Prepping for a Big Performance? For Outsized Results, Practice Tiny!
By Jennifer Lee
My son joined the school orchestra in the 6th grade, playing on the same violin my grandma had learned on 80 years before. (We affectionately named the violin Shirley, after her.) After every class, I’d ask if he had exercises or songs he should be practicing at home. If you’ve had a tween, you won’t be surprised to hear that he consistently answered, “No, we haven’t done much in class yet”…until the day the flier came home for their upcoming concert. Cue pre-adolescent panic attack.
Gavin has a tendency to catastrophize in the face of a big project, and immediately started moaning that, “I’m never going to be ready! I’m never going to be able to play all these songs! I’m going to have to practice 24/7 for a year to learn all this!”
So we started breaking the elephant down into bite-sized pieces. “OK,” I said, “you only have three weeks until the concert. Maybe you won’t have all five songs mastered by then. But what if you focused on just one?”
“Maybe if I practiced all day every day,” he sulked.
“Well, you’re pretty busy, and you still have to go to school, so I don’t see that happening. But do you think there’s anywhere in your day where you could find just a few extra minutes for this?”
“Like that’ll do any good!”
“Maybe not. But why don’t you try it for a few days and see how it goes?”
With that enthusiastic reply, we got into the creation of a Tiny Habits recipe. My kids are familiar with the method, so I briefly reminded him that it might be a good idea to choose a specific time of day to practice, so he’d be more likely to follow through. He’s an early riser, so he thought mornings might work best.
“Great,” I said, “Where does this fit best in your morning?”
We decided that if he practiced as soon as he got up he might wind up running late, but if he made it the last thing on his to-do list he could practice either a little or a lot, depending on how much time he had left before the bus came.
We walked through the morning routine and pegged “After I put on my tennis shoes” as a good anchor; he keeps his shoes in his room, next to his violin, and puts them on after breakfast and before leaving for the bus.
Now for the habit. “I’ll practice all my songs 10 times!” he said.
“I like your enthusiasm, but that’s a pretty big goal. What happens if you’re running late one day? Can we scale it back a little? You can always do more if you have time.”
At this point, we decided to play around with the smallest possible habit he could think of: “I will pick up my violin case.” On days he had time, this would lead to a quick practice session. On days he was running late, he’d pick up the case and tell his violin, “Sorry, Shirley, gotta run. Let’s play tomorrow.”
Gavin was sure that anything short of a full practice session couldn’t possibly produce results, but he grudgingly agreed to give it a shot.
In three days the first song was mastered. After a week he was setting his alarm earlier to get more practice in, and picking up the violin after school to show off his growing skills. Three weeks later he walked onstage feeling calm and confident. He’d even taught himself a few songs that were not on the program and proudly gave the real Shirley a private concert over Christmas break.
For kids (and grown-ups) who are easily overwhelmed, the Tiny Habits method gives them a concrete way to break down big, scary goals and projects. It also gives them continual small wins to celebrate, which boosts their confidence, creates success momentum, and keeps them moving in the right direction. They quickly see how even small steps toward your goal can lead quickly to measurable progress.
A final update on this young musician: He is now a junior in high school, and plays the guitar, the bagpipes, and the upright bass. His youth orchestra received a special invitation to perform at the President’s Day Capital Orchestra Festival in Washington, DC. After that first day, practicing has never been a chore. Music has given him a way to get creative, cope with stress, and share a passion with others. It’s also taught him that he doesn’t have to be afraid of a challenge, because he has the tools to achieve anything he wants to pursue. And it all started with something as simple as picking up that violin case.