The challenges of social isolation, the suspension of ensemble gatherings and an overall sense that live musical performance with large audiences may not be the norm for some time can certainly discourage budding and professional musicians alike, especially in this season of uncertainty. You or someone you know may be facing challenges with staying motivated and optimistic with practice. Take heart! Any seasoned musician knows the road to success is paved with the stones of perseverance. Strategic practice is the foundation for successful performance and achievement. Whether you are a musician finding yourself losing focus during months of isolated rehearsal at home or a music teacher struggling to “rally the troops” in a new “virtual” lessons landscape, a little planning can go a long way with staying motivated! As we venture through the second half of this unprecedented year, consider the following practice targets/tips that form what I call my “Motivation Triangle” for practice!
Practice Target #1: STRIVE! Reach for something beyond your current ability!
This might sound counter intuitive but reach for something or set a “dream” goal to achieve something in your music that is beyond you now! To grow in music and life, we must stretch ourselves and move beyond where we are. This usually requires that we leave our “comfort zone” and with every step forward we take, there is a risk of failure; but failure is OK and part of the process! To learn and build new synapses in our brain, we must introduce challenges to foster growth.
In music, this could mean finding a new piece that interests you that is slightly “beyond” your current ability. It means sight-reading something new or trying a new piece in that “easy” book of songs which turned out to be anything but “easy” to play! Is there a new scale, etude, or skill you have been putting off in “fear”? Is the thought of reading notes in a certain clef, playing a new piece in a new style, or singing a song in a foreign language something that you have avoided? Pick one thing to “strive” for in your musical studies and go for it! Be brave! Again, remember that failure is ok and will happen from time to time. It has been said that “music is not about being perfect all the time, rather, it is about practicing through all the ‘mistakes’ so what we are left with is something that has been “perfected”! We learn from mistakes and from trying. Improved rhythm, styling, theory, performance skills – so many things can be revealed and learned from striving to learn something beyond us. It always helps to have a teacher/mentor guide you as you look “beyond” your abilities. You may not “achieve” all you set out to do in this step, but if you are open to the process and give it your all, you will undoubtedly grow and move the needle beyond where you were before you began the process!
One side note on selecting a new song, skill or goal that stretches you: find something that is just beyond reach. Strive for something challenging but your goals should ultimately be attainable, albeit with hard work and dedication. A simple example is if you’ve learned a scale in one octave, challenge yourself to do two, or three or in compound meters, or increasing tempo and so forth. Make sure the goal stretches you but is ultimately attainable if you stretch yourself in practice. If you just learned a scale playing notes at 60 bpm, increase your speed within reason – don’t aim to play at 240 bpm right off the bat because that is far beyond your current ability! We’re aiming for just beyond, not impossible! In the field of education, this is what educators call scaffolding – a term coined by Soviet psychologist, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). As builders erect a scaffold around a building, floor by floor, and the walls of the structure rises higher and higher, so does the scaffold. The scaffold should stay in that “sweet spot” just within reach of the top of the building: something termed the “Zone of Proximal development”. Stay withing the sweet spot and incredibly tall structures can be built most efficiently. In music, if your musical goals (the scaffold) are just within a stretch of where you are, your “musical foundation” will keep growing! Stay in your “sweet” spot as you strive for something beyond and seek the guidance of a trained teacher who is trained to help you develop this!
Practice Target #2: REINFORCE – Spread your wings within your abilities!
Once you have your “STRIVE” goals set, find ways to reinforce all that you’ve learned and your current abilities in music. This could include finding new material or songs at your current level (finish learning those remaining songs in a song book at your level!). If you’ve learned some scales, why not set a goal to finish learning the rest of your scales (use the Circle of Fifths to keep track!)? If you have already learned a piece or selection of repertoire these past months, why not find a way to share these by performing a “virtual” recital or performance? Make a video or audio recording, just for yourself or commit to sharing your music with others! If you’ve learned a piece by a Classical composer or Jazz artist, why not other pieces by other composers or artists in the same genre or category? I cringe inside when I hear a student claim they