As part of my teaching, I often recommend books to students that will help them improve themselves as both players and people. The majority of the time, these books aren't directly related to music, but they usually teach principles that are valuable in the quest for continuous self-improvement. Most students take to it very well and actually end up coming back to ask for more recommendations! With the summer break from school upon us, hopefully there will be more time to catch up on some reading. Below are suggestions of books I think you may find interesting (with links if you wish to purchase), including a quote or two from each book and what about it I enjoyed. If you have any reading suggestions for me, please share!!
"It becomes obvious that if we want to make relatively minor changes in our lives, we can perhaps appropriately focus on our attitudes and behaviors. But if we want to make significant, quantum change, we need to work on our basic paradigms. In the words of Thoreau, 'For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.' We can only achieve quantum improvements in our lives as we quit hacking at the leaves of attitudes and behavior and get to work on the root, the paradigms from which our attitudes and behaviors flow."
"It's incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it's leaning against the wrong wall. It is possible to be busy--very busy--without being very effective."
There's a reason this book has sold more than 25 million copies. It's fantastic! I think this book is great at putting everything into its proper perspective. Even if you become the greatest musician on earth, so what? What are you going to do with your gift? Where are you going with all of this? What are you doing here? How are you doing it? Why are you doing it? Make sure that all of your exhaustive efforts are being effectively applied to something that is deeply meaningful. It would be a shame to work tirelessly and not maximize your impact in this world!
“The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it's about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.”
“Although talent feels and looks predestined, in fact we have a good deal of control over what skills we develop, and we have more potential than we might ever presume to guess.”
We spend so much time in the practice room trying to hard-wire different things into our muscle memory. This book explains the science behind how your brain works to develop the fine motor skills that help you excel in any particular craft: music, golf, tennis, etc. Many of us think that a fantastic technical capacity is reserved for the ordained few. This book provides a liberating explanation of why this excellence is available to us all, so long as we know the correct mental buttons to push.
"There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources--and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former."
Over the years, I've had the privilege of working with hundreds of students. They represent a wide variety of ability levels, races, sexes, ages, and national origins. One of the greatest weaknesses I see among them is a lack of sincere confidence. They see themselves as underdogs lacking a legitimate shot at reaching the mountaintop. Confidence should not to be confused with blind arrogance. Rather, it is belief that if you commit yourself fully to something and do the requisite work, you are capable of achieving a goal. Many believe because they are currently behind the curve or began with a disadvantage that achieving real excellence isn't possible for them.
David and Goliath is an empowering book about the advantage of disadvantage. By any objective standard, my upbringing was not one of disadvantage. However, I grew up in a home that didn't have a love for classical music. I didn't have regular private lessons from an early age. In fact, I didn't begin regular weekly lessons until the summer after graduating high school. I didn't make the top band at my own public high school until my junior year. This isn't the normal trajectory for someone who joins the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at age 22. In the eyes of many, someone with my background is not likely to be an accomplished classical musician. However, this book teaches that often times things that seem like disadvantages are actually advantageous. Understanding this can create a very powerful paradigm shift.
"A critical goal of practice, then, should be ensuring that participants encode success--that they practice getting it right--whatever "it" might be. While that may sound obvious, practice that encodes failure is common. There are a lot of reasons for this, but two seem especially pervasive. First, we can fail to observe our practices carefully and strategically enough to see whether participants are getting things right, and second, we can put participants in situations that make failure likely in a mistaken effort to steepen the learning curve."
I found this book to be incredibly insightful. Even if you only read the first section of the book, you would leave with numerous practical pieces of advice for how to improve your craft. Practice Perfect has countless pragmatic approaches for making your work more effective and efficient. I used this book for my brass pedagogy class and the students loved what they learned from it. If you're looking for ways to get more bang for you buck in the practice room, you can't afford to not read this book.
"I used to hear my daddy and them talk about going to the woodshed. Man, I thought the woodshed was a place where you got your behind whipped. And it is, but it's also the place where you get your stuff together. You know, Charlie Parker got a cymbal thrown at him; he went into the woodshed and came out with a technique to play the music he needed to play. And we still need to go there. That's why we call practice 'shedding'. By the way, practice--there's another P word for you. That reminds me: Don't forget that productivity. You want to be a musician? Get out and play gigs. Remember the simple equation: What you do is what you will do. So if you play, you will play. If you bullshit, well, that too will speak for itself, right?"
"A pristine technique is a sign of morality. If you don't want technique, you can't really be serious. You'd be like the guy who comes to a game out of shape. The other team will just run you to death and exploit you as the weak link. You thought you were rebelling against the team regimen, but now you see that your laziness was really self-crippling stupidity. Don't start professing a love for the game. The love is what would have made you get your ass in shape."
Wynton Marsalis has been a hero of mine since childhood and has since become a friend and mentor. My experience has taught me that if you need some words of wisdom, he's a great source. This book is a very quick read that gives you an inside look into the mind of one of the greatest artists to ever grace the planet. You will laugh. You will contemplate. You will be inspired. After starting this book, I couldn't put it down. I can't recommend it highly enough.
"Compete Only Against Yourself: Set your standards high; namely, do the absolute best of which you are capable. Focus on running the race rather than winning it. Do those things necessary to bring forth your personal best and don't lose sleep worrying about the competition. Let the competition lose sleep worrying about you."
"We live in a society obsessed with winning and being number 1. Don't follow the pack. Rather, focus on the process instead of the prize.... The score will take care of itself when you take care of the effort that precedes the score."
This book is solid gold. It addresses numerous areas vital for successful musicians to master: industriousness, time management, enthusiasm, condition, competition, and confidence. John Wooden remains the most successful coach in the history of college basketball. The lessons taught in this book carry over into all aspects of life. Applying his principles to your musical life will reap phenomenal rewards!