Covey’s “Seven Habits” for Musicians

Covey 7 Habits Book

Last week, our guest artist at the University of Iowa was Jim Lyon. Jim lives in Dubuque and besides having a very successful “day job”, is an outstanding euphonium artist and teacher. His master class was preceded by a quick introduction to his musical reinterpretation of Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits” principal. Jim is the kind of person who doesn’t say a lot, but what he says is powerful. His talk, and its influence on my teaching was inspirational. Jim was originally inspired by Gene Pokorny, the principal tubist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra spoke about the application of Covey’s concepts in the introduction to his CD Orchestral Excerpts for Tuba on Summit Records. I want to further explore how we as musicians could translate these valuable concepts.

So, to quote WikiPedia, here are the basics of Covey’s system:

1. Be Proactive – You can either be proactive or reactive when it comes to how you respond to certain things. When you are reactive, you blame other people and circumstances for obstacles or problems. Being proactive means taking responsibility for every aspect of your life. Initiative and taking action will then follow. Covey also shows how man is different from other animals in that he has self-consciousness. He has the ability to detach and to observe his own self; think about his thoughts. He goes on to say how this attribute enables him: It gives him the power not to be affected by his circumstances. Covey differentiates between stimulus and response; we have the power of free will to choose our response.

2. Begin with the End In Mind – This chapter is about setting long-term goals based on “true north” principles. Covey recommends formulating a “personal vision statement” to document one’s perception of one’s own vision in life. He sees visualization as an important tool to develop this. He also deals with organizational vision statements, which he claims to be more effective if developed and supported by all members of an organization rather than prescribed.

3. Put First Things First – Here, Covey describes a framework for prioritizing work that is aimed at short-term goals, at the expense of tasks that appear not to be urgent, but are in fact very important. Delegation is presented as an important part of time management. Successful delegation, according to Covey, focuses on results and benchmarks that are to be agreed upon in advance, rather than prescribed as detailed work plans.

4. Think Win/Win – Think win/win describes an attitude whereby mutually beneficial solutions are sought that satisfies the needs of oneself, or, in the case of a conflict, both parties involved.

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood – Covey warns that giving out advice before having empathetically understood a person and their situation will likely result in rejection of that advice. Thoroughly reading out your own autobiography will decrease the chance of establishing a working communication.

6. Synergize – Synergize describes a way of working in teams. Apply effective problem solving. Apply collaborative decision-making. Value differences. Build on divergent strengths. Leverage creative collaboration. Embrace and leverage innovation. It is put forth that when synergy is pursued as a habit, the result of the teamwork will exceed the sum of what each of the members could have achieved alone. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

7. Sharpen the Saw – This chapter suggests focusing on balanced self-satisfaction: Regain what Covey calls “production capability” by engaging in carefully selected recreational activities.

Then I read Gene Pokorny’s thoughts on this subject in a recent master class transcribed at Julia Rose’s Horn Page and mentioned on Dave Werden’s Tuba-Euphonium Blog.

After reading all of this, I came up with a short list of statements and questions:

1. Be Proactive:
I always thought this simply meant to make things happen, but now realize it is much more than that. Merriam-Webster defines it as; “relating to, caused by, or being interference between previous learning and the recall or performance of later learning “ and “acting in anticipation of future problems, needs, or changes”

I have had the pleasure of working with some very talented students, and some very hard-working students. But, when talented students don’t work much, and rest on their laurels, it can be disappointing and frustrating for both the teacher and student. I always thought that some people are “resistant to learning”, that they tend to avoid facing their challenges. In fact, these same people tend to be the first to point out how things aren’t fair, or that they just didn’t have the time. Excuses can be serious impediments to learning. Let’s face it, we have enough challenges to overcome without putting more in our own way.

So some of the thoughts I had along these lines are:

•    Avoid making excuses and externalizing blame.
•    Take responsibility for your actions – and your non-action.
•    Make time to practice – don’t complain about lack of time.
•    Fix your horn, buy that music, arrange that piece yourself.
•    Don’t assume that an equipment change will solve your problems.
•    Don’t whine about the situation change it.
•    If you can’t figure out how to solve a problem, don’t quit – try a different approach or seek help.
•    Remember, you future competitors are practicing right now.

2. Begin with the End In Mind:
Establish and commit to your goals, and base every decision with them in mind. Utilize visualization, and imagine an aural image, to achieve the sound you want. Your intellect can be the single most powerful tool in the quest for progress. Although much of our training has to do with muscle memory, focusing mentally can greatly improve physical performance. Developing a practice routine that works for you can be your “organizational vision.”

3. Put First Things First:
All musicians eventually realize the value and necessity of prioritizing. College students are faced with a multitude of responsibilities and activities vying for their time and attention. You can’t do everything. In addition to prioritization, I equate this to the adage “Learn to walk before you can run.” Start slow, begin with what you can do, one measure at a time, take it an octave down.

4. Think Win/Win:
This one is the most difficult for me to grasp as far as translating it to a musician. I can imagine some scenarios that apply, however. Just as students benefit from study groups, practicing in teams, or listening and critiquing each other may be helpful to both parties. All teachers know that they learn as much as their students. As a teacher, I enjoy playing in my students’ lessons, or working on duets or sight-reading with them. They benefit by hearing my interpretation and are pushed to excel, without a lecture-style spoken format. In chamber music, the idea of mutually beneficial solution can be illustrated by give-and-take necessary to play together successfully. Good chamber musicians are constantly monitoring each other for pitch, phrasing, tempo, tone and articulation and adjust these elements for the benefit of the ensemble.

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood:
If the completion of the phrase is “Seek first to understand thyself”, I think that goes a long way to helping musicians. As Jim Lyon, and Arnold Jacobs have advised, “Listen to yourself.” It seems so obvious, but many things we take for granted frequently are. While you are playing, don’t get so involved being an “instrument operator”, that you forget that you are a musician. When you are performing, don’t forget the perspective of the audience – play the way you would like to be played to.

I find that this concept is incredibly insightful as a teacher. How can you truly relate to your students if you haven’t gone through the same challenges? – walked a mile in their shoes, so to speak. Simply put, play in unison with your students, so that you can truly understand what it is that they are doing and perhaps why they are doing it. I call this “Skiing down the slopes together”. A ski instructor is not as effective if he stays atop the slop shouting instructions. There is no substitute for being right there in the trenches with your student. This is also why music educators have to have mastered their instrument to a proficient level. Even if they don’t intend on being professional performers, they are sure to train students facing the same challenges they did as a student. The worst position for a teacher is that of being an outsider, “sorry, I never had that problem, I don’t know how to help you” or worse yet “I never figured out how to do that either.”

6. Synergize:
Besides the obvious correlation to chamber music skills, there are a host of circumstances where teamwork is beneficial to musicians. For instance, as a “soloist”, you need to realize that especially in the case of playing with a pianist, you are still a collaborative musician. Sure, perhaps you have hired an “accompanist” to follow you, make you look good, and find you when you get lost, but remember to listen and react to them as well. Some of the best musical ideas I have ever heard originated from pianists I was working with. In my studio, synergy is harnessed during duets, tuba-euphonium ensemble, and team projects. I also try to listen to the opinions and ideas, and take them under consideration when making decisions such as programming, brainstorming, and the best use of our time. Last semester, my students’ final projects were to attend musical and artistic events outside the confines of the brass world. By attending art exhibits, poetry readings, musicals, and non-brass recitals, they were exposed to other artistic disciplines, but also realized the commonalities between all of the arts. It was synergy that helped to develop an international sound in the Renaissance, and how Modernists in the early Twentieth century developed a new aesthetic in art, music and literature.

7. Sharpen the Saw:
As much as we all have to work on honing our arts, and putting our noses to the grindstone, it is just as necessary to devote time to an avocation, hobby, or diversion. Especially in the intense world of a college musician, blowing off steam in a recreational manner becomes essential. Sometimes a break is more valuable than burning out. Another way a musician can sharpen the saw is to try “recreational practicing.” Work on music for the simple joy of it, or get away from written music entirely and dabble in improvising, composing, or playing along with the radio.

Above all, musicians are humans, and we should remain open to anything that helps improve performance and progress. Learning is like a buffet-table. Try everything and go back for more if you like something. As tuba players, there is so much to focus on that is mechanical, technical, physical, so anything that offers a fresh perspective is always welcome. As Mr. Pokorny said, “People have much to offer even when you are looking at things differently”.

I am inspired, but not enough to shell out money for a Covey course, but I am looking forward even more to attending the Rex Martin and Gene Pokorny tuba Master Classes at Northwestern University School of Music this summer.

Related Links:

Dr. Stephen Covey

Order Seven Habits from Amazon

Franklin Covey website

Order Gene Pokorny’s recordings (HB Direct)

Gene Pokorny (Chicago Symphony Orchestra website)

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