Practice makes perfect. That's how the saying goes, right? And, it's true; if you want to become a better musician, the key is to practice like a pro, but why does practice matter, and how can you do it in a way that works for you?
I have played the guitar now for many, many years. I've also played the drums, and I've started playing the piano again after a huge gap. And one of the things that I have noticed is that I lose motivation quite regularly; I go in fits and starts.
Sometimes, I am disciplined, and I manage to play quite faithfully. But other times, I don't want to do it. And then the more I don't do it, the more I don't want to do it because, of course, when you lose inspiration, you lose motivation. So, the next time you play, you're not going to be very good, which doesn't feel satisfying.
Do you know what I asked myself?
Why is this happening?
I've found that one of the reasons is that I thrive on achievement. When I notice that I'm progressing, I feel like playing more. But after having played for many years (drums or the guitar), I sometimes feel like I don't know where I'm going.
I ask myself, "Why am I still this bad, or why am I not as good as somebody else out there who I can see is playing much better than me?" "What am I doing wrong?"
And it can be easy to think that there's something wrong with me. Or that I don't have the talent or I don't know what it takes and think that's why I'm not so good.
This is what made me consider the subject today. I wanted to explore the real reasons why sometimes we feel like we're not progressing, why we lose motivation, and how actually to stop that from happening.
Now why is this important?
Well, because if you can't find a way to stay inspired and motivated consistently, if you don't see a way to practice in a way that makes it fun and normal for you, well, you won't progress. And when you don't progress, you will lose motivation and eventually give up.
So, this inspired me to look into this subject and study various teachers, and I have here for you a few points and tips that I found very useful and that I use myself.
First of all, let's look at the reasons why beginners fail.
Why We Fail As Beginners
- This is something that can happen to you, especially as a beginner, but also later on as well. One of the things that can get in the way of learning music is the words used in music.
Now for me, that wasn't a problem because being Italian and having studied Latin and Greek at school, it was a piece of cake. I knew what those words meant. But I get that if you're an English speaker, it can be daunting. You might not understand what fortissimo means, and for you, it might be challenging, which can really get you stuck.
To combat this, I am giving away a dictionary of words that translates those complex Latin terms into plain English so that you don't have to be stopped by this problem.
- Another reason why musicians sometimes give up, especially at the beginning, is that they are not learning their instrument step-by-step. Too much too soon is the saying that covers this problem.
For example, if you try to learn the piano, usually with a traditional teacher, the first thing that the piano teacher will try to teach you is some songs. And when you try to play these songs, you're going to be corrected every five seconds:
"Don't put your fingers that way," "sit this way," "press harder," "press softer."
Every five seconds, you get a correction, and that can be very demoralising because you feel like you're getting nowhere, and it's just too much for your brain to handle.
It's the same with the guitar. I remember a horrible guitar teacher who overwhelmed me with loads of information when I was not ready for it. I got out of that lesson feeling like an idiot and wanting never to touch the guitar again!
And if you take that approach and compare it with the drumming teacher I had who was excellent, well, this made all the difference. The drumming teacher knew that I needed to go slowly. I need to learn first one limb, then add another limb independence, then another limb independence, then a fourth limb later. Every drum pattern should be dissected and understood very, very slowly.
The widespread problem is that many of us, including me, try to play songs too fast, or play rhythm too fast, too soon. If you do that, you will never get to where you want to be, you'll feel like you don't have what it takes, and to be considered a pro musician, three elements are necessary.
The 3 Essential Elements That Make You a Pro Instrumentalist
First, you need to be accurate. And in order to be accurate, you need to go super, super, super slow. And I know that that can be frustrating, but that's just your ego getting in the way, wanting to be able to do something before you're ready, It's just your ego.
Give it up and accept that at the beginning, you're gonna have to go really, really slow, so that you can be 100%, accurate, whether that's playing scales on the piano or the guitar, or rudiments on the drums, or whatever your instrument is.
Once you've mastered accuracy, you'll then become confident. So your confidence will come from accuracy, which comes from going slow. Then, you can add speed.
It's only when you are confident and accurate that you can speed up. If you try to speed up before that you won’t progress much at all.
A pro is 100% accurate, confident and fast: she can play her instrument 100% accurately at all speeds.
How to practice so you don't get overwhelmed
The other problem with learning an instrument is that there's too much theory and not enough action. Often in traditional music education, you get too much theory; it can be overwhelming. And all you want to do is to play your instrument right now. But, of course, you can't play your instrument without understanding some basic concepts, but it's crucial to have a balance.
I find that balance favours action. It's better to learn something really simple and do it with your hands than just learning theory. Of course, this doesn't mean that theory is not essential, but the balance needs to favor action.
Another reason why we give up on learning an instrument is that we get no wins. When you put in too much effort, the work is not worth the gain that you get. And I'm sure that you've been there, I've been there. You play and play and play, you practice, practice, practice, and you're just not getting any better. The reason why that happens is because of all the reasons that I've just explained.
Many things are interesting about the piano, but you don't need to know everything when you begin.
You just need to know the basics of that instrument and what essential information will make it possible for you to master it. The rest is just interesting, but it's something that you can do in your own time if you want to.
Another reason why many give up is that we get told by other people that learning an instrument takes too long. When I first started learning drums, I asked my teacher how long it takes to learn, and he said, "at least ten years." And I thought at that moment that I didn't have the time for that,
Of course, I did have that time because 10 Years will pass whether you play or not. I'm not saying that it doesn't take ten years, but it depends on how you practice and how you learn, so there's no real set time to learn an instrument.
Why Invalidation can kill your motivation
Yet another reason why some of us fail to progress is invalidation. That's when other people don't recognise the worth of what we're trying to do. There might even be people close to you who criticize you or imply that what you're doing is not valuable.
Or they might say that since learning an instrument didn't work for them, it won't work for you either. Often these are people that have failed at doing the very thing that you're trying to do, and they don't want to see you succeed, or perhaps they're trying to protect you in a way because they assume that just because they had difficulties, you are going to have the challenges. I say ignore people like that.
So, now we know the main obstacles to learning an instrument.
Common Reasons Why Beginners Fail
- Not understanding the terms or words used in music
- Trying to do things too quickly
- Not seeing immediate results (no wins)
- Not finding the right balance between theory and action
- Naysayers (well-meaning or not)
- Invalidation by others
Now let's look at how to approach practice so that you can be a better musician.
How to Approach Practice
First, remember That You're Not Alone.
There are many other musicians out there who have been through the same struggles. It can be invaluable to ask for their advice or ask about their experience. Ask them how they overcame the obstacles themselves.
Remember Your "Why."
Why are you trying to learn this instrument? What is it doing for you? What is it that that made you want to learn this instrument in the first place?
It would help if you connected to your passion and what made you want to start, and use that as, what I like to call, your North Pole Star,
Think about sailors back in the day who didn't have compasses but needed to navigate unchartered waters. They always knew that if they looked at the North Pole Star, it would always indicate North. Of course, there would be different kinds of weather that might throw them off course, but as long as they looked up at a North Star whenever they got lost. They knew that they could get back on track.
So your North Pole Star is the reason why you decided to pick up the drums or the piano or the guitar, whatever it may be. Think about it, and try to connect to the emotional experience of what it's going to be like to be the musician you want to be when you are at that stage. Now having said that, it is also essential to keep your feet on the ground and think about short and long-term goals.
Short & Long-Term Goals & Your North Pole Star Vision
Your Long-Term Goals/Vision
The North Pole Star is your long-term vision and the benefits you're going to get when you arrive where you want to be
I don't mean ten years from now; I mean one year to 24 months from now. You know what do you want to achieve with your instrument. Think about it. Figure out your purpose,
Maybe it is to become an outstanding jazz musician. Well, if you want to study jazz music, you're going to have to think about technique, listen to jazz music, learn the vocabulary of jazz, and perhaps network with jazz musicians.
There are multiple tasks that you will have to engage in to meet your long-term vision, which will help you decide on your short-term goals in alignment with this bigger long-term goal.
So your long-term goal needs to be in alignment with your North Pole Star vision, and the short-term goals need to be in alignment with your long-term goals.
Your Short-Term Goals
Short-term goals are those you set for about 90 days in advance, so ask yourself what you want to accomplish in the next three months. The goal here is to make it practical.
Here's an example: Let's say that you decide to book a show or a Facebook live in three months. You're going to need to invite people or film a video of yourself playing, and you're going to put that first take on the internet. You know that you've got these 90 days to prepare, and you can't put it off because you've said that you're going to do this to the people around you. You're committing to it.
Don't let fear hold you back. Remember, there is no courage without fear. It's okay to be afraid. Use that fear to drive yourself to practice enough to do your best on the day. Remember, it's not about perfection but about being prepared.
To give you an example of how to apply these concepts. Imagine that your North Pole vision is that you want to be able to jam out in a jazz club with other musicians even if you've never met them before, even if you don't know the songs at all. That's the ultimate goal that you want.
Now, thinking about your long-term goal for, let's say, 12 months, this time could be used to all of the scales and modes so that you are proficient at them, without having to think about it. If you think you can do it in 12 months, make it 12 months. If a more realistic timeframe is 24 months, it's 24 months.
Ask yourself, "Is this in alignment with the bigger why, the North Pole Star vision?" If your answer is yes, you're on your way.
- Set for up to 90 days in advance
- Can include multiple tasks
- Should be easy to put into practice
- Aligns with your long-term goals
- Set for 12 to 24 months
- Will include short-term goal tasks
- Aligns with your North Pole Star vision
Short-term goals > Long-term goals > North Pole Star Vision
How to Find Time to Practice in a Busy Life
A big problem is that we get too busy, and we don't find the time to practice. Most of us live busy lives.
My days also are filled doing a million things. I play the piano, I play the drums, I play the guitar, I'm a coach, I see clients, I've got a course. I also have a life at home, and I want to spend time with my partner, my friends. I want to go out and have some walks in nature. How do we find the time for it all?
This is a challenge that we can overcome by finding the cracks in the day.
Each day has tiny cracks here and there, and there's never a time where you're just twiddling your thumbs. Apart from, of course, spending too much time on social media!
So one of the things we can do is review the day to find 10 minutes, half an hour to play our instrument.
Perhaps it's after dinner, just after the kids have gone to bed, maybe it's right before lunch. Or in the morning, before everybody else is awake, or perhaps an afternoon break. Whatever it is, remember that it's much better to practice daily for a short time than to practice for a long time one to two times a week, and this is a science-proven fact.
So, try and find the cracks in the day and think about it in advance. When can you spare that half an hour? What if I limit the time I spend on my social media and use that time to practice my instrument instead?
Now some people may find their days are all over the place, and they don't have the cracks in the same place every day. One of the things I found that works for me are to look at the calendar. You've got to have a calendar because if you try to manage everything in your head, that's a recipe for disaster. Keep in mind that our brains are not memory devices but processing devices.
If you try to use it as a memory device to keep track of all the things you need to do today, tomorrow, next week, next month, you're not going to have the same processing power.
So I strongly encourage you to get a calendar. Look at your calendar and see where the gaps are. You don't have to fill all of your holes in the calendar because that's not healthy but try to about half an hour that you can use solely for practice.
What Makes Your Practice Efficient?
Practice is about building good habits that bring about results.
The results won't come if you practice just once or twice a week for an hour or so, get yourself exhausted, get no results, and then feel discouraged. Results will only come if you practice every day or at least as many as much as you can, even for a short time.
This brings me to the next subject, which is efficient practice because you know we could practice every day and just be wasting our time on the wrong things. Super important!
There have been studies where people (amateurs and professionals) have been compared spending the same amount of time practising an instrument. And, at the end of the studies, the results are very different.
The professional gets better and better. The amateur stays the same or has minimal results.
So what's the difference there? Let's explore it.
First of all, for an efficient practice, it's vital to have everything set up in advance. You don't want to spend time taking your guitar out of the case, setting up the drums, setting up the speakers, turning the computer on, doing all these things that are going to take a bite out of your practice time. You want to have everything easy and set up. Make it easy for yourself.
Plan for Your Practice
Secondly, you need to have a plan. Don't just go into practice not knowing what you're going to do. Your project needs to be clear before you show up, and that plan connects to the vision (the long term and the short term goals that we discussed earlier),
Before you start playing, make sure that you're in the right mindset. Some people may find this problematic because maybe you've got a child or an intense job, and it can be challenging to get into the zone.
One thing that can help is to have a little ritual that works for you. Now, there's no universal ritual that will work for everyone, but you need to find a good pattern for you. For example, you could have a dance to get into the mood, or maybe you want to light a candle and do a five-minute meditation, or perhaps you want to listen to your favourite music to get you going and inspired.
Once you sit down and start playing, it's important that you challenge yourself so that you're stretching your ability every time, but not so much so that it's too difficult to accomplish your goal.
That's the real key: challenge yourself just enough to learn something new, but not so much that you give up. And don't just stay playing the same old songs, the same old exercises, because you'll get bored, and you're not going to learn anything new. Remember also that variety is essential. It would be best if you balanced the fun with the technicality,
For example, I tend to go too gung ho on the theory and my goals, and then I start doing warm-ups for a long time. I then get completely exhausted when my practice time is over, plus I haven't had any fun. Now that's no good because then I don't want to do it again.
On the other hand, if you have all fun and no technical or challenging goal, you're never going to learn anything new.
So again, it would help if you had a balance between these two things, but always remember to finish on a win and a high. Always end on a success. For example, if you learned something difficult, you can then reward yourself with your favourite song.
Here's an example of how you can split up your practice time:
If you only have half an hour, you could spend a third of that time warming up. Then another third to practice something that stretches your ability. And then the last third to do something enjoyable.
Have a Professional Attitude
Most importantly, you need to treat this as you would a profession, and you know that it doesn't matter if you don't make any money with it.
You need to be a professional if you want to get anywhere.
Think about it. If you had a job, any job, even if you worked at McDonald's, you have to go to it every day, show up, do your job correctly, or get fired, right? It doesn't matter if you had a terrible night's sleep. It doesn't matter if you don't feel like it today. You still have to go if you want to get enough money to eat.
It's the same with your instrument; you need to treat it with a professional attitude. It doesn't matter whether you feel like it or not, do it, even if it's just for those 10 minutes, half an hour, whatever it may be. Just make sure that you challenge yourself and have variety, and you end up on a win and a high.
Again, make it easy for yourself. Keep your phone outside your practice room, make sure you have a sign on your door that says, "Leave me alone for this next hour," whatever it may be. Maintain firm boundaries with your partner, your kids, or your pets so that they leave you alone for this amount of time. You wouldn't want your partner, parents, or kids to interrupt you while working. And, you are working.
Keys to Practicing Efficiently
- 1Have everything set up in advance
- 2Have a plan or a ritual
- 3Challenge Yourself to learn something new
- 4Treat learning your instrument as you would a profession
What to Do If You're Stuck in a Rut
If you find yourself stuck in a rut, and you keep on playing the same thing over and over again, the answer is pretty apparent: Learn something new.
And with that, I don't mean something complicated. For example, if you're a drummer, you could learn a new rudiment on a practice pad and then apply that on the kit and see how different that feels to what you usually play.
For example, if you play the piano and feel like you're always playing the same songs, you could find a piece that you know the chords to and just use those chords to improvise something new. So you've got the same chords, but you scramble them up. You'll be amazed at what happens when you don't try to play the song as it is.
Is Discipline Your Ticket to Freedom?
Now, how you practice transforms your life personally. It not only helps you to be a better musician, but it will change your life and make you a better human being.
When you learn the power of discipline, you learn to be free.
I'm a bit of a free spirit, and I always disliked the word discipline. I always thought discipline was just for soldiers or squares or people who don't have any imagination. Boring.
But the thing is, discipline is the ticket to freedom.
Well, if you're not disciplined, you won't learn much. You may think that you want to be free to play whenever you want, but you're not going to be free to play what you want until you have some discipline.
You have to tell yourself that you want this enough to practice it every day. Once you've learned the basics of your instrument, then you'll be free to play whenever and wherever you want. You'll only need to maintain your level of fitness.
It's a bit like exercise. You may think you don't have the discipline to exercise your body because you'd rather just lounge around and do whatever you want. The thing is, though, if you don't exercise, you won't be able to do whatever you wish to eventually because your body needs that exercise and the muscles that develop from it to live the life you want.
If you want to climb a mountain or go out and dance all night, you're going to need those muscles. So the discipline of doing a little bit of exercise every day will give you the freedom to go on that mountain or go dancing or do whatever you want to do. The same idea holds for music.
If you want to play whatever song you choose at any time, you'll need the tools and the know-how. You won't gain this know-how by practising every once in a while or whenever you feel like it. You're going to have to pay for that with discipline.
How to Effectively Create New Habits
When you become more disciplined as a musician, you can use the same skills to build positive habits that will give you the results that you want.
So discipline is your ticket to freedom. And just like any ticket, it does cost something. In this case, it costs a little bit of effort and focus, and commitment.
Now, if you're one of those people who finds creating new habits a little bit tricky. I would suggest reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. Here are just a few pointers that he has in his book:
Make Sure It's Easy to Do
If you want to create a new habit, make sure it's easy. So here we go back to making things easy by having space where you practice all set up, make it fun, make it enjoyable.
So once again, here we go back to the idea of making sure that you have some fun during your practice by doing something that does not require achievement.
Attach It to Another Habit
What this means is if there's something you do regularly, attach your practice to that activity. It makes sense, right?
For example, my boyfriend decided that he wanted to introduce squats into his routine. So since he's not a gym guy, he thought about something that he already did every single day. Well, he has a cup of tea every few hours. So now, every time he's waiting for the kettle to boil, he does ten squats and measures his progress. We have a blackboard in the kitchen where we record a tick every time he does his squats. And I also have the same thing, so we have a little competition!
If you're competitive and enjoy that kind of thing, then that's one way to make it fun. So, try to attach it to another habit and measure your progress, whether it's a video that you make every month or dots on a piece of paper.
Write It Down
It's also helpful to write down what you're going to do so that you fully commit to it. Write it down and put it in a place where you can see it every day.
You want to say it out loud and declare it to the world, so you commit to it. Say something like, "every day at this time, I'm going to practice the piano." And then do it.
I hope that this has been informative and helpful for you.
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