By Susanna Klein | From the September-October 2020 issue of Strings magazine
So much time, so little to do, and so much Netflix to catch up on. If you are feeling entirely unmotivated to practice, you are not alone. When the coronavirus shut down schools and concert halls across the United States, there was an instant dip in motivation that went with it as key elements of the musical process went dark. Gone are the discipline mechanisms and reward systems as we know them. In their place, many found a severe case of “practice block.” Habit building is driven by five key elements, most of which vanished along with large gatherings and handshakes: accountability, deadlines, a built-in team, a social outlet, and clear goals.
But all is not lost. Decades of research in human behavioral sciences offer guidance via scientific literature that can help musicians get serious about building—or restoring—effective practice habits. It can also point the way when a player wants to lengthen, deepen, and widen existing practice patterns.
Why bother? Because you are a musician. Your well-being, self-esteem, and mental health depend on your continued connection to music making.
So here are five tips to help you build good habits, courtesy of the past few decades’ research by social scientists. It’s time to put down the remote.
1. Make It Visible
A simple tool for increasing your chances of success is to make your practice cues more visible, and those things that interfere with practice less visible. Here are some examples:
- Keep your instrument somewhere safe but visible between practice sessions
- Keep a sticky note of your goals on your bathroom mirror
- Keep your favorite piece open on your music stand, rather than that technique book you dread
- Set a recurring reminder on your phone for your practice-session start times
- Charge your phone in the room furthest away from you while you practice; use a different device for practice apps you need
- Shut your computer all the way off at the end of any email, web-surfing, or online-binging session
2. Make It Accountable to Someone
When someone is accountable to at least one other human being they know personally, they’re more likely to follow through. This is what the gym-buddy concept is all about. Aim for low-perceived-risk, high-enjoyment endeavors. Here are examples of accountability structures:
- Make Zoom practice dates with a friend. Get together at the same time every day and practice with your Zoom audio muted. Tack on some social time at the end for fun.
- Convince a friend of a similar skill level to “co-learn” new repertoire. Send each other recordings of milestones once a week, and follow it up with a geeky talk-through session.
- Ten-minute lawn sessions: Tell your neighbors you will serenade them every week (or every day) for ten minutes from your lawn or balcony at a specific time. You’ll be surprised at what a hit this can be.
- Join forces with some colleagues to make an Acapella app recording for social media.
3. Make It Fun, Pleasurable, & Gamified
The most fundamental law of human behavior is that we are more likely to repeat that activity which gives us pleasure, or, almost as good, is linked to something that gives us pleasure. And yet, this is the rule that we most often ignore when it comes to practicing. Boredom in particular is the ultimate buzzkill. There are ways to make the brain associates practicing with the release of endorphins if you make sure to cultivate some extra pleasure while practicing. Some examples of pleasure-plus practice are:
- Practice in the most beautiful location you can with your favorite comfort drink and a couple of cookies at your side
- Work on duos that you will put together with recorded partners
- Gamify your practice with apps like ReadRhythm, Hudl, or Decision Roulette
- Take on a practice-journal challenge with a partner—make it social!
- Practice with a quarter-size bow, pizzicato only, or any other quirky thing that brings a sense of spontaneity
4. Make Your Intentions Specific & Write Them Down
Research indicates that making your practice plan specific—fleshing out what, when, and where—means you are three times more likely to follow through. Specifics are what turn goals into bite-size, achievable, and tangible events. Without specifics, goals remain general, amorphous, and sometimes overwhelming ideas. Here are some examples of making things specific:
• Decide what time of day you will practice, block it in your calendar, and set a reminder. Even a general time estimate, like “after lunch” can work.
• Write out three goals for a specified period of time to work on in your playing—one repertoire goal and two attributes of your playing.
• Mark days of the week in the margins of your music to schedule when you want to move on to “cracking” the next section of the piece.
• Make a weekly plan of practice items on a calendar, and make sure you have some fun, goof-off tidbits within those times.
5. Follow the “Goldilocks Principle”
Of all the tricks for habit-building, this is the easiest to ignore, but the Goldilocks, or “just right,” principle, holds that you must delicately balance your practice tasks between too easy (boring) and too difficult (overwhelming). Consider it the key to getting “in the zone.” The Goldilocks principle also applies to goals and seeking out inspiration. For example, if you surround (or nowadays “e-round”) yourself with players who are worlds above your skill level, you are likely to give up. If, however, you surround yourself with players who are just a cut above your present skill level, you are likely to aspire up and get to work. Here are some ways to follow the Goldilocks principle for practice:
- When your scales bore you to tears, level up by introducing a challenging bowing, rhythm, or other novelty. Or take a break and focus on an altogether different technique regimen for a while.
- Limit your repertoire to the stretch-but-achievable realm. Maybe this is not the time to learn the Chaconne, but two other smaller and slightly less-challenging pieces instead.
- Make sure you are following some mid-level artists and tutorials on social media, not just the superstars.
- Set your goal of how much you’ll practice each day by honoring the following words: achievable and habitual. Worry about increasing the amount of practice time only once you are solidly on schedule. Consistency first—everything else can come later.
- When taking on projects, aim for that wonderful edge that is just slightly beyond your comfort level, but not a terrifying cliff. Aim for the sweet spot.
For musicians, practicing is a way of life and having the practice blues can be serious. There is no “finding the muse”; there is only “creating the muse” and right now it is all up to you. That’s OK—you already have what it takes. You just need to follow the principles of great habit building to get back in touch with your inner musician.
Susanna Klein is author of the Practizma Practice Journal and a violinist, professor, and vlogger based in Richmond, Virginia.