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Dealing with Overwhelm (2)

Monday, January 10th, 2011

A while back, I wrote about how limiting the amount of material you’re responsible for can be a very effective way to reduce math overwhelm.

But this technique doesn’t just work with math. It works for just about anything. For example, Kenny Werner discusses how he overcame his overwhelm in his amazing book, Effortless Mastery.

For months, if not years, Kenny Werner woke up every morning telling himself he needed to practice for five to ten hours that day. Paralyzed by this expectation, he’d frequently go to bed without practicing a single note, feeling like a total failure.

Until he met an insightful piano teacher who gave him a totally new kind of assignment. A simple exercise he only needed to practice for five minutes a day. That was his only duty. Any practice beyond that was just a bonus.

But his new teacher’s five-minutes-only assignment seemed so feasable that Kenny actually did it. And once he sat down at the piano with the intention of practicing for five minutes, sometimes he would practice for much longer. Gradually he learned to practice effortlessly for hours and hours a day—not because he was obligated or he needed to compensate for something, but out of sheer joy. That simple five-minutes-a-day assignment dissolved a huge complex of self-loathing he’d had his whole life.

Before I read Kenny’s book, I believed I was the only person in the world struggled with my own practice expectations. When I paged through Kenny’s book and realized I wasn’t alone, I wept with relief.

Yet while I was still in graduate school, I struggled to put his advice into practice. I was responsible for more material than I could ever thoroughly prepare: orchestra music, chamber music, sonatas, concertos, solo pieces, scales, arpeggios, technique books, exercises, etudes. And no matter how hard I worked, I would go from rehearsal to rehearsal, day after day, never mastering anything. This didn’t help my playing at all.

But everything changed once I got out of school. I started working on a very small amount of material at a time, and this allowed me to go deeper than I’d ever gone before.

What happened is that I decided to take an audition where most of the material had to be memorized. But I was only responsible for preparing a very small amount of material: maybe three and a half pages of Bach, two pages of de Falla, three and a half pages of Saint-Saens.

I had always struggled with memorization. So I tried an experiment. Every day I tried to memorize a tiny little new chunk of material, something I knew I could digest. Every night, laying in bed without my cello, I’d review the new material in my mind before I fell asleep, looking for gaps in my memory. Every morning, I’d wake up and go over the material from memory to reinforce it, before adding on a new little chunk.

Instead of waking up in the morning, looking at my stack of music, and having no idea where to begin or when I’d be finished, I knew exactly what to do every day. Even though I only had a month to prepare for my audition, I felt like I was learning more than I did in all those years of graduate school.

This process completely transformed my playing. And in the end, I performed that audition with a freedom and conviction that I’d only dreamed I possessed.

I wished that I’d learned to overcome overwhelm by limiting my material earlier. But I am so grateful that I found this process.

Related posts:
Dealing with (math) overwhelm (1)
I used to cry myself to sleep over my algebra homework
When learning feels like a forced march
What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement

2 Comments on “Dealing with Overwhelm (2)”

  • Sue VanHattum on January 10th 10:22 am

    Your post reminded me of how much reading is expected in lit courses, so much that it’s hard to maintain my enjoyment when I’m in that situation. I’m also reminded of how the math was pushed at me too fast in my undergrad at the University of Michigan. I loved my grad program at Eastern Michigan University, because it wasn’t too much too fast – I learned more that way, and regained my love of math.

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