Do you ever get that little voice in your head?
Sometimes, a new project can feel so big and difficult. Just looking at the sheer scope of it can make you want to crawl back into bed.
If you are a parent, you will often see this with your kids. They can’t even start their homework because it feels overwhelming. Or they won’t even try because they think it’s impossible.
As a music teacher who works with young children, I often get this reaction when presenting a new piece of music to work on.
“I can’t do it!”
“But you haven’t even tried.”
“It’s just so…difficult…looking.”
So what is the real problem?
Usually, the task at hand is not really that difficult. It just looks or feels overwhelming.
In tackling any big project in life, we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish within a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in a week. We think we can do the whole thing in too little time and end up overwhelmed, exhausted and with little to show for it.
Our kids need help in learning how to manage chunks of information too.
A few years ago, I wrote a book to help parents to ease the pain of practice, because learning how to practice is a life-changing skill that can be applied to anything for the rest of one’s life!
The book is called the Game of Practice, with 53 tips to make practice fun! My third tip is titled, “Break It Up Into Smaller Sections.”
“Don’t sit down and feel like you have to memorize and perfect the entire piece in one sitting. By saying ‘I’m going to get these two measures,’ the practice time becomes much more doable.”
This is so simple and yet so powerful.
To help them learn to manage information, I ask them, “What’s your favorite kind of pie?”
Don’t Try to Eat The Whole Pie!
I tell my students that learning a new piece of music is like eating a pie: You don’t eat it all in one bite! You cut a slice.
But do you jam the whole slice in your mouth? (That always get a big laugh.)
No silly! You take a little forkful, one bite at a time.
Learning a song can be much easier (and delicious) this way! Plus less messy!
This basic life skill can have huge ramifications! It applies to all activities including school, work, everything. The actual term is not, pie, but chunking. Chunking is a psychological term.
This is from Wikipedia:
“Chunking in psychology is a process by which individual pieces of information are bound together into a meaningful whole (Neath & Surprenant, 2003). A chunk is defined as a familiar collection of more elementary units that have been inter-associated and stored in memory repeatedly and act as a coherent, integrated group when retrieved (Tulving & Craik, 2000).”
Chunking can be done in two ways: chunking together or chunking down.
Chunking together can be useful in memorization- you do it by grouping together disparate chunks into one whole.
“Seven is more than a lucky number or a famous baseball player’s uniform. It’s the brain’s natural shepherd, herding vast amounts of information into manageable chunks.” – Jacqueline Leo
Scientists have determined that seven is the maximum number of disparate elements we can manage in our short term memory. This is why phone numbers are no more than 7 digits long.
But, if we group together elements, we can greatly expand this limit. Think of some common area codes for New York City telephone numbers: 718, 347, 212. These don’t take up 3 chunks of information, only one.
I created a curriculum designed for young children called the Musicolor Method. In it, I present a phased approach to music notation which “chunks down” the flow of information to children. In phase 2, I begin to show groupings of structure and label them as A or B. These musical chunks greatly help with organizing information in a way that can be retained and recalled.
Before you can group things into chunks, you have to break them down. By breaking new information into bite-sized pieces, you can learn anything.
This is basically my previously mentioned pie technique.
The next time your child is struggling with homework, or learning a new skill or practicing piano, see if you can put limits on their focus for that day’s session.
I use Post-It notes to quickly cover up whole swathes of music to lower information overload. It’s like putting blinders on my students. This creates a “window of focus” and greatly lowers the tension. You can do this too.
You just say,
“Work on what’s inside this window until it feels easy. Then, you’re done for the day! Tomorrow, we’ll move the window to a new spot.”
The child will see this and think, “Is that all there is? I don’t have to worry about anything else? That’s easy! Easy-peasy lemon squeezy!”
After a few days, you can then chunk these windows together to combine a well rehearsed song. It’s the same with working on other things besides music. Create an organized and gradual path towards mastery in discrete “bites,” and you can learn and finish anything: a big school project, memorizing lines for a play, a vocabulary test, etc.
Melanie (not her real name) was a piano student of mine for over seven years. After about four years of study, she decided she wanted to learn Beethoven’s famous Für Elise. We began with a shortened, simplified arrangement that I created. Then, she said she wanted the real thing. She learned it in small 2-to-4- measure bites that took almost three years!
Talk about persistence and… chunking down!
So the next time you hit the wall of overwhelm, ask yourself, “Can I slice this up into something more manageable? Tastier even? And when you do, reward yourself with a slice of your favorite real pie.