Lessons from Annika (and Dr. Chu)

Annika Sorenstam, the world’s #1 female golfer, had these core beliefs to share in this month’s issue of Golf for Women magazine. I thought I would point out their applicability to the “game of violin” as I teach it. 

1. Be open to feedback.

Annika says: “I’m always trying to improve: If I shoot 65, I want to know what I can do to shoot 64. It’s important to have a trusted friend or instructor who will give you feedback – in bad times and good. When [my coach] Pia sees something that troubles her, or if she thinks my attitude could improve, she’ll tell me. Conversely, if she sees something she likes, she lets me know, because when you get positive feedback, it reinforces the good emotions you feel and encourages you to recreate those feelings as much as possible.”

Dr. Chu says: The dedication to constant self-improvement is an essential attitude for excellence (ie, continuous learning) in any pursuit. Honesty is a cornerstone of my teaching approach, and it is how I build trust with my students. I must constantly cultivate this trust through sharing the truth, whether it is positive or negative. When my students open their minds and listen to me, they see that only when they have truly given their best effort, will they overcome their challenges and continue to improve. This is the truth, and when they see results from it, they actually believe it.

2. Establish a reliable pre-shot routine.

Annika says: “A good routine has two vital purposes. It puts you in the right frame of mind (ie, the present) so you’re less worried about the result and more focused onthe shot at hand. It also establishes a positive mind-set for your swing. Because you’ve performed the routine hundreds of times before, its familiarity will put you at ease. The swing follows naturally.”

Dr. Chu says: The first essential step in my teaching is to establish in my students the routine and discipline of handling the violin. They first learn “rest position”, or how to handle the violin when it is not being played, and then they learn how to put the violin up on their shoulder to play. All of the steps that they practice, beginning on the very first day, will become part of their “pre-play routine” and must be carefully monitored. We start and end each lesson in rest position, and this becomes a comforting, familiar part of their practice ritual.

3. Only hit when ready.

Annika says: “I never stand there with a club in my hand. My routine starts when I put my hand on my bag. Because I’d changed my routine [at the 1996 Kraft Nabisco Championship, when I lost the tournament by one shot], I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to execute the shot.”

Dr. Chu says: Mrs. Haag always said, “Ready, play!” before we started anything. As a result, this is what I always said in my mind before I played the first note of anything. It has now been abbreviated to a simple inhale before playing. I am passing this along to my students as a reminder always to make sure you are READY BEFORE you PLAY.

4. Play the percentages.

Annika says: “One common mistake I see among amateurs is that they’re not honest with themselves about their ability to hit certain shots. They ignore the percentages and try to play a perfect shot, even if they’ve never hit it before.”

Dr. Chu says: The violin analogy to “high-percentage shots” would be playing familiar repertoire. I always say to my students that it is better to play an “easier” piece very well than to struggle through your newest or most challenging piece. When my students are asked to choose solos to perform in public or in an audition, I always say to pick a piece that you can play while smiling. Of course, it’s always great to have a very challenging piece prepared so well that you can do it while smiling…

5. Practice with purpose.

Annika says: “The time I’ve spent with [my coaches] Pia and Lynn has shaped many of my habits. One thing they’ve always stressed was practicing with a purpose….The idea is to simulate conditions you’ll encounter during tournament play. You rarely draw perfect lies around the greens, so why practice them?”

Dr. Chu says: There are many conditions that must be simulated during violin practice. The first one is the lesson  conditions. Too often parents feel that they are doing their children a favor by not being as “strict” or as “hard” on their children as I am in the lesson, when in fact they are doing their children a disservice and actually setting them up for embarrassment, anxiety, and ultimately fear of the lesson. Wouldn’t it be much easier to work on something in the comfort of your own home, in the presence of your parents, than to struggle through this in front of both your teacher (whom you’re trying to please) and your parent (whom you’re also trying to please)? The second condition that must be simulated is a performance. The fact of the matter is that there are no second chances on the stage. You must know a piece so well that you can confidently play it on the first try. That means your mind, your ears, your fingers, your heart, your entire body must know what it feels like to play that piece on the first try, no matter what. Are you really doing yourself a favor by “letting things go” at home, when it is one of the most terrifying things to stand on a stage in front of people, not knowing whether you’re going to be able to play? Mrs. Haag used to say, “Practice makes permanent,” meaning, just clocking the time will not produce results. It is the way you practice (whether good OR bad) that becomes the way you perform.

6. Simplify your swing.

Annika says: “One reason I’m able to repeat my swing is because I keep it simple. For me, it always comes down to my backswing: If I make a full turn going back, so that my back faces the target, my body unwinds naturally and the ball just gets in the way of my club. If I start thinking about my impact position or where my hands are at the finish, then I’m tinkering too much. Don’t complicate your swing: keep it simple.”

Dr. Chu says: She makes it sound so simple, doesn’t she? Well, that’s what champions do. I think there is a simplicity to the violin position that we establish from day one with the children. The feet establish the body frame, and the mantra “nose, scroll, toe” aligns the violin correctly, whether one is standing to play a solo, standing in front of a music stand, or sitting in an orchestra. Just decide where you need violin to point, and it tells you how your whole body should be set up. This position also sets up the violin so that the bow arm will develop correctly. So simple, isn’t it?

By the way, Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott are long-time friends and mentors of Annika Sorenstam, and are authors of the book Every Shot Must Have a Purpose, and co-founders of the education and training company, Vision54, based on their philosophies about golf and life. It is a great book and a really interesting model for golf/life training….check it out!

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