How (not) to get better in German

How (not) to get better in German


norman lebrecht

September 24, 2017

Our diarist Anthea Kreston was rushed to hospital in Berlin last week for emergency surgery. She would like to put the recovery period to good use for improving her German, but that’s easier postponed than practise. For a start, in German medicine they expect you to do everything for yourself….

While in Italy last week, I received in my email inbox several messages which read: “Procrastination Module Overdue”.  You see, in preparation for my intensive German course, I had decided to take an online learning course, designed primarily for science and math students, to bolster my confidence (knowing, as we all do, that after adolescence, the ability for a human to master language is basically impossible).

But, as fate would have it, I ended up in the hospital, and flat on my back this week. I have lost weight (Jason hugged me on the way to work and said – “Anthea, just don’t get any skinnier please”), continued to have blood loss, had difficulty moving faster than a slug during siesta, and have had wavering faith that I was on the recovery. When on my second post-op checkup, the doctor commented that blood was being trapped in the hole left behind by my cyst. There was a shocking but extremely short pain, and she help up a bloody q-tip.  She said – “is that ok?” (a tad late to ask that, I might mention) – she had poked through my incision to allow blood to come though – with a q-tip, for Peet’s Sake!  She then told me to manually keep the wound open, to allow for flow (I was supposed to do this three times a day while training a hot shower head on the wound and massaging it).  I said – “what about a catheter?”, and with a big sigh of relief, I heard her say “great idea!”, followed by, “you can pick one up at the pharmacy and put one in yourself if that is easier for you”.  What is this, do-it-yourself procedure day?  My constant low-level nausea is understandable.

So – I got better and worse, and I was reminded of Bruce’s wise words several times (he is a frequent commenter – and we nearly met up in Spokane this summer, just missing each other by a couple of days).  He said something along the lines of “none of this “it’s been 3 days” – I wish the couch was just a tad closer to the window business”.  

One instance was when I was trying to knock walnuts out of the tree with a huge extended rake, or the time I was on the piano bench installing the newly purchased (from a flea market) vintage topographical school map of Germany, or when I was playing the American and German National Anthems (a beautiful Kreisler arrangement of the German one is on YouTube), sidled up to the mike, next to the hamburger stand, for my daughters’ school-wide field day. 

But, mostly I have been in bed, having food delivered to me, nestled in with a hot pack and tea, reading books – and finishing my over-due Procrastination Module. Today I have a house concert of 4 Beethoven Sonatas (the cycle starts next week – with my colleague and friend Frank-Immo Zichner on piano). We did not procrastinate on our work – our foundation was well-laid before we broke for the summer, so just a couple of quick touch ups this week sufficed.  A procrastinating musician is a musician who plays concerts only in the privacy of her own, acoustically perfect bathroom. 

So here is what I learned from my Procrastination Module.  Procrastination has 4 different elements.  

1- cue (trigger which activates procrastination)

2- routine (when you click into the activity)

3- reward (differs person-to-person – for musicians I think it is pride in improvement)

4- belief (your habits have a belief – to change them you have to change your underlying belief of your habit).  

Interestingly, the first element (cue) is when you think about something uncomfortable that you need to do, and this actually activates your pain centers in your brain – as if you are physically in pain. That is when we switch to do something more fun – to activate dopamine – this is the crux of procrastination. What happens during that instant is that your brain says “no no no I can’t do this – I won’t succeed!”.  

This thought is called product. This is what triggers the pain. What this course suggested that, instead of thinking about product during the Cue, think process. The time you need to do the activity. Don’t think about “What you need to accomplish”, just turn on the timer, and do something, anything, for 25 minutes. 

I tried this this week, to reorganize our household papers, and it really worked!  And I also relabeled, organized and alphabetized all of my quartet music, and finished my final weeks of my learning course – ahead of schedule. Feels great – give it a try!


  • Bruce says:

    “…when I was trying to knock walnuts out of the tree with a huge extended rake, or the time I was on the piano bench installing the newly purchased (from a flea market) vintage topographical school map of Germany…”

  • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

    I just said Mrs. Kreston’s post was very boring. Then I got blocked and censored without any reason and justification. What’s wrong?

    • Frederick West says:

      It’s a diary within a blog and none the worse for that. It gives a few outsiders some inkling of the life of a professional musician which seems a worthy and interesting thing to do, involving much more effort than your rather ‘boring’ riposte. That’s the point of a diary, the record of daily and weekly trials and tribulations. If you don’t find it of interest then don’t read it.

      • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

        1. Only after reading it could I find out it was dead boring.

        2. I just gave my personal feedback. I didn’t even ask for anything, i.e. “don’t post such boring stuffs again” etc.

        3. You don’t have to appreciate my feedback. You can think it dead boring and completely useless. Just ignore it, don’t read it. But why silenced it? I didn’t attack anybody, nor did I make up any fake news to maliciously discredit anyone.

        4. I don’t know why Kreston can enjoy such kind of special protection here. Just because she is famous? We all saw faaaaaaar more spiteful comments here, either against public figures or commenters. Is “freedom of speech” only a tool for attacking Putin and his supports? And maybe also the poor individuals?

        • Bruce says:

          4 (includes points 1 through 3).

          She may enjoy special protection because NL invited her to write this diary for Slipped Disc when she got the job in the quartet, before she even moved to Germany. (The earliest entries were all about her audition, then the packing, saying good-bye to friends & students, etc.) As an invited guest, NL may feel that, as host, he has a right or even an obligation to tell people how not to behave to her. (He certainly provides no such courtesy to Buniatishvili, for example.)

          Keep in mind that she writes her posts herself, and they are (by design) about her own life, you’re pretty much telling her that her writing is boring, and so is her life. You might want to think about whether that’s something you really want to do.

          In the early days of her contributions, there were a lot of people who for some reason seemed to be offended that a musician might want to write anything about her life outside of music. There was one lady, I forget her name but she always signed herself “FIRST VIOLINIST OF THE GRAMMY-NOMINATED ST. PETERSBURG STRING QUARTET,” who attacked her posts quite regularly, bemoaning the fate of the once-great Artemis Quartet which was now going to become terrible due to this kind of thing. NL finally got her to shut up by saying “Look, we understand that you’re jealous of the attention. Now give it a rest.” (I don’t know if he actually blocked her.)

          Now that you know what to expect from her posts, you might want to consider skipping them in the future. Just a thought.

        • Scotty says:

          Analeck, just take your own advice. As you wrote about your own comments “You can think it dead boring and completely useless. Just ignore it, don’t read it.”

          Personally, I enjoy Kreston’s diary and comments such “I found this boring” are nothing but sludge to slog through.

      • Robert Holmén says:

        In a previous thread “Analeck” revealed she is somewhere in the 20-somethings, at most.

  • Barbara says:

    Well put,Bruce. Some of the more technical entries go over my head but I still enjoy reading them and I also enjoy hearing about her family and their life in Berlin. I think I did make a bit of a sarky remark once about a very grand chateau she performed in but it wasn’t directed at her personally just a bit of inverted snobbery on my part probably.

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    “Procrastination has 4 different elements. …”

    Is this material available outside the intensive German module you are studying? There are similarities to some other things I’m studying with regards day-to-day activities in general and piano practice in particular.

    • anthea kreston says:

      Hi Ravi –
      I took the course through Coursera, which was mentioned recently in a New York Times article. It was free and really interesting. Learning how to Learn. It is available in many different languages and has a combination of videos, tests, forums with teachers and students, and written materials. I would highly recommend it!

  • Marg says:

    I happen to be someone who doesnt find Anthea’s posts boring – now that for some reason Slipped Disc has once again stopped coming into my email, I go into Google and find her weekly column because I enjoy reading it so much. If someone finds it boring, why do they feel the need to tell the rest of us? Just be bored, skip it next time, and read what you find fascinating (probably something I find boring, but I don’t bother annoying people who enjoy it by saying so). Its easy to get articles and comments about the glamourous side of the life of musicians, opera stars and so on. I find the (often) humdrum, daily grind of fitting everything in, the constant practising, the juggling of every day stuff with the making of sublime music, the insights, the truly uplifting experiences … all the things that make up Anthea’s life a fascinating read because it helps me understand just what goes into the life of the touring musicians whom I hear performing with such grace and apparent ease. My advice to Analeck is skip what you find boring, skip making such a droll comment, enjoy reading what interests you and make some insightful comments on those things instead.

  • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

    There are two completely different questions here:

    1. whether a certain person or comment has good taste or not
    2. whether you should silence someone just because you don’t like him/her

    However, all of you just keep educating me about the first one, which is of minor importance, while avoid talking about the second one, which is a question of principle. North Korea and Russia are also good at silencing people with different opinions or making uncomfortable critics. Are these countries your role models?

    Once again, I didn’t make any personal attack, nor did I made up any fake news to run a smear campaign against anyone. In fact, I am not even the only commenter here in this thread who find Kreston’s post boring. There “might be” more people out there (the majority?) who share my opinion. Just a thought.

    Your so called care and protection for Kreston is actually pretty harmful to her. Just think about the emperor’s new clothes. You can say the kid making the comment is illiterate and has no manner. But that doesn’t discredit the content of truth in his comment.

  • Marg says:

    It seems your right to say you are bored should not be criticized. Perhaps you should accord the same right to those who say they disagree with you? As for care and protection of Anthea … cant say Ive noticed that. We just enjoy her posts and express that. Keep reading them. You might find something to enjoy too.

    • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

      Marg, I am afraid you totally missed the core of question here.
      All the critics here against me and my comment are fully welcome. I will try to improve myself as far as I could, although I am fully aware that the upper limit of my capacity is pretty low.

      However, the real point here is following: when I made my first comment about Kreston’s post here, the comment was deleted silently. Only when I tried to post another comment about Glenn Gould in another thread, could I find out that I was blocked. And that totally unrelated comment was sucked into black hole also.

      Are you OK with this kind of censorship?

      • Bruce says:

        I think you’d have to take your question to Mr. Lebrecht. This is his blog, and he’s in charge. The “CONTACT” link at the top of the page might work.