The Zen of Practicing: 5 Steps to Increase Motivation to Practice

In a follow-up to his January post, 6 Techniques To Help You Make More Music, Line 6's Propellerhead Product Specialist Matt Piper shares some ideas about how to become more motivated to practice your instrument.

Recently, a musician friend of mine posted the following status update on Facebook: "Practice makes better. And, angry." I knew exactly what he meant.

When I was a little kid, there was a character on Sesame Street named Don Music. He was a frustrated Muppet pianist/composer who would bang his head on the piano keyboard whenever he couldn't get a song right. (This character was finally retired after reports of some real children imitating him at home!)

For many people (at many levels of musicianship), some version of this Don Music feeling is common. In response to my friend's "Practice makes better. And, angry," Facebook post, another friend responded that there was a piece of music she was trying to learn, but she could never play it through perfectly and would cuss herself out every time she made a mistake. She went on to explain that this was causing her to really struggle with motivation to practice the piece at all.

Whatever the cause of lack of motivation to play or practice, if making music is important to you, then not playing can lead to its own frustration.  To anyone out there struggling with a lack of motivation to play, to practice, or to learn a tricky technique or a difficult piece of music, I humbly suggest the following as a possibly helpful way to think:

1. Choose a purpose in life.

Decide what is important to you, what kind of creature you are, what you DO. What do I mean by this? Your purpose doesn't necessarily mean your day job, and your purpose needn't be exclusive, forsaking all others. You may work a non-musical day job, be a parent, and still identify as a musician, all the while approaching work, parenting, and music with the same sincerity and best efforts.

Deciding your purpose is really a conscious choice that can be made at any time in your life. There is no right or wrong answer; it's only an attempt to clarify things for yourself in the interest of your own happiness. It's a way to focus your energy in the way that will lead to your greatest satisfaction. It's choosing what you want to be a student of during this life. It's choosing a path by which to explore yourself, your potential, and the universe.

Also remember that if you do decide your purpose is about music, other parts of your life can inform and inspire your music, and vice-versa. Once you have decided what sort of creature you are, you are ready to proceed to Step 2.

2. Decide that action is preferable to lethargy.

Recognize that using the moments of your life to commit action true to what you are is part of your path to satisfaction. If you have decided that playing music makes you happy, that the further you develop musically, the more you learn about yourself, the better you feel, the more connected to life you are, then the converse follows as well. Letting procrastination or frustration due to lack of progress get in the way of playing, practicing, learning, and developing musically will ultimately leave you less satisfied than if you keep moving forward even through the times when you're tired or feeling that progress is slow.

Again, this really isn't about right, wrong, should or shouldn't - it's about recognizing what ultimately makes you feel best in life. Action is preferable to lethargy: It's just a little something to keep in mind next time you are looking back and forth between your instrument and Netflix's "Play Next Episode" button.

3. Practice emotional detachment in the form of non-judgment.

Do not think "this or that is a drag," or "this or that is just something I have to do before I can do the thing I really want to do." Instead, be in the moment, the now, and even washing the dishes can be a fully involving, meditative activity. (Warm water, bubbles, stuff getting clean and shiny - hey it's kinda fun!)

As musicians, we often think things like "I wish I could do such and such a technical thing better," or "I wish I was a better sight reader," or "I really should learn these songs," but when it comes to actually taking steps toward accomplishing those goals, the task seems overwhelming and we procrastinate. Stop that! Said another way: If you want it, take it. Put aside emotions and judgment and enter your task one moment at a time. Do so with no anxiety about the result. Have faith that even if you can't detect improvement by the end of a single practice session, cumulatively investment of this nature will pay off.

4. Don't cuss yourself out when you fail!

You are not failing! No effort is wasted.  Whether you make it through a piece of music without error or not, each time  through is another step toward perfection. When you start to cuss  yourself out, instead pat yourself on the back for having started the  task in the first place. No need for Don Music head trauma! Music is for enjoyment after all, and every time you pick it up in any form, it becomes more and more a part of you.

5. Remember that doing is seldom as difficult as starting.

Just start, and you've won at least half the battle!

I'd like to know what you think. Agree/disagree? Helpful/not so much?  Want to share your own experience or thoughts? Standing by.  -MP