you a positive attitude in the face of a situation which might appear negative at first.

2. What is not perfect yet? Zone in on the problem itself, while implying that things will become perfect.

3. What am I willing to do to make it the way I want it? Come up with creative ways to solve the issue and resolve to act.

4. What am I willing to no longer do in order to make it the way I want it? Establish which behavior needs to be changed in order to reach the solution.

5. How can I enjoy the process while I do what is necessary to make it the way I want it? As Mary Poppins puts it, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Find ways to enjoy the process leading to the solution.

I find that not only is this list a great tool to adopt for general life situations, but it can be directly applied, with success, to difficulties that present themselves in the practice room. Here is a concrete example on how it can be applied during a practice session.

Problem: Measure 37 in Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole

What is great about this problem? It is a long arpeggio, covering a wide range on all four strings of the instrument. Working on this specific passage will definitely improve how I play arpeggios in general. The piece contains many arpeggiated passages, and this particular one recurs, therefore working on this measure will have a positive impact on the movement as a whole.

What is not perfect yet? The accuracy is lacking, the dexterity is not solid, and the intonation is flawed. Musically, there is no clear direction and it is not convincing. Once the basic issues have been identified, I would add the question: “Why?” In answering this question, I would recommend going through another checklist of various violinistic parameters. Here below are a few examples of questions you can ask yourself.

First of all, let’s check the basics. How is my posture? Is my neck elongated? How is my bow hold? Left hand position? Is there tension anywhere in my neck, fingers, arms, shoulders, and/or back?

Now the specifics. Accuracy, dexterity, and intonation are obviously interdependent. In what way are they affecting each other? How good is my fingering? Does it match the patterns of the music? Does it fit my specific musical intention? Is it practical for me? What are my patterns, spacings, and groupings? Are the notes played evenly? How is the angle of my left fingers when they touch the string? Am I hitting and releasing efficiently with my left fingers? What about the shifts? Do I have a clear idea of the notes and positions I’m shifting to? Am I efficiently using the angles on my left wrist and elbow? Am I shifting at the appropriate speed? What about the bow? Am I using it efficiently? How are my placement, distribution/speed, and pressure? Am I coordinating my string crossings efficiently by using the appropriate angles with my right wrist and elbow? And so on, and so forth.

What am I willing to do to make it the way I want it? As mentioned in Dig Deep, it is important to pause and ask yourself if the problems reside in a lack of technique or in the way you have practiced the passage so far. In the case of the former, a long term plan is required. For the latter, a methodical, thoughtful, and creative approach can yield immediate results. Come up with methods of working on the passage that will lead to the solution, starting by prioritizing. What should I fix first? How should I work on this passage? Decide on ways to work on the passages such as those mentioned in Dig Deep. It is also a good idea to commit to constancy in your work and to realize that progress is incremental. A passage might not be perfect after the first “round”, which is why it is important to keep revisiting it and going through the process again.

What am I willing to no longer do in order to make it the way I want it? This is, of course, a very personal question, and a wide variety of answers are possible. I would like to suggest that pledging to give up mindless practicing and to not settle on mediocrity is a good place to start.

How can I enjoy the process while I do what is necessary to make it the way I want it? Very often, just committing yourself fully to the process will make it an enjoyable activity. Also, depending on your personality, come up with challenges that stimulate you or a system of rewards that keeps you motivated.

Questions can powerfully shape your thoughts and, therefore, your life. Rich Dad, Poor Dad author, Robert Kiyosaki, believes that successful people cut through the clutter and details of life to see clearly why they are doing something or why something should be done. Remain inquisitive and committed to find answers!

In the studio this week: “Internalize smoothness.” “Keep thinking about your shift: hear the destination clearly in your head, anticipate the angle of your wrist and elbow.” “Think of groupings and spacings.” “Focus on smoothness and untension.”


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