Discipline for Beginners

Dear Friends,

So I am right now in upstate New York at Ukrainian dance camp.  I bring this up because the teachers here, among other things, stress the important of discipline in the students’ practice.

I am also right now reading a book called Zen Guitar (which applies the ideals and philosophy behind the Japanese dojo to the study of guitar) (and actually is a really great book that all musicians should read) and one of the principles outlined in the book is also discipline.

I like this congruity.  I like being able to study the same thing in different places.  It helps me to be better at it in general.  And discipline is an important skill to be built for any student of anything, whether it is piano, guitar, or, say, engineering.  Or business.

So what is discipline?  To paraphrase Philip Toshio Sudo (the auther of Zen Guitar), discipline is completing a task to the best of your ability every time you have to do it.  Which is actually a lot harder to do than it sounds, especially once a student has gained some skill in any given subject.

When one of my beginners sits down at the piano, all they can do is be disciplined.  Everything they try is so new that it requires all the focus she or he can muster together.  If a student is practicing on a regular basis without mommy or daddy reminding them, then that student is actually on the path towards becoming a disciplined student of music.

But as a student gains more experience on their instrument, they require more and more discipline to stick with it.  Working on a song for a few weeks at a time does not require much discipline, but reviewing Hanon, Czerny or Schmitt exercises, or running through scales, or other finger exercises as part of your daily practice for weeks, months or even years (like at the stage of the game I am at right now) requires a level of discipline that few students ever develop.

But here is something that is, like, way important.  And this is something that I actually remind my students of on a regular basis.  And it’s what I’d like to leave you all with today.

Discipline does not mean doing it perfectly every time.  EVER.  Discipline means doing your best every time.  I know, sometimes our “best” is nowhere near our idea of what “best” sounds like.  But if you are trying your best every time you sit down to play one note or an entire sonata, then eventually – and probably sooner than we realize – our “best” becomes what we expect it to be.