The New Normal ???

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to change my expectations of how I play and how I will perform. I’ve had many teachers tell me ‘you’re better than you think you are’ and my instant reaction has always been no I’m not. Well, I’m starting to rethink that. Since last June I’ve had some performance successes that are making me realize that I have really improved but I’ve also had some hiccups along the way. So is there a way to reset one’s personal expectations and does using the thought process of ‘the new normal’ help in any way?

The new normal was a way to describe the economic downturn back in 2008. Most people had to reset their expectations, particularly their financial expectations, and do with less. But is there any reason to associate the new normal only with downturns? It seems that the term could equally apply to upturns though it’s not typically used that way.

So back to horn playing. How one internalizes how they play is completely subjective. It’s not like baseball where you have a batting average that tells you and everyone else exactly how good you are. You know how you are doing over time and how you did in any game.  We don’t have a batting average – 30 misses out of 100 notes equals what really? One flubbed note in a long solo equals what? Our heads are our own worst enemy.

Back to me. I had three performance successes – where I felt I played well – recently and I realized that I can change my mindset from my old normal – ‘I always screw up performances’ – to my new normal – ‘I play well in performances.’ Since how you think is usually how you do it’s way better to go into a performance assuming you will do well.

Now for the hiccups. I took a two week vacation in September and I didn’t bring my horn. Before that I hadn’t missed more than three days in a row.  When I resumed practicing I played badly for several weeks and I was really unhappy and frustrated. I would have had a better mindset if I just reset my expectations to my new normal – not playing as well as I had before I went on vacation. It is what it is and it’s better just to accept it.

Then when I finally got back to where I was before vacation I had surgery on my right hand and had a monster bandage that filled up my entire bell. I really couldn’t play. I was flipping off notes all the time and my sound was awful. Once I got the bandage off and a cast on my playing improved ever so slightly. I really had a new normal that I had to accept. The alternative was a whole lot of negative thinking with a trip down the rabbit hole.

I don’t think resetting one’s expectations is appropriate for changes over short time frames. For example if you think you play badly one day or one week. But if there is a change that will be more long term, negative or positive, maybe it makes sense to put a label on it. Is it your new normal? Say yes and you’ll be happier for it.


When I first picked up my horn again back in May 2008 I really didn’t have any expectations or goals. I was just going to see how it would go. As I played and then actually started to practice I slowly got better and good things fell into place. I didn’t set a goal to play in a community band by January 09. One day my teacher and I talked about playing in a band and I found a local group, emailed the band director and got in. Then I met the other hornists in this band who told me about another band and I got into that.

As I practiced more and played better I got more serious about playing and I started to think very abstractly about what goals I have related to playing the horn. Goals can be short term or long term and may or may not be achievable depending on how they are defined. Fundraising goals, for example, are typically set for a fiscal year which, to me, would be a long term goal.  Establishing targets for each quarter would be short term goals. To reach a short term goal one can define a set of tasks which, if accomplished, completes the goal. On a daily or weekly basis one can identify expectations that hopefully lead to successfully completing the task. A task could be contacting all the people who made a donation the previous year with an expectation of getting 65% of them to donate again.

For horn playing, one of my short term goals is to learn transposition. The tasks would be to learn Eb and then E and so forth. As I practice everyday I may set an expectation of playing one short Kopprasch etude correctly in Eb at a given tempo, say quarter note = 60. Once I achieve that, the next expectation would be to play the same exercise at quarter note = 70. This may seem like micromanagement but as I mentioned in my blog about expectations I want to make daily practice sessions a positive experience so I want to set my daily expectations darn close to achievable. As I work on transposition over time my short term goal will ultimately become an expectation – e.g. play x number of excerpts in different transpositions correctly.

A long term goal of mine would be to play in a community orchestra. One of the many things I need to do to achieve that goal is to learn transposition. So that long term goal of playing in a community orchestra is made up of shorter goals, one of which is to learn transposition. Another thing I have to work on is rhythm. I think most goals should be quantifiable so a goal of “get better at rhythm” would not be a particularly useful goal. Picking out a rhythmically complicated excerpt to be sight read in a month might be a better goal.

I hadn’t really thought about writing my goals down but it makes sense to do that just as it makes sense to write down expectations. To that end, I designed a practice log that hopefully will make it easy to jot down notes (pun intended) as I practice. The value of a practice log is not only to identify what one should work on for the day but to see progress on a regular basis. The more specific and achievable the expectations are the more obvious it will be to see improvement.

Practice Log

Practice Log

This is the log I designed and just started using. I typed in the exercises that I do everyday and I left blank space for the current things I am working on that will change over time. I entered a few expectations and goals as an example. I think this log still needs some improvements – a place for a date; maybe using landscape format to get more room for comments or to add a column for tasks. It’ll need to be two pages to get everything in it but that’s probably the better way to do it. Once I feel comfortable with the design I’ll take it to Staples, print up a hundred or so pages and have it bound.

I’ve been keeping a practice journal for quite a while now but I rarely go back and read it. For one thing, my handwriting is awful so when I do look it over I can’t figure out half of what I wrote. At my weekly lesson we sometimes review what I have written for the week but I lose some valuable lesson time trying to decipher what’s in the journal. Even if I can figure out what the words are I don’t always remember what I meant. This log needs to be simple and concise so it’s easy to go back and review it. If anyone has ideas on how to make this log better I’m all ears (or maybe eyes.)

What’s age got to do with it? –>