Guest post by Julian Harnish
A smile played on my lips as I finished the last page of the last piece of my college senior recital – L’isle Joyeuse by Debussy. I was experiencing joy, and yes, part of that had to do with the state of flow that I find in performance. Yet, there was a different aspect of that specific performance that brought me joy that I am slower to admit. It was the realization that I was done, at least for the time being, with piano! That I would no longer be subject to my ruthless perfectionism.
Throughout college, the pressures of a music degree and the strain of performances and lessons, led to a pattern of unpleasant practice. Practice that felt scattered and overwhelming.
As a result, after the recital, I had a several month period where I hardly touched the piano. Yet through that time when I did end up playing the piano I noticed a stark difference in my relationship with the instrument. I remember sharing with a friend something to the effect of, “I feel like after finishing the recital playing the piano has become a spiritual experience for me.”
So what flipped the switch from frustrated and anxiety-filled practice to joy-filled practice?
Upon further reflection here are 4 tips that have helped me enjoy practice.
Tip 1: Shifting towards Internal Motivation
I think the key difference between my pre-senior recital and post-senior recital experience was a shift away from external motivation and towards internal motivation.
Before as I practiced, fear of failure in future performances (on stage, or in lesson) raced through my mind, pushing towards a perfectionism that did get results, but at a high cost. After my senior recital, external motivations such as lessons and performances disappeared. With no external motivators the only thing that could bring me back to the piano was internal. Fortunately, the desire to make something beautiful on the keys was strong enough.
It doesn’t surprise me that internal motivation has proved a better motivator for me. Generally, alcoholics who are internally motivated to change themselves as opposed to externally (fear of losing relationships and losing housing etc) have longer lasting success.
Internal motivators that I find lead to satisfying practice include making music primarily for my own enjoyment, or to share myself with others. Motivations that often leave me unsatisfied include playing to prove something – to myself, to my teacher, to audience members.
I recognize that not everyone can or should stop giving performances or taking private lessons. Yet I believe there are other ways to motivate you internally. For example:
- If your teacher assigns pieces that don’t enjoy much, then you won’t have much motivation to practice, other than prove your ability to your teacher (external motivation). Perhaps you can talk to your teacher about practicing repertoire that you love (internal).
- If you have long practice sessions, try to integrate “musical free time.” Start by asking yourself not what you “should” practice but what you desire to play.
- If you are choosing repertoire for your next concert, try to choose music that you deeply enjoy – not just the most flashy piece you think you can handle.
Tip 2: Change Frustrated Repetition to Smart Repetition
Repetition is necessary in effective practice on a biological level. As you repeat an activity myelin forms around the connections between neurons (called axons). This speeds up the inter-neural electrical signals, which in turn, makes the habit second nature. But this can work against you. By practicing a section incorrectly you will solidify the error leading to frustration.
In high-school and college I often found myself getting stuck repeating mistakes. I would fall into an unhealthy loop of frustrated repetition. The cycle looked like this:
● I would play a section.
● I messed up and got frustrated
● Then I would make the critical error!… to prove that the mistake was a fluke, I would practice it again, but at the same tempo – maybe even faster.
When I inevitably messed up again I had only managed to ingrain the mistake. This is such a tempting process, and I’ve seen it frequently in other pianists as well.
To combat this unhealthy cycle I’ve noticed a subtle paradigm shift how I approach repetition:
The purpose of repetition isn’t to show yourself that you can do something now, it is to show yourself that you can do something eventually.
So how can you move away from frustrated/inaccurate repetition and into smart/accurate repetition.
- The next time you start a practice session, try playing a large section straight through and don’t repeat.
- Then once you have finished the section, play the section straight through again. But this time try to make a mental note of the worst mistakes you made.
- If you’ve made a mistake twice you have clear evidence that the mistake is a mistake and not a fluke.
- Now use all the tools of smart practice to work on your mistakes (slow practice, single handed practice, practice blocking out main chords, etc).
Tip 3: Easily achieve practice consistency
Practice consistency is extremely important in a pianists improvement. After all, cram-style study habits before a test have been proven less effective than spaced out study habits.
Realizing this, there have been periods when I have been overly concerned about practice consistency and how much I practiced in general. I followed a rigid schedule to ensure consistent practice. For some that works well, but for some a rigid schedule takes some of the spontaneous joy out of the experience.
So how can musicians make consistent practice enjoyable to engage?
The best answer I have to this is a habit building tool called “temptation bundling.” I’ll illustrate this with an example:
● Place chocolates (or your favourite candy) in a jar by your instrument.
● Up to once or twice a day, you can eat the chocolate BUT only if you then start practicing.
● (Bonus) Crumple the wrapper and place in a second jar to track how many times you’ve practiced.
The general formula of temptation bundling is:
I will do X (something with an immediate reward like eating chocolate) only when I do Y (something with a long term reward like practicing). In one study on temptation bundling participants were up to 51% more likely to visit the gym when they could only access engaging audiobooks while working out.
Anecdotally, I practiced nearly every day for the several months that I placed chocolates by my piano, and thought that it was a much more enjoyable way to bring about practice consistency than a rigid schedule.
Tip 4: Take a Walking Break
I often reach a point in practice sessions where I have lost my focus. I know that my practice is no longer effective as decision fatigue sets in. As my effectiveness decreases a vague sense of disappointment sets in – disappointment that I attempt to overcome by practicing more… Uh oh, looks like I need a break.
But what type of a break works best? Should I get on Facebook? Should I read a book? I advocate for a walking break.
● (optional) Place pen and paper in a pocket.
● Find a short 20 sec to 2 min path to walk.
● Walk the path several times; each time you finish your route decide if you are ready to go back to practicing.
● (optional) When ideas of things that you need to accomplish come to mind, write them down on the piece of paper.
Why a walking break? The walking break described here is physical and allows your mind to wander making it the perfect balance to practice which is both sedentary and focussed. According to a recent study when your mind wanders your brain engages areas necessary to complex problem solving. So during the walk you may solve problems that are crucial to your improvement.
In addition, a recent California State University study showed a positive correlation between someone’s daily number of steps and their mood, happiness, self-esteem, and health.
Now when I sit down at a piano, I feel alive and joyful. We are all familiar with the iconic cliché that sounds something like: “life is about the journey, not the destination.” I think an equivalent statement in the music world is: “Music making is about the practice, not the performance.” If so, then it is critical that we develop ways to make practice a joy-filled experience.
Hopefully by modifying your mindset, engaging in mindful repetition and taking breaks, and incorporating mindfulness into your practice routine you can begin a path to joy-filled practice.
I’m curious to hear how you bring joy into your practice sessions? Leave your comment below.
Julian Harnish is the creator of findyourmelody.com, a piano blog with a particular emphasis on the psychology of effective and enjoyable practice. He studied Math and Piano Performance in college, and has a particular appreciation for the choral music of Eric Whittacre and Ola Gjeilo.