In his 2019 literature review on the study of joy in positive psychology, Matthew Kuan Johnson explains there are four types of joy. Joy can be an emotion, mood, a disposition or trait, or what religious or spiritual practices consider a “spiritual fruit.”
As an emotion, joy comes from an external situation; it’s an affective response to something that happens to you. As a mood, joy is primed to occur. It might be that you’re among close friends, so you tend to be more open to feeling pleasant emotions.
Joy is also considered to be a disposition or trait, referring to the people who are always full of sunshine and smiles. They are the ones who can easily look on the bright side of life even when everything feels hopeless.
Finally, religious and spiritual practitioners view joy as a “spiritual fruit.” The Christian religion places it alongside love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Outside of these religious and spiritual points of view, however, joy can also be considered a practice that influences our overall behavior and attitude. This is where we’ll focus our attention today.
“Joy makes you more intensely you.” from Johnson. The heart of his research is that joy in any form makes us feel more wholly like ourselves. We stop people-pleasing and are content to simply be.
This ties into much earlier research into joy. De Rivera, Possell, and Veretts (1989) showed that joy actually connects us with other people. This implies that joy teaches us to be vulnerable in a safe way.
Practicing joy every day not only makes us happier and makes us feel better about ourselves, it also helps connect us with other people, which is what we’re wired for. This is something joy has in common with music, so why not practice them together?
What would happen if we approached every day and every piece with a spirit of willingness and excitement?
1. Make the Decision/Choose to Create a Practice
I keep referring to this as a practice, but I really mean that we’re trying to create a habit of thinking joyfully to fall back onto. As you’ve probably experienced every New Year, it’s tough to just create a big habit, “I’m going to be more joyful” is actually a tall order, so we have to break it down into single, repeatable actions.
Start with saying “I’m going to practice joy when I practice my instrument.” And continue saying it every day! A habit of choice means that we repeatedly choose.
It reminds me of what old married couples say, that you may not always like your spouse, but you still choose to love them every day.
Additionally, simply saying “I will practice joy today” puts joy into your mind, automatically making you more receptive to feeling it when something happy happens.
But, any habit is easy to fall out of if it doesn’t mean anything to you, so take time to reflect on your reasons for doing this. Is it because you want to be more open to happiness? Are you doing this for someone else? Maybe you’re choosing to practice joy to make you a better musician (because it will!). Whatever the reason, write it down somewhere and place that somewhere special.
You don’t have to tell anyone you’re doing this, but if you have a friend who’s willing to practice with you, a little mutual support is also helpful in building habits!
2. Practice Being Present
This is easier said than done. As Madeline Bruser recommends in The Art of Practicing, take a moment before you dive into a practice session to let yourself just be.
You can close your eyes or leave them open, but do sit quietly for a moment. Start with your breath. Pay attention to the way it moves your body up and down. Don’t try to control or change the way you’re naturally breathing, just pay attention to it. Can you hear it? Can you hear or feel your heart beating?
Now, expand your awareness outward. Is there a clock ticking, cars driving by, a fan running? Get comfortable with all the sounds in your practice space.
Once you start your practice session, you can practice being present by really listening to your instrument while you play. Does it echo? Can you feel vibrations through it?
The most important part of being present is understanding that your thoughts will ebb and flow. Worries about the future will creep in, and that’s completely okay! Let them! But once you recognize that they appeared, acknowledge they exist, and then come back to your breathing or the feeling of vibration coming from your instrument. Come back to focusing on some physical sensation.
Presence helps us to be fully aware of our experiences and to act in ways we’re proud of. It’s part of that feeling of wholeness that joy can bring us, and being focused on physical sensations is a great way to practice presence.
3. Acknowledge Yourself and Your Time
This point comes from mindfulness. Whenever I finish a guided meditation, the lady narrating always directs me to take a moment at the end to acknowledge myself and my practice. It’s just a little head nod I do to myself, but this small, daily action is my permission to just exist.
Many of us feel like we have to earn the right to exist or to play our instruments, so practicing acknowledging ourselves reminds us that we are all allowed to do things that make us happy even if we’re not 5-year-old prodigies.
A practice of acknowledgement allows us to remain open to positive experiences and pleasant opportunities instead of forcing ourselves to feel punishment for “not being good enough.” Impostor syndrome is something pretty much all of us experience, but acknowledging ourselves every day helps to quell that loud voice in the back of our mind (or the sirens of the fraud police, as Amanda Palmer calls them).
At the end of your practice sessions, give yourself a little nod to acknowledge the time you spent practicing today, this week, this month, this year.
Every so often go back to the beginner method books if you still have them or go on IMSLP and play through something rated level 1. You’ve come so far, and that required a lot of work! Give yourself a nod or a pat on the back for all the work it took to get to where you are right now.
Now think about where you are right now. Think of everything you can and love to play. Don’t think about the future; don’t think about what you want to play. Make a list of your absolute favorite pieces/songs to play.
4. Practice Gratitude
Joy and gratitude are linked. You’ve probably seen a billion news stories about how the most thankful people are the happiest. Just like everything behavioral, gratitude is a practice, and practicing it changes the way your brain works.
What does gratitude look like in our practice sessions?
Many of us name our instruments (I’ve got Clive, Ella, and Clara in my life), so maybe this won’t feel too silly. Take a moment at the beginning of every practice session to thank your instrument for spending time and making music with you.
At any point in your practice session you can stop and be thankful. Other people to thank are your supporters. Did your parents pay for lessons while you were growing up? What about that lady who complimented your playing years ago? Don’t forget to thank yourself for paying for any lessons and instruments and also for taking the time to practice!
Finally, you can thank your practice space. A lot of us really got into Marie Kondo’s way of organizing our homes thanks to her Netflix series, but something that really struck me was the way she always greets the home before they get started going through everything. She and the clients thank the home for keeping them safe and getting them through tough times. Additionally, whenever these people choose to let go of an item, Kondo teaches them to thank the item for its service before letting it go.
Beginning every practice session with gratitude allows us to come into our practice with a positive mindset, letting the frustrations of the day melt away. This can help us focus and can make our practice sessions feel more therapeutic, like a cleansing away of any unpleasantness.
5. Integrate Pleasant Experiences into the Session
How often do you find yourself wanting to play a piece, but you don’t because you learned it a long time ago and don’t want to get caught up in “wasting your time” by spending more time on it? Sure, we don’t want to exhaust ourselves by only playing pieces we already know, but it is important to still include time to just have fun in the practice session.
After you’ve done the work, end your session with a piece you love that you could play in your sleep. If it was a tough practice session, and you felt like your fingers weren’t cooperating, ending with a beloved and familiar piece can place a positive spin on the entire session. It’ll help you feel more positive overall and therefore more willing to come back to practicing.
This could also look like improvising for a few minutes. Some call this “noodling” because “improvising” can be a big, scary concept with high expectations. With noodling, just play some notes, then some other notes. If you liked them, repeat them, if you didn’t play some different notes. Noodling in specific keys can also help you feel comfier in those keys and can actually help with your scales.
6. Own Your Story and Problem Solve
This is related to acknowledging your time and yourself. In much of her work, shame and vulnerability researcher, Brené Brown explains that we have to lean into the unpleasant emotions in order to feel the pleasant ones. If we block out the dark, we also block out the light.
When you get frustrated when you’re practicing, lean into it. Ask questions to better understand what’s the actual cause behind your frustration. This is where you can practice problem-solving skills.
Is it that you can’t seem to get this one passage? If you’ve been working hard, and you still haven’t gotten it, then it must be a difficult passage! Acknowledge that the reason you’re so frustrated is because you feel like you should be able to have learned it already.
Or are you frustrated because you did have this passage yesterday? That’s also really frustrating, but once you know why, you can gently remind yourself that learning requires repetition over multiple days.
Lean into the pleasant feelings too!
When you’ve finally nailed a passage, don’t just move onto the next thing. Take a moment to breathe deeply and smile to yourself. Stretch your arms, maybe do a little cheer for yourself because you did it! Think about if you were an infant trying to do these intricate muscle movements. They certainly couldn’t because there is a lot that goes into doing what you do every day that we don’t really think about.
Owning the pleasant and unpleasant experiences in your practice sessions can go a little deeper if you write them down. This is a great practice to include if you keep a practice journal.
Practice celebrating every moment you can, and it’ll be a lot easier to find joy in the tough times. This practice leaves you open to the opportunity of joy.
7. Create Your Practice
A practice of joy has to be something unique to you. These steps are just a starting point. Try each one out for a week, or try all of them. There’s something you can add that is unique to your story.
Nudge theory is the psychological concept of slowly nudging ourselves to better habits by creating smaller habits first. I recommend picking one at a time to practice until it’s second nature. Maybe practice taking a breath at the beginning of every session for a few weeks. After that, it’ll feel odd to not take that time.
Whatever works for you, write it down, and choose every day to follow it. Maybe hang a sign up over the piano to remind you to practice joy. Print this out if it helps!
Find a favorite quote about joy to put on a sticky note above your bed, so you think about it.
But definitely choose a plan and stick to it. We’re trying to build a habit of joy to fall back to when things get tough, and building a habit takes time and baby steps, but I know you can do it.
The Practice Joy Music Practice Journal
This 20-page pdf is free resource to help you incorporate small habits of joy into your practice session. By choosing to practice joy while you practice your instrument, you create a positive experience for yourself that will make practicing something you want to come back to.
The journal draws on the tips outlined in this post as well as the two others on avoiding frustration and finding joy.
It functions as both a regular practice journal with places to write down technique, sight-reading, and repertoire for each day but also to remind you to take a few deep breaths to settle your body and calm your mind before you fully dive into the session.
Also included is a section on setting goals, so that you consistently achieve them, which is another aspect to practicing joy.
It’s completely free, and you can download it here:
It’s liberating to feel like you can contribute to your own sense of joy despite all the chaos in the world. It actually gives me a huge sense of hope as well. In doing this, you give yourself space to be who you are, and this gives you the opportunity to accomplish so much more than you probably thought!
I hope this post is helpful and that you’re able to share the joy you practice with others.
Joy and hope are contagious, after all.
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De Rivera, Joseph, Lois Possell, Julie A. Verette, and Bernard Weiner. “Distinguishing elation, gladness, and joy.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57, no. 6 (1989): 1015.
Johnson, Matthew Kuan. “Joy: A review of the literature and suggestions for future directions.” The Journal of Positive Psychology 15, no. 1 (2020): 5-24.