As musicians, we spend a lot of time by ourselves in the practice room trying to acquire skills on our own, albeit with a little guidance from our teachers. It’s pretty easy to practice when we first start out on an instrument. As the honeymoon phase comes to an end, however, we frequently find ourselves thinking “I hate practicing my instrument” and wondering why we torture ourselves every day like this.
Instead of focusing on the negative aspects that arise in the practice room, this post focuses on creating positive and productive experiences while practicing an instrument.
- 1. Embrace your freedom in the practice room
- 2. Be strategic in your goal-setting
- 3. Improvise to reduce anxiety and activate creativity
- 4. Play Along with the Pros
- 5. Practice Performing
1. Embrace your freedom in the practice room
Everyone has a practice routine, and most students simply adopt the method that their teacher enforces. We don’t typically question it because the professional knows best, but we have to remember that everyone’s mind is unique, so our practice routines should be flexible to fit this.
Here are three common methods for practicing an instrument:
Follow your curiosity.
One of the sources that has transformed my practice sessions is The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart by Madeline Bruser (Book Review and Thriftbooks). In it she tackles the problem of the difference between performing and practice:
When we perform, we are on the spot. Every moment feels charged with possibility. We are acutely aware of being in a wide-open space in which anything can happen. But when we practice, we box ourselves in….We don’t know what to do with our freedom. We repeat passages in a joyless, desperate way to gain technical security. We adhere to a rigid plan for practicing a piece.
She explains that this type of practice destroys our creativity and makes it much more difficult to be spontaneous in performance. Traditional teaching methods dictate a lot of repetition, and while this is necessary, allowing the vulnerability of performance to permeate our practice benefits us as musicians and transforms those hours of arduous work into epics of curious exploration.
Bruser writes that traditional “ways of practicing indicate a lack of trust in our ability. We are afraid that if we just relax and let ourselves work naturally and comfortably, we won’t be good enough.”
Fear plays a huge role in the way we practice. Feeling inadequate when you’re not hitting all these deadlines or note “progressing fast enough” drive us to more rigorous schedules that don’t alleviate the issue. Bruser’s method is rooted in her mindfulness mediation background (including breathing before you begin to play and stretching your body), but even if you’re not keen on meditation, you can still raw from the idea of presence.
From a musical perspective, presence refers to taking in your surroundings completely and truly listening to the music, especially since we tend to tune out after a few repetitions. So how does this presence, this openness, actually guide a practice session?
Bruser uses the phrase “follow your curiosity” to know what you need to practice. This may seem like too much freedom, just practicing what you feel like practicing, but she notes that we’ve got guilty consciences (or wise inner voices), so if we’ve got deadlines approaching, we’ll instinctively practice what we need to for those. You’ll find you might actually learn a bit quicker because you’re playing whichever song you want to in that moment.
Compare random versus block schedules.
There is scientific merit to Bruser’s method. Traditionally, even to this day, great pedagogues encourage what is known as a “block schedule” in which you play a passage repetitively until it’s learned and then move onto the next section. You practice in chunks, which logically seems like it’s a good idea. It gives you the chance to master each section, feel good about the hard work, and then go onto the next reward.
The “random” or “interleaved” schedule is an idea that is gaining traction as more research is conducted on memory and skill acquisition. In neuroscience, this is called the contextual interference effect. Instead of playing all your repetitions at once, you play a few good repetitions of a passage, then move onto something else. Once you’ve stopped thinking about that first passage, you come back to it. This fights habituation, or the tendency of the mind to stop paying attention to something that keeps repeating.
The timer method is one way of organizing what feels like chaos, but Bruser’s approach of “following your curiosity” works the same way if you just remember to come back to what you practiced earlier.
If you’re a schedule-oriented person, though, that still may bother you, so there’s another option.
Schedule your time, not your work.
Dr. Josh Wright is one of the best youtube/online course piano teachers that I’ve found. He has hundreds of free videos as well as a few paid courses that are extremely helpful to pianists of every discipline. This video helped me find a good practice method for me:
If you’re unable to watch the video, he breaks a practice session down like this: For an hour of practice, you should aim for 15-20 minutes of technique (scales, arpeggios, chords, and etudes for the more advanced student), 10 minutes of sightreading, and the rest of the time broken up between 2 repertoire pieces. If you practice more than an hour, use the extra time for repertoire. Wright prioritizes “creating momentum with your repertoire pieces” as the most important part of practice.
Indeed, you’ll feel you’re learning a lot quicker if you’re mastering actual pieces frequently. But, don’t overdo the amount of repertoire pieces you work on at one time. Wright encourages only 3-4 at one time, and that’s for advanced players.
Allow your music practice to be organic.
Overall, music and the process of music-making are organic, so we ought to treat practice sessions organically as well. One of these processes may work for you, or maybe none of them will.
Experiment to find a method that works for you and makes you feel good about practicing. Prioritize making something of the music and gaining momentum, and you’ll be good to go.
A full post is necessary to really delve into the specifics and scientific merits for each of the many practice methods out there, so be on the lookout for that!
2. Be strategic in your goal-setting
Circumvent the planning fallacy.
Some people are really good at knowing how much they can accomplish in a given amount of time. The rest of us tend to think we can do a lot more than we actually can in a specific amount of time. This is called the planning fallacy and is due to the cognitive process of the optimism bias.
Goals are great motivators and can help us accomplish tasks on time, but they can create negative feedback when we don’t meet them. This is where frustration in practice can arise. You may think you’ll be able to learn a page in a session, so when it takes longer than that, you feel like a failure.
That’s not conducive to finding joy in the practice room, so to overcome the planning fallacy, we must adjust our goal-setting strategies.
There are strategies all over the internet, but the one that is most helpful here is to plan in such a way that your optimism bias cannot possibly interfere with your goals.
Instead of thinking, “I’ll learn 50 measures a day,” try, “I’ll practice 30 minutes a day.” That way, as long as you keep going for that 30 minutes, you still reach your goal. The more used to this method you get, the better you’ll get at adding it to your larger planning (i.e., “I need to learn this piece by next Tuesday, so I’ll practice it 40 minutes a day until then”). For the most part, sticking to your normal amount of practice and dividing it like Dr. Wright does in the previous point should help you feel a lot more successful in your practice time.
Pick repertoire that’s within your grasp.
An additional problem musicians face with the planning fallacy is picking repertoire that’s way more difficult than they can handle at a point in time. Yes, it certainly is possible to learn any piece with enough practice, but if you have to spend too much time learning a piece, you will most likely experience a lot of frustration and may even give up your instrument as a result.
This is why it’s so important to pick repertoire at your level or just above it (we call these “stretch pieces”). You’ll still be learning and working your way up to the skill set required to learn that difficult piece in a reasonable amount of time, and understanding this idea is a great way to nourish more positive feelings in your practice sessions.
3. Improvise to reduce anxiety and activate creativity
Improvise as a form of music therapy.
The use of improvisation as a music therapy technique to conquer performance anxiety isn’t a new one, but new research comes out every year on the topic. Improvising in the keys of your performance pieces is a great way to feel less anxious when you perform those pieces, but additionally, it can make you more creative in your approach to them.
Unlock your creativity.
In a 2010 Ted Talk, Dr. Charles Limb recounts the study he and Allen Braun conducted on improvisation and the brain.
Using a functional MRI scanner, they compared the mental activity of musicians who memorized certain passages versus the same musicians who improvised over a chord progression. Their results showed the self-monitoring portion of the brain lighting up in the memorized passages, but that turning off and the creative center of the brain coming to life during the improvised passages.
In the talk, Dr. Limb also explains how they wanted to explore how this relates to communication, so they did activities in which jazz pianists “traded fours” (a common practice in jazz where musicians will improvise over four bars and then pass it to their partner) while inside the fMRI scanner.
After discovering that the language centers of the brain lit up as the musicians traded fours, the researchers took it yet a step further by applying the experiment to actual language through the form of rap. If you’d like to see a scientist rap, definitely watch to the end.
The main takeaway from this video for our purposes today is that improvising helps us find joy in the practice room by first reducing our anxiety and then lighting up the creative centers of our brains. If you’re a musician, I’m guessing you enjoy being creative, so this is a good thing!
Start at the very beginning.
If you’ve never improvised before, this can be a daunting task. You will probably feel silly at first, but just keep going. The way I introduce my piano students to improvisation is as they learn their scales. Each time they learn the fingerings for a new scale, I have them make up their own melodies for each scale.
Some of them like to pick out tunes they know by ear as they do this, which is a great starting point, but then they always elaborate on it to create their own melodies.
As they get more familiar with improvising one melody without accompaniment, I’ll introduce them to the I IV I V7 I chord progression, and we’ll do duets with me playing the chords, and them playing their melodies. Then once they learn the fingerings for the block chords, they sustain each chord with their left hand and then just play whatever they want in the key with their right hand. No need for rhythm either. They just play the I chord, play as much melody as they want, and when they feel ready, they move onto the next chord.
We’ve had a lot of fun in our lessons with this kind of improv, so if you’re not sure where to start, this is a good introduction!
4. Play Along with the Pros
I’m going against what almost every piano teacher I’ve had has taught me in this regard, but I’m just going to go for it. Find a good recording of whatever repertoire piece you’re working on it, listen to it, and then try to play along with it no matter what part of the learning process you’re in.
Just picked it up? Cool, now you’ve got it in your ear. In the polishing process? Awesome, now you can listen for those subtle nuances you wouldn’t have noticed if you weren’t playing along.
This almost feels like “not practice” because it’s almost too fun to try and keep up with the professionals, especially on a piece you’ve been working on for a while, but it is so rewarding when you can keep up with their tempi on all the virtuosic runs and such.
There’s a couple reasons why playing along with a recording can be helpful in the practice room to both avoid frustration and to find joy.
Gamify your practice.
Mark Rober is an engineer who uses this idea and some wacky inventions like the world’s largest nerf gun or a snowball launcher powered by a leaf blower to teach science. In his Ted Talk, The Super Mario Effect, Rober discusses the idea of tricking your brain into learning more by turning it into a game:
For those unable to watch the entire video, Rober discusses the outcome of focusing on the end goal instead of the failures that occur along the way, much like the way toddlers get right back up when they’re learning to walk. In reference to Super Mario, he subtitled this talk, “Focusing on the Princess and Not the Pits to Stick with a Task and Learn More.”
He begins with a story from his childhood about how he and his friends all played Super Mario; that’s what they talked about each day at school. “Dude, what level are you on?” He said that they never talked about the hundreds of times they fell into pits or got knocked out by green shells, they were all so focused on whether they made it to the end of the game or not, and they did after getting through and learning from each of those obstacles.
Rober notes that this ability to “trick your brain” into doing something that requires failure is more than just a positive attitude, for that implies “you’re having to endure against your true desire to quit.” He says that when you frame the challenge in a game-like way, “you actually want to do it. It feels natural to ignore the failures and try again in the same way a toddler will want to get up and try and walk again.”
With this trick then, you’re not just motivating yourself to practice, you’re also turning it into something that doesn’t even feel like work.
Perhaps Rober unwittingly refers to cognitive reframing, which is a psychological technique that refers to any process, involuntary or voluntary, in which you identify bad thoughts and search for more positive ones. When this technique is used more deliberately or in a cognitive therapy session, it is called cognitive restructuring.
Playing along to a recording is a form of reframing or restructuring your practice time to focus more on what the end result will sound like than the passage that you keep messing up. Not only does it provide you with a more positive attitude, you’re also reminded of what you want to do; it’s easier to ignore the crushing blows of failure this way.
Try modeling in your practice.
When you play along with a recording, you also practice a psychological technique called “modeling.” This also applies to the example of a toddler learning to walk. Toddlers learn to walk by observing the older individuals around them and mimicking their movements.
Employing modeling in practice is not only a way to practice the same material in a different way, it also allows you to learn the material using a different part of your brain, and that can also be a good thing.
5. Practice Performing
When we’re sitting in a practice room everyday, it quickly becomes difficult to hang onto the reasons why we’re putting so much effort into learning our repertoire pieces, especially for those students who only perform once a semester or even once a year. I’ve found that I am more motivated to learn a piece when I know I’ve got a performance coming up, and I can feel the audience of the future staring back at me.
Some people record themselves, some will play for their best friends every so often. As long as you get practice performing, it helps to motivate you in the practice room towards that end goal of truly mastering a song.
Even if you don’t have a camera or friend ready to perform for, you can still practice performing at least through the cognitive process of creative visualization. This practice requires you to imagine yourself onstage, hearing the sound of the audience gently shifting in their seats, smelling that smell of the auditorium – some mixture of rosin, sweat, and cork grease – and letting it fill you up, feeling the audience’s eyes on you as you fight the nerves that are locking up your fingers.
Psychology studies have shown that your brain actually feels like it experienced or accomplished whatever you’ve fantasized about, so practicing visualization also better prepares you for actual performances. This can give you more positive thoughts when you go back into the practice room after a performance, so you’re feeding into a positive cycle when you do this.
This isn’t something you have to do everyday, but recording yourself, playing a mini-concert for a friend, or even lining up an audience of stuffed animals (yeah I’m still a 12 year old apparently) can be a great way to find motivation and excitement in the practice room.
These five points can all be boiled into one: feel free to explore in your practice. In fact, I encourage you to do this. This quote by James Russell Lowell hangs on the wall above my piano:
It’s something I like to think about a lot in music. In music, we are not just creating magic, we are exploring universes of history, acoustic science, metal-working, mathematics, and everything else that has gone into and inspired the making of music.
It would be pretty irreverant to reduce the practice of it to something that creates only misery and frustration, so explore the ideas from this post! I’ve got five, but you can make more from these:
- Embrace your freedom in the practice room
- Be strategic in your goal-setting
- Improvise to reduce anxiety and activate creativity
- Play along with the pros
- Practice performing
I’ve also done more research on joy, so if you’re interested in committing to a practice of joy in your practice sessions, check out 7 Steps to Practice Joy While Practicing an Instrument.
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.
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