Have you ever found yourself facing a big job and didn’t know where to start? It could be anything from writing a book to cleaning out the garage. Taking on a project can be overwhelming. You look at the magnitude of it all and just want to go back to bed. But at the same time, this project promises such reward. You can just see your name on the cover of your own book. Or all that clear space in the garage, with everything neatly put away on shelves. This is the stuff of life, setting your sights on what you want and going for it.
So how do you go about tackling a daunting task? The answer is to break it down into manageable pieces. Each little piece is something that you can do. And when you put them all together you find that without even noticing it the job got done. But this skill of breaking things down is something that you cultivate. And do you know what one of the best ways of cultivating it is? Learning to play violin.
Pick up the violin
You’ve probably heard a lot about how good learning to play a musical instrument is for you. It makes you smarter, reduces stress, staves off Alzheimer’s. All this is true. But it can also help you live a life that is more fulfilling by teaching you how to move forwards in achieving your goals.
Playing violin might look like magic. Someone stands up there with a wooden box, waving her arms about, and beautiful music comes out. And there is magic in it, but it's subtler. It never ceases to amaze me how you can simply think of a note, and your finger magically finds that place on the fingerboard. For some people, it comes more naturally than for others, but everyone works at it.
Getting to the point where you can put your fingers down in the right place at the right time is a process. Thankfully that process is just a set of steps to follow. Learning to play violin is about breaking each problem down into smaller and smaller pieces until you get to something that you can do.
Simplify the problem
How does it work? Say you’re playing along and you get to a spot that always trips you up. The next step is to zero in on that spot. Simplify the notes. Here is where a teacher can help you figure out how to do that. It might be a matter of playing fewer notes in one bow, or only playing the first of every four notes. Maybe you need to play the passage much slower to coordinate the bow with the fingers. Keep stripping it down till you get to something that is doable, that you can get within a couple of tries.
You’ll know when you’ve gotten the right little piece, because after only a couple of tries you have it. Once you can play the exercise you set for yourself, repeat it until it feels comfortable. This entrains it into your body so that you don’t have to think about it and allows you to play it consistently. Now you’re ready to add the next layer—a faster speed, some of the notes you took out, or more notes per bow. Build it up, one tiny bit at a time.
This is how you create a solid foundation for playing violin without getting frustrated. If you look at playing violin as a whole, focusing only on the perfect performance you saw on YouTube, you might get discouraged. But put one foot in front of the other, reduce things down into the simplest components, and before you know it, you too will be making beautiful music on your violin.
Make it a habit
As you practice violin, continuously breaking things down, you build the method into your system. Over time, you will learn to approach other tasks in your life in terms of their component parts. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, you will roll up your sleeves and say, “Right. What part of this is something that I can do?” Keep up your violin playing, and before you know it, you’ll be half way through your new novel and have a sparkling garage.
What strategies do you have for tackling something that feels overwhelming? Please share your experience and advice in the comments.