12 Lessons about Life and Success from playing (and teaching) the violin

Music is a great passion of my mine alongside physical fitness and teaching personal development. I began with playing the viola at the age of 11.  For those who don’t know the viola is the slightly bigger sister of the violin and she that bears the brunt of a class of orchestral jests affectionately referred to as “viola jokes”.  A few years later I also began to play the violin. With much perseverance, dedication and some failure I finally took the plunge, left my corporate job and started teaching music fulltime in 2016.

With the push for children to get into music programs earlier and earlier, my 11 year old self was off to a very late start and not a prayer of becoming a classical violinist. In the Suzuki method, which I teach, children should ideally start listening to the recordings from about 6 weeks old and have a violin in their hands by the age of three. With this in mind I think my parents’ goal in signing me up for music lessons was never for me to become the next Vanessa Mae, but rather to open up my mind to possibilities. In the same way that a runner signs up for Comrades, not to win, but to finish the 90km and discover the deep reserves of endurance of the human spirit within themselves. I have enjoyed doing something unique, enriching my life with music and learning how to learn. In fact, there are too many benefits from my music lessons to list here.

In this article I am going to share some of my own observations on the benefits of learning a musical instrument and how they can be applied to navigating change, business and life success. I will not cover the cliché – better memory capacity, mathematical reasoning, language skills, delayed onset of Alzheimer’s, attention to detail, emotional self-regulation, bigger brains and all that jazz (pun intended). This is all brilliantly covered in the TEDEx video linked here – https://youtu.be/R0JKCYZ8hng.

Instead, I would like to focus on the benefits that are to be enjoyed by anyone of any age taking up a new instrument or learning any new skill in fact even if it is only for a short time.

 When the lockdown started I thrust myself back in beginner’s shoes and started learning to write with my non-dominant hand and learning French. In order to move forward with both endeavours I had to let go of the way “I’ve always done it” and often think  backwards”. Here are a few snapshots of my writing practice and a sample of my actual handwriting.

[Left Hand writing image]

Post COVID19 we are all going to be back in beginner’s shoes to some extent. Some of us more than others. Whether your beginning is learning the violin, leading your organisation through massive change or learning how to use Zoom, you will need to have a clear picture of what you want to achieve, a flexible open mind that is willing to try and determined to fail as many times as it is going to take to get it right, the right attitude, the right people to help you, persistence and most importantly daily practice or ACTION!

Some beginner situations are easier than others (for example when learning to drive, we are highly motivated) but ultimately if we want to become an expert we need to climb the stages of learning to get to unconscious competence. However, in the game of life, when the unexpected comes calling, we can in the blink of an eye, find ourselves back in conscious or unconscious incompetence.

[Stages of learning image]

If we develop the right attitude, these forced unexpected changes can actually make life very exciting. I challenge you during this low productivity lockdown period to try do a little more and learn something new. A musical instrument, a hobby, perhaps how to iron!

Learning something new is a great metaphor for navigating major change and upheavals in our lives. I will now discuss a few of my observations.

  1. Raise Your Awareness – Musical training is centred around programming a series of good micro-habits that ultimately result in a competent musician.  When teaching the violin, we focus on developing awareness of muscles, posture, pitch, tempo, tone and many other things. In our lives improvement will come once we are aware. The only way you can escape from a prison is if you know you are in one. This awareness necessarily requires going beyond our 5 senses – see, smell, taste, touch, hear. We need to develop and use our “Spidey senses” for example intuition, imagination, memory, perception, reason.
  • Let Go of Past Thinking – The ability to play the violin or viola is can hinder your technique when learning to play the cello which is in the same family. Once you let go of all that you know from violin or viola, it is much easier to learn the cello. When we are learning something new we have to let go of old ideas and be open to learn a new way of doing things. Another example would be attempting to use your hockey skills on the fairway or going to the tee box with your driver and hockey ball. Our old mindsets and habits could be the wrong tools or techniques for solving the next problem.

[photo from cello teacher training]

  • Repetition – a lesson once a week, and at least an hour of practice everyday is necessary to really internalise the techniques and quickly gain mastery of the violin. When learning any new skill you need to constantly remind yourself that you can do it. You also need to develop the competencies you need as you become aware of them and repeat them constantly to get them so ingrained they are unconscious and automatic. When I am playing a piece I am not consciously saying to myself put the third finger down then the pinky then move the right arm.
  • Step by Step – with violin, skipping the fundamentals or practicing them wrongly will limit you later. At best you will be a terrible violinist, at worst you could require major hand surgery.  We need to build up on each technique step by step and reinforce it before moving onto the next one. Life is much the same, skipping steps means a poor foundation and therefore it is unlikely your success will last. At worst your short cut could land you in jail or the cemetary.

Off course, for any learning here to be successful, you will need to know the steps you need to take which requires knowing where you want to go and seeking the right information and counsel to develop a good plan.

  • It’s a Marathon not a sprint – having run several marathons in my life, I am well aware of what it takes to get across the finish line. Most of the work is done in the months leading up to race day. In our violin lessons, the work is done during the time between lessons. Unlike studying, you cannot stay up all night practicing for your music exam the next day. You need to build up the learning over time.

There is nothing in life that is truly an overnight successes. The price to pay is the preparation, sacrifices and practice that no one sees so that you are ready to make it overnight when the opportunity knocks.

  • Discipline is not just a ten letter word! Repetition takes time and practice, which means doing things that at the time may not be the most pleasing activity. You cannot do anything significant without the will and discipline to sometimes do things you do not want to do. With young pupils this means the parents need to have discipline to bear the scratchy sound and practice daily with their little one. Someone once said successes are the people who do the things failures do not want to do.

Wishing, motivational quotes and other emotional baloney will simply not get you the success you require without you taking ACTION towards the desired goal. They can certainly supercharge you but you cannot run away from good old fashioned discipline to G.O.Y.A!

  • Be Excited! – The awkwardness of learning something new can be off putting but that is exactly where you want to be in some area of your life. Liz Bohannon said “Courageous leaders know mastery and competency isn’t the end goal. The goal is to constantly learn even when you’ve achieved mastery. This keeps you humble and keeps that childlike spirit alive.”

This childlike spirit is the channel that creativity and innovation can flow through. One of the things I absolutely love about teaching is being part of the children’s energy and excitement. In the early days, some of my pupils cannot sleep the night before their violin lesson because they are so excited to learn this wonderful instrument. Imagine if you could have the same excitement every morning when you get up or before the next corporate strategy session or leadership seminar?

  • Be Kind (to yourself and others!) – In my music lessons we focus on play and fostering a non-critical lesson environment. I also encourage parents to keep the same attitude at home. We are trying to foster growth learning not fear or reward-based learning. Sometimes we are harsh on ourselves and this knocks our self-esteem. It is even sadder when we shame and humiliate other people and make them their mistakes. We are all human but if we celebrated and were honest about the mistakes and failures we could move forward that much more quickly and be more confident to try something new in future.
  • Always be pursuing a goal – when I draft my lesson plan I have set goals for the lesson. During the lesson, together with the student, we set goals for the coming week. We regularly assess the progress towards the goal but at no point do we stop pursuing something. We always make decisions, even just small ones, to go for something that week. Perhaps a better D major scale or smoother shifting into third position. If you think back to when you used to stay up many nights studying, it was because you were chasing something a degree, perhaps a PB on your next marathon.

Somewhere along the line we lose focus and allow weeds to infiltrate our thinking. We aimlessly wander through life without a plan or goals. Robert A.Heinlein said “In the absence of clearly-defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.”

  1. Conventional wisdom is not always correct – I have discovered amazing capacity to learn as an adult. In fact, adults learn better than children if they are aware and disciplined. The belief that we can’t learn as adults is about as faulty as money is the root of all evil and an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

The reason most adults seem to struggle to learn is that they are reluctant to let go of some of their wrong ideas. Children simply make their minds up, but adults have to change their minds first.

You can learn anything and succeed at it if you are willing to take the action. With the right instruction, a focused goal, daily practice and study, evaluation and effective correction of mistakes you can achieve your desired learning goal.

The goal of learning is a permanent change in behaviour. It has been said that it takes just as much effort to program bad habit as it does a good ones, so next time you are learning simply strive for excellence, do it right the first time and it will become automatic eventually. Again, I cannot stress enough that you need to know what “right” is for your situation. However, even if you don’t, through trial and error (not conventional wisdom!) you will arrive where you want to be.

  1. We are all the same – In the Suzuki philosophy, we believe that every child can. With the right instruction, patience and the right environment every child can learn to play the violin. This is because as human beings we are essentially the same. We are all given the same notes to write our own Great Symphony of Life.

Itzhak Perlman, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg are no different to you and me. They simply found what they were good at, made a decision to do it relentlessly, no matter how long it would take and actually started acting on it.

As adults we are often so afraid of failure, due to the shame-based motivation strategy used by our folks, that we simply never make a start and if we do start, often our worldview and personal identity is so challenged that we quickly return to the old habits.

  1. Mastermind! – Whatever you choose to do, you will compound your rate of success if you assemble a team of the right like-minded people to help you achieve your goal. No man is an island. It takes a village. I had the privilege, earlier this year of volunteering in Cape Town at the Muzukidz program teaching violin to children from the townships. With the Suzuki method we emphasise group classes as this really helps the learning process. They are united towards the goal of making beautiful music. It does not matter if the children are from the Khayelistha or Camps Bay, for that time they all play together as a team and inspire each other to learn. It was also wonderful to see that no child tried to be like another. Each was their own person and character.  

[Muzukidz photo]

In all my teaching I try to celebrate each child’s unique perspective and individual expression. The goal of every piece we play from the first Twinkle Twinkle to Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor and beyond, is for them to make it their own while still playing it musically and excellently.

I am thankful to the teachers who sparked this great passion and love of music in me and gave the best of themselves to get me here and more importantly the fingers and shoulders of eager little giants that have given me a World’s View.

The most rewarding part of this wonderful journey from musician to teacher and mentor, has been understanding life and how success works. The life lessons have not always been easy, and are by no means over, but now I know that success is not about the dollars in our bank account but the resilience, teamwork, emphathy, service, intergrity, action, and a joie de vivre that that leaves everyone and everything you come into contact with better for the sake of having interacted with you. In other words turning everything and every moment to gold – true alchemy.

During the Lockdown I encourage you to #LearnFromHome. There are many life lessons to be learnt from from taking up and refining new skills. Whether you choose to learn the violin, how to code or how to make glass noodles, the principles will be the same. I hope that through the ideas I have shared, you will look at your habits differentely and also look at your child’s extracurricular activities in a different light.

Thembani “Adora Lee” Mhambi is the principal instructor at Music Minds Studio. After spending ten years working in Corporate she decided to follow her passion and first love. She is currently a certified instructor with the European Suzuki Association and specialises in teaching the violin, viola and music theory. Her pupils range from 3 to 18+ years.

Ms Thembani is also a qualified Physiotherapist and holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Marketing Management.

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