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The Growing Heap

A little and a little, collected together, becomes a great deal; the heap in the barn consists of single grains, and drop and drop make the inundation. - Saadi

Lately I have been talking to all my friends about my new favourite podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. I thoroughly enjoy the wise and practical advice that the sisters/authors Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft deliver with charming candidness and good humor. I have become a loyal listener from the very first episode in which Ms. Rubin elaborates on the “argument of the growing heap.” This was extremely interesting to me, being about one of the most important aspects of the discipline of violin playing and one about which I have been thinking about so much lately.

As described by a footnote found in Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, the argument of the growing heap is:

If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.

On her blog, Ms. Rubin further explains:

Often, when we consider our actions, it’s clear that any one instance of an action is almost meaningless, yet at the same time, a sum of those actions is very meaningful. Whether we focus on the single coin, or the growing heap, will shape our behavior. True, any one visit to the gym is inconsequential, but the habit of going to the gym is invaluable. It’s so easy to point out the low value of the one coin. […] By reminding ourselves that the heap grows one coin at a time, we can help keep ourselves on track.

How can a teacher emphasize enough the importance of daily, mindful, practice? I’m not certain that is possible!

We have all been there. It is so tempting to skip that last hour of practice, to think “I’ll make it up tomorrow,” to wait until Wednesday to practice for the Friday lesson. But when was the last time that this strategy has worked out beautifully for you?

The danger for musicians is that we often have the illusion that we can cram right before a big event. We forget that we are athletes. I don’t care if you fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee—the training must be gradual, well-planned, and consistent.

One does not simply walk onto the stage. For a performance to be optimal, skills must be assimilated. The music needs to be absorbed fully into the brain and the muscle memory for the artist to feel free onstage.

Experts all agree: the brain needs time and repetition to acquire any skill and build the synapses necessary to successfully play a musical instrument. As Rome was not built in a day, one cannot master the intricacy of violin playing overnight. Constancy in dedication and consistency in work quality are the key ingredients. It is the five minutes spent daily on that difficult passage over the course of several weeks or months that makes it feel and sound effortless on concert day.

As I frequently tell students, sixty minutes does not equal sixty minutes. Six minutes times ten days will yield radically different results than sixty minutes times one day! If you have taken a lesson with me, you most probably have heard my favorite analogy on the subject: “You can’t brush your teeth for an hour once a week. You have to do it a couple of minutes a couple times a day.”

So, when tempted to leave the practice room early or to avoid it all together, why not shift your focus from the one coin to the growing heap? How about adding that one little notch to your belt? How about making that small but oh-so-important deposit in your skill-mastering bank account?

In the studio today: “Make sure each note is full of life.” “Add topography to the sixteenth-note passage.” “Hear it, understand it, execute it.”

Related readings: Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin explores useful strategies to develop good habits. “Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life. It takes work to make a habit, but once that habit is set, we can harness the energy of habits to build happier, stronger, more productive lives.” I have read it, and I recommend it!

(Next time: Summer Is Coming)


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