When you study an instrument, practicing can become just another thing on your list of chores. Actually, it can become your least favorite chore. I have often caught myself wanting to clean my bathrooms before wanting to start my practice time. The truth is, practicing can take up to hours of my day, and sometimes reap little to no noticeable results in a day. So oftentimes, I’d rather check some other “easier” things off my to-do list that make me feel more productive and accomplished. Even as a kid (for all of you parents trying to keep your children in music lessons), I remember vividly the sheer horror and unwillingness I would feel when my mom would call me in from playtime or pick me away from the TV because I had to practice my cello. I get it! Practicing an instrument is a colossal exercise of focus and discipline, that can often feel unattainable. But I want to encourage you—it is not unattainable. By learning how to practice in a healthy and effective way, we can feel better about reaching our musical goals, and perhaps even make practicing something we “get” to do, rather than something we “have” to do.
In order to stay in music and stick with our instruments, we need to make our practice times sustainable…something that we can stand to do every single day. So, below are some tips that I have gathered over the years, that continue to help me begin my practice when I have no motivation to start, enjoy the process more and even find joy in it, and see tangible results, which motivates me to do it again the next day! I hope that integrating a few of these into your or your child’s daily practice routine will transform your practice into a sustainable habit that helps you or your child reach their goals, and keeps music playing in your household for years to come.
Listen to something that inspires you
Before even getting your instrument out, or perhaps while you are getting it out, put on a recording to listen to. This can be a piece that you are learning, or just one of your favorite YouTube videos (2cellos is popular for my students). Listening to and/or watching a recording of something that you love will remind you that practice is worth it, AND you will instinctively reinforce in your ear and mind the proper tone, intonation, musicality, etc. that the performer is demonstrating (so be sure to pick a reputable performer).
Keep your instrument out and ready to go
If there is a safe place in your house to leave your instrument out (away from children or pets that can knock it over), not having to take your instrument out of its case will make beginning practice feel less arduous. Also, seeing it out and ready to go may remind you and encourage you to make a short but effective practice session each time you pass by the room.
Make short, frequent practice sessions with frequent breaks
Typically, people can only hold good focus for about 20 minutes (or less), before their mind starts to wander. In order to make the best use of our day and practice time, try to practice only in short 20-minute intervals (set a timer!). If you find you can only focus for 15 or even just 5 minutes, that is a good start, too! Only practice for as long as you can hold your deep attention, then take a break (either long or short, it doesn’t matter). Your focus time will increase naturally over time. Make short and frequent practice intervals to maximize your time spent in deep focus. Repeat this as many times as necessary to achieve your total practice time goal for the day.
Keep a notebook to set goals and track progress
Setting goals is an imperative part to track and recognize progress in any endeavor. Keep a notebook dedicated just to your music practice, where you can write long-term and short-term goals. Perhaps long-term goals for the year are written inside the front cover or somewhere visible every day, and each page is used for the daily short-term goals that will carry you to the long-term goal. If you are really organized, you can even set goals for each of your 20-minute practice sessions in the day. At the outset, put in some careful thought to make sure your goals are attainable, and that your short-term goals are small building blocks that guide you to your long-term goals. Discuss these goals with your private teacher, and they will be able to help you formulate and achieve your attainable goals. Between the teacher and student, you want to make sure that you are setting yourself up for success and celebration, and not failure and frustration. After each session or each day, record how it went—was the goal met? Did you learn anything? What do you need to focus on next time/tomorrow?
Put your phone away
Leave your phone in another room or out of sight for your short 20-minute practice session, or if you need it for your timer, tuner, metronome, etc., at least put it on airplane mode to avoid distracting notifications.
Make up games
Oftentimes, diligent practicing is made up of LOTS of tedious repetition work. Be as creative as you can to make up games to keep it interesting. Perhaps you see how many different song lyrics can fit into the certain passage you are practicing, maybe alter the rhythm of the passage slightly each time to make a “brain game”, or maybe challenge a sibling to see who can correctly make the most accurate shifts.
Have a reward system
Celebrate all of your accomplishments and goals reached, even the little ones. Whether it’s an extra long practice break with a favorite healthy snack, a prize from your teacher (I use lots of that in my teaching), or a big reward at the end of the year, a reward system helps you to focus on success instead of failure, track your progress, and motivate you to achieve more.
“Do your best and forget the rest”
This slogan actually comes from my favorite HIIT workout YouTuber, Lindsey Bomgren. Just as in a hard workout, give your practice session(s) everything you have in the time that you give it, and then put it down and move on with the rest of your day. Feel good about any goals you were able to achieve, and put tomorrow’s goals (which perhaps include any you couldn’t achieve that day) in your notebook. Forget about anything that didn’t go well today, because tomorrow is a new day with new goals! I am a big believer in “work hard, play hard”, because it allows us to stretch our minds and muscles to our limits, and then rest and recover to the fullest, which produces the most healthy growth.
When you realize the beauty of music, I promise that the grunt work is worth it. The path to success may seem like a frustrating chore and a long road, but my hope is that you may find joy and respite in the process, so that you will stick with it to reap the beautiful rewards.
Sarah Senn and the StringTime Family