When people ask me what must-read book I would recommend for a musician, it's not a music theory book. I immediately recommend "Atomic Habits" by James Clear. The main premise is to leave the mindset of "instant results," "quick tricks," and "immediate gratification," for instead, "this little habit will benefit my future self." The books advocates for living and making progress for longterm success. This isn't easy, of course, in the world of instant EVERYTHING and overload of distractions, focus, itself, I would argue is one of the modern human's biggest struggles.
So it's no surprise that in music education (pubic music theory, especially), I constantly see YouTube and Instagram videos promising to eliminate the need for intense focus: "instant chord progressions!" "learn music theory in 30 minutes!" "read music instantly!" "you don't need music theory, buy this program instead!"
I mean, these promises are pretty powerful. If 30 minutes was too long to learn theory, you could shave off one minute, or hey! This "Guy" is promising you can learn in just 16 MINUTES!
I have to admit that I've used some of these bait and click tactics myself in my early cringey YouTube videos that didn't do so well (I almost don't want to link my channel, but, oh well.. I'm still learning, too!).
(Note the "READ Music FAST!" But had my thumbnail promised "learn in 10 minutes," sadly, maybe I would have more views)
The demand for shortcuts will always be here, but I strongly believe that the musicians that "make it" and those that don't, is because they have come to terms with the truth: there are no short cuts in music.
I think as professional musicians we can understand why the longterm mindset works for us, and it's our responsibility to teach this mindset to the next generation. The "longterm" is built into our life and practice. We don't see much improvement day to day, but if you compare your musicianship today from 12 months ago, the growth is significant. If you studied music as a child, you had weekly goals (the lessons), biweekly or monthly goals (finish an entire piece of music) and then longterm goals (the recital performance). This structured routine starts to build the crucial life skill of a "longterm" mindset. Structured systems with multi-goal levels cultivates patience and honors the "future self" rather than the immediate gratification for the "present self." Insight = I believe the reason young music students do well in academics, as well, is because of the structured systems in place that reinforce multi-level goals, rather than the music itself.
It takes a great deal of patience to stay motivated for anything longterm, and don't listen to those that say, "if you want it badly enough, you'll just do it [insert habit here]." No you won't. This is a dismissive statement that results in mindless drills. It's like telling my piano students to "just go practice," which will not sustain students in the long run. How should I practice? What should I focus on? How do I break this down? How does this task improve my musicianship, theory, and sight reading? In our modern day when all information is available for free, you just have to know where to look for it, learning the how, why, when, where, and who + accountability, is why you have a teacher and why you will progress faster with a teacher than self-teaching (will save this topic for another blog post). Insight = mindful system is needed.
Systems require motivation to stick with it, and if you need ideas about how to stay engaged with your motivation, Atomic Habits is chock-full of systems and the logic behind them, which is motivating in itself. I'm going to talk about one of those systems: visual trackers. Clear talks about several different forms of the visual tracker, (he just calls it a "tracker," but what makes it effective is that it's visual, so I've added that word for emphasis), such as adding marbles to a jar - it's motivating to see it fill up. Clear emphasizes the need for very small changes; tweaks in our existing systems, but to focus on the system and not the goal. The system will get you to the goal.
I've created several types of visual trackers designed especially for the music student. As a former piano teacher of children, the biggest pain point was on the shoulders of the parents to get their child to practice. It is why decades ago I started making special practice charts for my students with a sticker reward system for each day practiced. It worked! There is a reason why my music lesson practice charts are my best seller on Etsy! Kids love to see the days fill up with stickers. A longterm tracker is my "30 Major & Minor Keys Tracker" with two "Write the Circle of 5ths" exercises. When you have a lot of students, the trackers are so helpful to teachers so that we can keep track of what scales are done, and make a plan for completing all. Insight = systems that reinforce identify, in this case, musical identity, and that are fun to use, will be a delight to use and therefore they will be used and progress will be made.
Quite honestly, and I'm not proud of this, but very few of my students have completed all 30 major and minor scales which would include chord progressions in all of those keys. I wasn't diligent enough to follow through on making sure each student completed every key. I think part of the reason was that we weren't using trackers. I have so many students, repertoire, and lessons that I couldn't keep track plus my students lost steam. Insight = missing system.
So all of my music theory books will include trackers. My new book "Visualize Scales & Modes," includes two practice trackers that are bright and colorful. Not only do they keep track of your progress, but it's easier to look at the chart, rather than the Table of Contents, to plan out your strategy.
For the ultimate practice tracker, see my new music journal-planner collection. I *wish* I had had these when I was studying piano. Here is my "Passacaglia Music Journal Planner," which is definitely the prettiest music journal I've ever seen!
Included are weekly practice trackers divided up into the many different skills that musicians study: music rep, scales, technique, theory, composition, and musicianship. Multi-goals are included so not only do students get to fill up their weekly trackers, but then fill up the monthly tracker. Insight = acknowledge all task types to reinforce that musicians must built multiple types of skills, and these are interrelated.
As a piano teacher, I would have loved to write down my students' weekly assignments in these beautiful lesson pages. This music journal-planner is just as fun to use for teachers as it is the student. Not only does the design meet function, but the overall journal is meant to Iast 12-weeks/3 months. In business, that's "Q1" or "Q2," and is just short of the length of an academic semester. It allows the student to bring closure, something I never thought about as a piano teacher. Music lessons are an endless stream, week after week, they just never stop and the only way to mark accomplishments is with a performance. So I believe my longterm system will help many musicians not only structure their practice, but visually excite them as they see daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly progress. Insight = bringing closure gives the student a sense of beginning, middle, and end, an important arc that acknowledges their achievement. A recital is not the only kind of achievement we should be celebrating with our students.
The promise of a quick fix is always enticing and these kinds of hooks are the heartbeat in a lot of marketing. So moving forward, I promise to do the opposite of clickbait marketing which promises the "quick fix." Marketing to musicians for making true, longterm musical progress is slow, and that's the truth. All of my books, journals, and study sheets (I refuse to call them "cheat sheets" which implies another short cut quick fix) will advocate for the longterm, slow burn. "Atomic Habits" are tiny shifts in our thinking, strategy, and actions that in the moment might be uncomfortable and not as fun, but in the longterm, is what makes your future self highly accomplished.
What are other disciplines that use systems to reinforce the longterm mindset?
(Blog Photo from Mary Clavieres, The Transitions Collective)