Maybe It’s Not a Motivation Problem: Why We Don’t Practice

Crap, you missed a day of practice again.  Why can’t you just stick to your routine?

Or maybe you’re having trouble starting a practice routine in the first place.

Or maybe your practice sessions are worse than useless—you feel bored, disinterested, or frustrated, and it almost seems like the music is getting worse.

If only you could just get motivated.

We all feel like this sometimes, but what if it’s not a motivation problem? What if trying to get motivated is just making the problem worse?

If you still want to improve, if you still want to be a better musician, then you don’t have a motivation problem.  You don’t need to feel guilty or defective.  You just need a plan.

Usually, when we don’t practice it’s because of bad strategies, a lack of clarity, or obstacles in the environment.  We face two problems: either we’re having trouble shifting into practice mode, or we’re not enjoying something about the process, such as not getting the results we want.  Let’s look at some strategies.

Trouble Shifting Into Practice
If practice is fun once you get started, but you just have trouble getting started, you’re probably just having trouble shifting into the right mental space.

-Pre-schedule your practice sessions.  Knowing that your practice session is coming up at a specific time can help your mind make the transition.

-Pre-plan what you’re going to work on.  Come up with a plan in advance to take away some of the uncertainty around what to practice.  It’s a good idea to plan at the end of a practice session, while the next steps to improvement are fresh in your mind.  As a bonus, it’ll prime your brain to think of strategies. The first time I did this, I had a major breakthrough on a technique problem that had plagued me for years.  The solution came to me while I was washing dishes!

-Practice at the same time or after the same activity every day.  Your brain likes consistency, and it will only take a couple days to see the pattern and settle into practice mode.

-Use a consistent warm-up routine.  Because again, consistency.  And because your brain doesn’t want to make decisions when you’re first getting started.

-Try a different time of day.  Your body has natural cycles, and you might be trying to practice at a sluggish or stressful time of day.  No wonder you’re having trouble getting started.  A different time might be all you need.

-Change your environment.  Is there something distracting you?  Do you need to find a different place to practice?  Maybe you’re avoiding something about the location.  Think through what might be causing resistance and see how you might eliminate or change it.

Bored and Frustrated problems
These are deeper problems, but they have solutions too.

-Keep score.  If you can’t see your progress, it will feel like practice is pointless.  Keep track of metronome markings, use a checklist to check off sections of music that have been learned and/or polished, make recordings and listen back from time to time to hear your progress.

-Set specific goals.  Without a clear destination, it’s impossible to know if you’re making progress.  A good goal will carry you forward.

-Set bigger/smaller goals.  If you’re frustrated, you might need to break your goals into smaller chunks.  If you’re bored, you might need a bigger challenge.  Sometimes you need both.

-Increase your Domain Knowledge.  If you’re frustrated, it’s possible you’re missing information.  How have other people approached this problem?  Is there something about your embouchure or technique that’s holding you back?  I remember struggling with difficult articulations in the Arutunian trumpet concerto for weeks in college; when I finally listened to recordings, I realized that most professional trumpet players were using a completely different set of articulations.  My edition was marked wrong! All of a sudden my big problem disappeared.

-Get external feedback.  A good teacher can expose blind spots and help you set attainable goals.

For good musicians, motivation is rarely the problem.  What we call a lack of motivation is almost always a problem of knowledge, ability, or strategy.  Just a few simple tweaks can get you back on track.  What’s worked for you?

Write a comment

Comments: 0