Wednesday, February 13, 2013


I've been reading things on the internet and talking to people recently about the motivation to practice. One blogger in particular published a post which basically told people in so many words to get off their backsides and go practice. Judging by a few responses it got this was a very useful post for a lot of people. It makes me think that there is quite a need for a motivational coach for musicians.

Then there was the conversation I had the other day in which I was told of a teacher who tells students that the hardest thing about practicing is opening the instrument case. That made me think a little.

It's been a while since I can remember really having a hard time getting myself to practice. That doesn't mean the act of practicing itself is easy, although I've done it so often and been through the learning curve with so many pieces of music that I can at least anticipate when the difficulties are going to come and talk myself through them when the way gets hard: in other words, be my own built-in motivational coach.

That wasn't always the case, and with any activity, motivation to work hard increases as results increase. In other words, when you get good at something you want to get better. If you are excited by early results you have more drive to go on. That makes the first stages the most difficult because we have the fewest results to go on, and have experienced the least success. And we are bound to have unrealistic ideas about success in proportion to work; in other words, when it doesn't come as soon as we think it will, we give up.

The blogger was dealing with some frustrated musicians who had wanted concert careers that weren't working out and didn't feel like practicing anymore. So what's your motivation? he asked. Good question. And then he made the point that it has to come from within and can't be driven by external factors.

Also a good point. I'm lucky. Most days I bound up the stairs at my church, happy to see the organ and the piano, and feel a little surge of energy when I think it's another day and a chance to improve on those pieces I'm working on. Then reality hits once I start practicing! I can usually tell how long I will have to stay with it before an even better thing happens: the piece starts to sound like music, and I stop worrying over wrong notes and start interpreting the piece, dancing it, singing it, making it seem natural and coherent and meaningful and important and exciting.  It might be a few hours, or a few days or a few weeks. In the meantime it can be pretty excruciating.

I suppose some of how I practice is driven by external factors. If I'm playing the piece in a church service in a couple of weeks I have a deadline. It's usually pretty well set, too, since it is tied to a particular service and won't work so well the following week. Or I have a concert coming up, or a rehearsal to prepare for. I've got quite a few deadlines, actually.

But often I program pieces for concerts that I'm not required to play, or explore more difficult organ music than I'm expected to play. I'm driven by more things than deadlines. One of them is curiosity  and the desire to learn more about music and what sorts of pieces are out there, to broaden my notions and my understanding. That pulls me forward. What pushes me from behind is the need to avoid boredom, which is what happens when I only do the bare minimum, play the same music year after year, keep everything as simple as I can, do nothing to challenge myself.

But all this is a far cry from just getting the case open, or stopping the television watching to go sit at the instrument. And for a lot of people, that's where the line is drawn.

I'm not quite sure what to say to you.

When I was young, I didn't like to practice, either. I didn't like to work. And practice felt like work. My mother asked me if I still wanted to play the piano. Yes. But practice? no. I wanted the results without the work, the fun without the discipline. How bizarre. What an unusual response for a human being to have, says the narrator with a smirk.

I can't say my practice habits got that much better until college. I spent some of that time goofing off in ways that helped my be as musically creative as I am today, part of it being lazy, and yes, part of the time practicing, in fits and spurts as carrots were put in front of me and I wanted certain things for myself and as I gradually matured. But it wasn't until college that a teacher really showed me how to practice; not just to lock yourself in a room for an hour and play pieces over and over, but to really engage your brain in the process. And to really sweat for it. During one lesson he said "how do you feel?" I said "like I just ran 5 miles." He said, "Great. That's exactly how it should feel." And, like running, you can gradually get addicted to that process, the feeling of working that cranial muscle for all its worth in the pursuit of ever clearer goals. But it doesn't come all at once. It comes, if it comes at all, as a result of continually striving for that ability by exercising what you've got again and again until you've got more of it, including the habit of practicing instead of not practicing. And then everything that comes after you make that decision.

I could wrap this up with some inspirational words and see if I could make you want to practice. Or maybe a virtuoso performance on the piano or organ would make you jealous or inspired enough to try it yourself. But that will only work for so long. Instead, you'd be better off thinking about what motivates you. What do you really want? And how badly do you want it? Can you tolerate periods of pain and frustration as you work out that musical gesture, measure, line, page, piece? How can you increase your tolerance? Do you have much of an inner life or do you get most of your stimulation from outside? It's amazing how much time we spend consuming--no wonder producing something at a musical instrument seems so foreign. Advertisers are lined up around the block telling us how great we'll feel consuming their product, and how all our problems will be solved the instant we purchase their service. A life in music isn't like that in the slightest--it's much harder; but on the upside, it doesn't promise the moon in big lying letters. And it can't happen all at one blow. It unfolds a phrase at a time, a decision at a time.

 Opening the case is just the start.

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