What do you say when your students ask you how to practice?
Depending on how long they’ve been playing and what their goals are, you could give about a million different answers.
You could talk about time management and organization. You could show them drills and technical exercises. You could even tell them to just get in the practice room and play.
But there are 3 critical practice habits that can make or break a musician’s long-term success. Master these three habits and unleash your true musical potential. Teach these habits and your students will quickly become practice room superheroes.
I. Practice Mindfully
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally, as if your life depended on it. – Jon Kabat-Zinn
I spent plenty of hours in my early years daydreaming in the practice room — thinking about everything but the music I was playing.
Planning what I’d do when I was finished practicing, hungrily thinking about what I’d have for dinner, pondering the details of a conversation I had yesterday… I’d actively engage with distracting thoughts while spending as little time practicing as I thought I could get away with.
I didn’t realize that I was sabotaging my progress. Not only was I wasting my time – I was learning habits that undermined my efficiency in the practice room and would take years to unlearn. Then I stumbled upon mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness practice is a powerful tool for developing habits that are beneficial in the practice room and on stage. The nonjudgmental awareness practiced in mindfulness meditation is perfect for efficient musical practice and calm performance.
Practicing your instrument mindfully makes it possible to find the sweet spot where you are relaxed AND focused. You are able to react to the music in real-time and remain engaged in the physical aspects of playing.
Everything changed when I started applying mindfulness principles to my musical practice. I could get more done with each hour spent practicing, I felt poised on stage, and I discovered my love for performing.
The Two Selves
In The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey describes the “two selves” that drive our thoughts.
Self 1 is analytical, anxious, and ego-driven. It jumps from thought to thought, latching onto distractions, rarely existing in the present.
Self 2 is the intuitive unconscious mind that lives in the present moment, allowing us to practice and perform with nonjudgmental awareness.
You probably remember times when you’ve experienced both the anxious flitting of Self 1 and the calm focus of Self 2.
It may be unrealistic to try to banish Self 1 altogether. But cultivating your ability to switch on Self 2 allows you to practice with greater awareness, efficiency, and ease. Mindfulness practice develops your ability to access Self 2, even in stressful situations.
How To Be Mindful In The Practice Room
Distractions in the practice room can be debilitating.
Have you ever had 20,000 people booing you on stage? I sure hope not.
That’s the reality that professional athletes face. And their ability to perform determines the joy or despair of their whole fan base. To cope with this intense pressure, Phil Jackson’s legendary Bulls and Lakers teams used mindfulness training to dominate the NBA.
If Kobe and Michael Jordan can use mindfulness to stay calm and focused with all those people hoping for them to fail, you too can use mindfulness techniques to focus in the solitude of your practice room.
Mindfulness in the practice room begins with two small habit changes:
1. Pause before you begin each practice session
Give yourself one minute before you start playing to focus your attention. Close your eyes and take a few deep, slow breaths. Observe the thoughts that come. Notice them and return your attention to your breath.
Blink your eyes open and observe each of your senses. What do you see? What do you hear?
Then focus your attention on whatever you’re going to practice.
2. Be like the eye of a hurricane
Things can get stressful in the practice room, especially with performances looming. Be like the calm eye at the center of the hurricane. No matter what’s going on around you, you can stay poised and at ease.
When you become distracted in the practice room, breathe. Give yourself a moment to pause and return your attention to the music.
Your practicing efficiency will skyrocket when you are able to observe that your mind has wandered and bring it back to the task at hand.
II. Keep Your Motivation Fire Burning
Psychologist and scientific researcher K. Anders Ericsson argued in his paper on The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance that “…the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a lifelong period of deliberate efforts to improve performance in a specific domain.”
Which means that successful performance in any field is not based on natural “talent” or some mysterious supernatural force. The only thing separating expert performers from everyone else is their ability to consistently and deliberately practice over long periods of time.
But lifelong practice takes a ton of motivation.
How does anyone keep that kind of motivation alive?
Recent research suggests that goal setting plays a significant role in developing and maintaining motivation. Exciting goals spark your motivation in a way that inspires you to practice even when you might otherwise be tempted to do something else.
Work with each of your students to develop a series of goals that excite them. Ask them what they love about playing and discover what motivates them. Some students love intimate informal performances while others are motivated by international competitions.
Start by setting two goals: one long-term and one short-term.
The long-term goal is the big one. Aim for something that is distant enough to feel like a big challenge but is not so distant that it seems impossible.
Long-term goals for some students may take 6 months to 1 year to reach. For younger students, a long-term goal may be only one month away.
Short-term goals serve as the stepping stones to the long-term goal. They can be any length that allows for easily identifiable progress points, enabling the student to evaluate how they are progressing toward their long-term goal.
Make Practice Non-Negotiable
Once you’ve tapped into goals that inspire you, practice is no longer a chore. It is much easier to feel excited about practicing when you know you are working toward the goal that you set for yourself. Use these three tips to develop and maintain your new practice habits.
1. Set a Practice Schedule
Before you go to bed each day, know when you will practice tomorrow. If you can practice the same time each day, go for it. Set a schedule and keep it.
2. Stay Accountable
Keep a practice journal, download a habit-building app, or start a practice club with your friends. Do whatever it takes to build a support system that keeps you motivated.
3. Stoke the Motivation Fire
Remind yourself on a daily basis what your goals are. Write your goals on post-its and attach them to your music stand, talk to your friends about your goals, or create an inspirational poster to hang in your practice room.
Find what works for you and stick to it.
Focus On The Process
Know what you want to accomplish and focus on the process rather than the outcome. – Nick Saban
Nick Saban, football coach at the University of Alabama and 5-time champion, is famous for “The Process,” a coaching philosophy focused not on winning, but on steady progress toward improved performance.
So while using your goals for motivation, focus on the process of steady forward progress rather than the reward that goes along with achieving those goals.
III. Develop a Positive Attitude
You choose the attitude that you foster in the practice room. And it plays an enormous role in your potential for success.
“Choose and maintain a positive attitude.”
It can be challenging to develop a positive attitude under all circumstances. Start with small things and know that you may still occasionally have negative thoughts.
If you have a tough day in the practice room, view it in a positive light by remembering that you can learn a lot by facing challenges.
If you struggle to learn a new technique, view it as an opportunity to experiment with different approaches. By trying different approaches, you will gain a deeper understanding of the technique and you’ll eventually be better at teaching it to your students.
If you don’t get the result you want from an audition, focus on what you learned from the experience rather than beating yourself up. Nobody reaches their goals without experiencing failure at some point along the way.
Choose to cultivate a positive attitude with regard to practicing. Instead of dreading practice, remind yourself of what motivates you. Get excited! Viewing your practice through a positive lens will allow you to genuinely enjoy it and even look forward to it.
Visualize Your Success
Performance visualization is a major part of how elite athletes prepare for competition.
Musicians can use similar techniques to reinforce a positive attitude about performing:
- Take a moment and recall a successful performance. Whether it was a performance for your family, a major audition, a recital, or a church performance, recall how you felt during and after that performance.
- Give yourself 3-5 minutes to re-live that experience in as much detail as possible. Remember what it looked like, sounded like, how you felt during the performance, and how you felt afterward.
- Choose an upcoming performance and visualize your future success in detail. Visualize what it will look like, sound like, how you will feel, and how you will feel afterward.
When you visualize your success, your brain learns that performances are positive experiences. Use this visualization once a day for a week and observe how your attitude about performing changes.
There is nothing to stop you from implementing these changes right away.
Reflect on which of these habits you could develop in your own practice. Which of these habits could benefit each of your students?
- Practice Mindfully
- Keep the Motivation Fire Burning
- Develop a Positive Attitude
How do you keep yourself motivated to practice? How do you focus in the practice room, even when things get difficult? How do you talk to your students about having a positive attitude? I’d love to hear about it.
Send me an email or leave a comment below!
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