003. Excuses

My first question at most of my lessons is, “how was practice this week?” The answer to that question usually sets the agenda for our time together. I can help with areas where they got stuck, and we can build on the things that went well.

My music lesson philosophy is that 90% of the learning and growth should happen at home, and not at lessons. I do all I can to aim and accelerate that at-home 90% when the student and I are at our lesson together.

Oftentimes though, practice didn’t happen. And when there was no practice, the students always feel like they need a good excuse.

These students have given me thousands of excuses over the years. My favorites have been:

  • We had our grandparents visit.
  • I left my music sheets in the car.
  • I had a sleepover.
  • We went to the grocery store. (hard to keep a straight face during that one.)

Very rarely does an excuse actually account for the reason that not a single minute of the 10050 that have elapsed since our last lesson was spent in practice. Students have 168 hours each week, and no excuse of “I was too busy” ever actually works. It’s not quite honest.

Honesty would sound like:

  • Circumstances made practice more difficult this week, and I chose not to do the extra work to practice.
  • Every day, it didn’t cross my mind to practice, and I have no systems in place to remind me.
  • I chose 100 other things to do this week instead of practicing.

We don’t like to be honest about our choices, because it lays responsibility on ourselves. We opt instead to blame things we can’t control. “My mom had to run some errands, so she didn’t remind me” is easier to say than, “I chose not to practice.” It’s more comfortable to offload our responsibilities to others.

It makes sense if you’re very young. Nothing is your fault because your life has been other people’s responsibility since you were born. Many of the most laughable excuses I get come from students who are 5, 6 or 7 years old.

“I couldn’t practice because my mom went to the store.” I get it. Your mom is the one who initiates and chaperones your practice, and she didn’t make it happen this week. You, the child, see her doing other things, and assume that’s the reason that you didn’t get reminded and made to do the work.

“I couldn’t practice because I got a new pet frog.” That’s understandable. You don’t have the capacity to remember your commitments, nor the character to be able to switch from something exciting and new, to the boring and difficult. You’re 6 years old for crying out loud.

But being 6 is a temporary situation. If we’re 16 and we give the same excuses as our younger selves, we’re revealing a lot about how we view the world. As we grow up, we’ll either adopt responsibility, or we’ll infantilize ourselves.

The truth is that we, ourselves, are the number one factor when it comes to getting things done or not. A full-force push in the right direction will almost always yield results, however small. But if we drag our feet, and wait for the world to exert painful pressure on us before we make ourselves do the work, in most cases, the work won’t get done. And if work does get done, it will never be anywhere close to our full potential.

Students, you know what’s more important than getting practice done? Maturity.

Maturity is the ability to adopt responsibility. To bear a load that we could otherwise shirk. Maturity is what makes the difference between someone who others can rely on, and someone who cannot be productive unless they’re being dragged along by others.

Mature people are the people who make a real difference in the communities they live in. They are the people that serve as the role models, the life-savers, and the godsends for everyone around them.

Mature people live by adopting responsibility, and then working to fulfill that responsibility even if it means denying the parts of themselves that want to do other things, which it almost always does.

These mature people live for tomorrow rather than today.

They live for others rather than themselves.

And they live for meaning rather than pleasure.

This is the admonition I would like to give all my students who give me excuses that are more immature than their age should allow. Mature. Grow. Carve out more and more responsibility for yourself, and then chase after the character that will allow you to fulfill those self-inflicted obligations.

For most people, the greatest benefit of music lessons isn’t becoming a professional musician or attaining a position at the top 1% of musicians that play their particular instrument.

For most students, the greatest things they get out of music lessons are things like the opportunity to see small personal investments add up to something valuable. And the discipline to repeat something until it’s right. And the ability to adopt the humble position of novice without giving up.

You want to know a secret? It’s ok if you didn’t practice this week. Music doesn’t need to be in your life of top ten priorities in your life. If you chose rest, family, education, exercise, recreation and friendships over music this week, that’s ok.

Just own the decision. Be honest.

And know that this next week, you’ll have another opportunity to live out the list of things that are most important to you. And if music gets put on the back burner again, that’s ok too.

If your half-hour lesson is the only time you want to devote to growing your skills with your instrument, I’m ok with that. I won’t fire you as a student. But I will be honest with you and tell you that you won’t make very much progress week to week. And you might not reach the goals that we discussed when you started taking lessons.

Let me leave you with this, one of the most important things you can do on a daily, weekly and yearly basis is to sit down and write out a list of the responsibilities you’ve adopted and the goals you’ve made, and then to compare that list with a report on how you spend your time.

If those two things look similar, I can almost guarantee that you’ll fulfill your responsibilities, meet your goals, and continue to grow as a person. And if they don’t match, I can almost guarantee the opposite.

And if your list of goals and responsibilities is very small, or difficult to nail down, then adding and editing that list is the biggest next step that you can make to mature and grow as a person.

I love having a front row seat to see students grow and develop. That’s deeply meaningful for me, and it’s one of the great joys of my life.

I wish you well in discovering those things worth investing in with your daily habits and sacrifices.