I’ve been playing music since I was 5 years old so I’ve had a lot of time logged in the practice room. Today I’ll share some personal stories about practicing and some tips from my perspective as a recorder/flute/guitar student.
Neither of my parents played an instrument, nor any of my grandparents, but I’m grateful they gave the gift of music to me. My mom likes to tell people that she never had to tell me to practice. I don’t think that’s quite true but my motivation for practicing wasn’t always pure. In high school, I would disappear into my room to practice immediately after dinner, neatly avoiding the clean-up. I still hate doing dishes to this day. Practicing is not always pleasant but it beats doing the dishes.
What is your motivation?
I don’t like doing housework of any kind, but I love checking things off on my to-do list. If laundry needs to be done, I’m much more likely to tackle the basket of clothes if it’s on my list. There’s something about checking that box that I find deeply satisfying. Along the same lines, every morning I think about what I need to get done and create a schedule. On a really busy day, it’s helpful to block out time for my practicing. Because I’m completely enmeshed with my iPhone, I use the “Reminders” app for the checklist and calendar to schedule my practice. When it’s Siri asking me to do something, somehow that feels different.
As you may have read in a previous post (Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective), I’m not a big fan of using behaviorism in the form of rewards with young students. However, I’m not above using it on myself! When something is particularly difficult, I’ll set a little reward. For instance, last week I didn’t feel like practicing my guitar though I knew I needed to work on a song for a concert. I told myself that if I worked on the song for 20 minutes, I could have a cup of coffee. That was all I needed to get over the hump.
Know when to walk away.
Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler” is playing in my head…”You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” When practicing becomes too frustrating or too difficult, walk away for awhile. It might be a few minutes, maybe a few hours, maybe even a whole day. Building up tension and bad feelings only hurts your practice. Be kind to yourself (and your musical children.) Give the brain time to do its subconscious work. You might be surprised at the miracles that can occur between practice sessions.
Not all practice happens by moving our fingers and blowing/bowing/pedaling/etc. Mental practice can be every bit as useful, often more so. Bring your music anywhere you would a book- on public transportation, while waiting for appointments, to your child’s baseball practice, wherever you may have a few minutes of quiet. I’ll talk more about practicing away from the instrument in a future post. Stay tuned!
Try playing along with a recording. There are many books now that come with CDs or mp3 files, and this can be a lot of fun. Find a recording of a professional playing your piece and see if you can play along. I have found that this makes for entertaining practice without stopping to catch mistakes. Of course, we need to spend time working out difficult passages on our own, but playing with the recording can be another kind of mini-reward for doing the detail work.
I’ve always tended toward introversion; having stretches of alone time during the day is good for recharging my batteries. Reframing practice to see it as restorative – physically, emotionally, mentally – rather than a chore, can make the instrument more appealing. Sometimes, it feels good to practice. On those days when tangible progress is made, when I’m able to be in the “flow,”* when I’m creatively stimulated, I try to savor that feeling and file it away for use on a day when I need it.
What motivates you to practice?
*For more on “flow,” check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.