Violinist and faculty member
When we first start playing an instrument, it’s often because there’s something about it that draws us in, makes us feel connected, and/or inspires us to explore our creativity. Sometimes, we have a hard time putting into words exactly what drew us in – is it the sound of the instrument? Is it how we feel listening to it? Is it how fun it looks when musicians play really fast?
Playing a musical instrument is one of the most direct ways we can experience creativity and connection. Our curiosity and drive to show the world who we are and what we have to say is what makes us all artists, no matter our background, our ability, our age, or whatever else we think may hold us back.
The tendency to hold back can turn into finding difficulty with motivation. When we are experiencing this, it doesn’t work to just “try harder”; rather, we need to come back to why we chose to play an instrument in the first place – because we are inherently curious and creative beings and want to share who we are with the world. This approach helps us find motivation that lasts long-term, not just in the short-term.
It can be easy to forget all of this during the daily dredge-through-the-mud that we all experience. We have to come up with a plan to bridge the gap between our big-picture aspirations and the practical day-to-day. Here is a list I have come up with to help myself feel motivated on a daily basis, especially when practicing is the last thing I want to do (because let’s face it, it’s not all glamorous!):
🎵 Pick a regular time of day to practice. This has helped me as well as my students get into a regular routine. When that time of day comes, we know we have time for it because it is previously set aside for practice.
🎵 Set a timer. A timer helps us get “in the zone” quickly, practice efficiently, and stick to a task.
🎵 Take breaks. Breaks are important for our physical and mental health. It can be easy to say, “I’m still in the zone, I don’t want to lose progress,” but we often stop when it’s too late, when we have already gone past our limit. We want to find the sweet spot of focus during the practice and downtime in between. Breaks can (and arguably should) have nothing to do with your instrument so that we are fully giving our body and thinking mind a break.
🎵 Snacks! I know this may seem obvious or unnecessary, but remembering to eat snacks and drink water is vital to our energy level and focus, both very important for practicing. Don’t underestimate the importance of your physical needs to support your music making!
🎵 Give yourself a reward. Rewards can be different for everyone. What do you find motivating? This can be a treat, a movie, a fun outing, a board game, outside time (although this is a good thing to have as part of our daily lives anyway!), etc. Practicing can be fun (and a lot of the time it is!), but just like anything else, it can feel like just another task we have to check off our list. So, we have to make sure to build in some extra support for ourselves so we continue practicing even on the days when it feels the hardest.
Now, here are some nitty-gritty practice tips that are useful for students who have been studying for a while:
🎵 Warm-up with a drone. Pick a scale, (e.g. D major), play the note on your tuning app or on your tuner, and play your scale very slowly, listening to how each note resonates alongside the continuous drone. This is great for ear training and can be very meditative and enjoyable! It’s one of my favorite things to play on my violin. ☺
🎵 Focus on sound. Be present with the sound, with your body, in the physical. What do you notice/feel/imagine that can help create different sounds you want? Think of your body as a tool rather than a barrier.
🎵 Use a metronome. Use the metronome to your advantage, not just as a “space-out” mechanism. One way that is very helpful is to play two phrases, but put several clicks between them, and slowly decrease the clicks until you are playing continuously. What this does is helps our bodies understand the natural musical timing that we want at the end of a phrase, while also snapping back into tempo at the start of the next.
🎵 Slow your motion. We know that we have to play slower to get the details, but that often doesn’t translate to the indicated tempo. Why? Because we tend to change our technique when we play slower, rather than keeping the movements the same. Try playing something slower, but with exaggerated movements, and reducing them as you get faster. It’s like running: the faster you want to go, the smaller the movements, not the other way around!
🎵 Record yourself. This is a powerful tool! You can receive immediate feedback and be your own teacher rather than waiting for your weekly lesson. This can speed up the learning process quite dramatically and help minimize the discrepancy between what you think you are playing and what you actually are playing.
🎵 Separate your hands. Doing one thing at a time helps our brain and body reconnect to one another. Using one hand at a time and then putting them back together is simple (not necessarily easy!) and illuminating. For strings, this can be open string practice (no left hand) and then finger practice (no bow).
🎵 Tap into your imagination. Come up with an image, make up a story, write some descriptive words (emotion words work the best). Be as detailed as possible! This helps us translate what’s in our head to our instrument much more convincingly.
This is not an exhaustive list because there are always more fun, new ways to practice! Try some of these tips and let us know how it goes.