How Can I Become More Enthusiastic About Practicing?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Enthusiasm is the mother of effort, and without it nothing great was ever achieved.

Unfortunately, when I was in high school, enthusiasm had nothing to do with my reasons for practicing. Except for those times when I had a new piece to learn, practicing was not something I enjoyed or looked forward to. I did it because I felt I had to.

But imagine a parallel universe in which you are in high school, and suddenly have one of those moments of clarity in which your perspective on practicing shifts (ha ha, get it?), and you begin practicing not out of duty, but from a place of genuine enthusiasm?

How much different do you suppose your experience of college, graduate school, and beyond would be? How much better might you become over the course of weeks, months, and years?

A tale of two perspectives

A student approached me after class this week (true story), and beaming from ear to ear, excitedly shared with me a breakthrough he had this past week. He explained that he always thought practicing was something we did simply to fix problems. To correct notes out of tune, scratchy tone, coordination issues, tempo, and so on.

But this week, something clicked, and his concept of practicing changed. He realized that the reason we practice is not to fix things per se, but to figure out what we want to say, and how to say it.

This conceptual shift resulted in an exponential leap in his level of enthusiasm for practicing. As if there was now a greater purpose and reason for engaging in practice every day.

I asked how he came to this realization, and he said it was a combination of many things that over time coalesced into this moment of clarity.

The contributing factors

Here are some of the things he mentioned as having a role in bringing about this new view of practice:

1. Reading How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?, and Paul Kantor’s suggestion that the practice room ought to be like a laboratory.

2. Watching this video of Leon Fleisher, where he emphasizes the importance of having a concept of what you want before you play – and likewise suggests that the practice room is the place to experiment.

3. Watching this video of Glenn Gould, especially the part beginning around 1:10 where he seems to be trying to figure out to get the piano to produce what he hears in his head, and then at 1:58 when he gets up from the piano seemingly to sing out loud to clarify what he wants, at which point he returns to the piano to see if he can make it happen on the instrument.

4. And all the teachers he has had contact with over the years, who have repeated variations of the same message, sometimes even asking him to sing out loud in lessons so as to demonstrate how he wants the phrase to sound away from the instrument.

There are undoubtedly other contributing factors that led to this reconceptualization of practice, but however it happened, the enthusiasm is there – and hopefully to stay!


Have you found ways of increasing the innate level of enthusiasm in your own (or your students’) daily practice?

I have 5 copies of the popular Metronome+ app (iPhone) to share with readers. Submit your favorite idea for increasing enthusiasm in the practice room below in the comments, and I’ll give these copies away to my five favorite responses (please fill in the email field when leaving your comment so I can send you your code!).

UPDATE: Codes have been handed out – thank you to all who left comments!

photo credit: kreg.steppe via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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22 Responses

  1. When I practice, I imagine my next performance and it excites me about being in the practice room. I start with warming up just like if I were about to perform, and then I perform a few pieces and imagine I am performing. Then I review what I have done and fix the rough spots.

  2. I find the best attitude to go into the practice room is in allowing one’s self the freedom to experiment and just enjoy the music. Yes, we strive to “fix” all the things that are “wrong,” and to strive for technical proficiency, but it seems once I inwardly give myself the permission to explore the music, for me, it flows more effortlessly into a creative process. Rather than spending hours hashing through difficult spots, with this permission I often find myself lost in the exploration of possibilities with a particular phrase and the hours will go rushing by; No need to keep track. I come out of the practice room tired, yes, but full of enthusiasm for the private journey within in that little room – like I have a secret brewing that I can’t wait to get back to the next day.

  3. Each time I practice a song, I’m entering into the music and text for the first time, as if I’m saying these things in a conversation or if the thoughts are just coming into my head. I try to maintain a state of wonder at the text and the musical phrase (I use this for piano pieces too), which keeps practising fresh. I often surprise myself with what comes out. Drudgery turns into elation and the tension in my body also decreases a lot when I’m not focused on perfect production (which actually ends up improving those things). This approach, I find, results in fewer hours of practising, but is overall much more effective. I leave practice feeling tired but nourished.

  4. I became so much more inspired in my daily practice when I heard it said that Maxim Vengerov’s approach to playing is “how can I bring this music to life”. Then no matter how many times I have played a piece before, every time it is fresh, every time it is a new creation. Even if the last time seemed perfect, can I play it again without trying to recreate what I did last time. Then everytime really is a first time and there is no boredom of repitition. I even stopped calling it ‘practice’, it is a time for playing (and can be playful), creating (and can be creative) and performing (and can have the zest of performance).

  5. I spend my day imagining playing so that by the time I’m actually “allowed” to get to my fiddle and start playing I’m so excited to see if I can make it sound like it did in my imagination I actually have to time myself to STOP practicing.

  6. To increase my own level of enthusiasm, as well as that of my 10 students, I have stopped “practicing” entirely. In the meantime I am, instead, investigating, and learning. In switching brain-modes from, “oh, i SHOULD practice because that’s what i SHOULD be doing right now,” to, “hey, i wonder what i COULD learn right now if i sit down and just try to learn one thing that i can’t do very well yet,” i have found the mental “trick” to be helping me find a new focus. It is as if you woke up already having a bad day and thought only bad things will continue to happen for the whole day, instead of waking up and thinking things can only get better from here. The switch sets you up for a more positive outlook on what it is you are trying to do. I’d tell anybody to stop “practicing” and switch to “learning.” I feel, for me, it enables a curious enthusiasm.

  7. My current life situation is having a young family: kids ages 6, 4 and 2. There has not been a whole lot of time to practice- and that was accompanied with a lot of guilt about not practicing. I decided about 2 months ago that all I needed to do was practice 5 min a day- and that’s it. I could stop after 5 min. if I wanted to. Usually, that’s all it takes for me to get my cello out and get to business (when the kids are asleep:) After the 5 min are up, I usually want to keep practicing and I find it’s fun and enjoyable!

  8. Your crush is going to come and hear you in a concert. If you make a great performance, she is going to be very impressed and maybe she will like you much more.

    That is enough motivation to go and practice hard hahahaha

  9. I find a helpful way to get motivated is to visualize success that could come as a result of it. Whether it be a good exam mark, or a super performance keeping positive visualizations like this would increase enthusiasm. Goal setting is also helpful, I find nothing is more fulfilling than learning something new, especially if it is a difficult passage; or getting just the right quality of sound. However, one must remember to always keep these aims as small and achievable as possible. Last but not least, is to watch really good performers. I do not know what others may say regarding undue stylistic influence and such, but I personally find watching virtuosos really motivating and inspiring 🙂

  10. Stay motivated by learning a few pieces at a time. Choose one that’s too hard, one that’s a little bit easier and one that’s about the level you are currently on. Being able to sight read a piece of music and play it well helps boost confidence while learning the two harder pieces helps stay motivated and improve.
    Get up and move away from the instrument and stretch at least every 20-30 minutes to give your mind a break. Keep water close by.
    Give your mind a beak by playing pieces you know well.

  11. My teacher told me how she went through this “manic depression”practice phase where for periods of time she would be so inspired and enthused that she’d practice from morning till the wee hours of the night, and then for a while she would be totally sick of it. Her husband on the other hand, my former teacher until he emigrated, is a world class musician and even at his age (70+) would practice daily and still find insight as to how he could improve his playing.

    After reading one of your posts on Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I watched the movie and it opened up a new world for me. I feel that enthusiasm is, at times, overrated because of how it waxes and wanes. Self-discipline, a clear goal, and a genuine desire to improve are more sustainable driving forces of practice for me.

  12. I was very enthusiastic about practising all through high school and college. I recommend taking lots of other courses that involve loads of essays and library research. You’ll never want to leave the practice room!

  13. As a musician, I find myself being a competitive person. I believe lots of musicians are the same, especially if they want to pursue a performance career. What motivates me is when I challenge myself. (Can I play this scale 5 clicks faster, or can I play this passage 3 times at a consistent quality). By competing with myself and the music that sits before me, I can have a short term, attainable goal. And when accomplished, it gives me a little boost in my confidence and enthusiasm. I then use this to confront another challenge, and the process continues. Forever. 🙂

  14. That Glenn Gould video blew me away. I love getting to see behind the scenes like that.

    I don’t often think about being passionate as both pleasure and anger. Now that I realize it, of the people I know who I consider to be great passionate musicians, the majority of them are quick to excitement when things sound good and quick to anger when the sound is not right. I think that frustration is an important part of their motivation to practice. It has to sound right.

    Just discovered your blog today, and I’m enjoying it. Thanks!

  15. Oddly, the problem-solving thing is a big part of what’s made me more enthusiastic about practicing. When I was a kid, I thought practicing meant doing it over and over and over and over and over and hoping it would just somehow get better by magic. It was mind-numbingly BORING and what’s worst, it didn’t work.

    Learning how to practice has made a huge difference to me. Practicing is like puzzle-solving for me now — much more fun, and while it’s more “work,” it’s more engaging this way and makes me more willing to do it.

    Writing my own music has also made me more willing to engage in the 37 million deliberate repetitions needed to perfect something because, instead of being one more amateur schmoe futzing around with a Chopin etude, I’m saying what I want to say, and if I don’t do it, it won’t get done.

    Figuring out what to say and how it should sound for me takes place mostly away from the piano.

  16. Hi, I really, really love your website. I have yet to buy your course, (still working on that, money doesn’t grow on trees 🙁 ) What I was curious about was have you ever considered writing a workbook? I’ve read lots of good books on practicing: The Musician’s Way, The Game of Music, my teacher wrote a book called Creative Practice Ideas for the Whole Musician and I love reading your blog, but that final step from reading all these ideas and actually doing them, can get a little iffy. Sometimes I get so overloaded by all these great ideas I have no idea what I should be doing in the practice room, which makes me more likely to lapse back into bad habits and forget everything I learned. Have you written anything about slowly applying these techniques one by one so there’s noticeable improvement in practice habits?

    1. Hi Carol,

      Good question. I’m as guilty as the next person of getting overloaded with great information and not putting it into action. There’s a book I like called One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, which gets at the idea of simply taking small steps to establish better habits. I don’t think it’s so important where you start, so much as you just start somewhere small, and make it a point to keep it going day after day.

      Perhaps you could just pick one idea, or one skill, and find a way to do a tiny bit every day? Stick with it for a week or two, and then incorporate another small little tweak, and then just build from there…

  17. My best way of getting inspiration is watching really good musicians play! It inspires me to be like them. I also have all my heroes pictures on my wall- they’re always watching me if I get lazy.

  18. I like to think of practice as problem solving, rather than “fixing” — what’s the best way to get this to sound like I want? To do what I want?

    I’m a classical guitarist. Just today I was practicing a few measures with a relatively easy chord change, but kept mis-fingering the second (block) chord. Made no sense! The preceding chord was an arpeggio, so I tried the second one as an arpeggio. Voila: fingered it perfectly. Tried again as a block chord, transitioning from the first chord: didn’t work. Tried it again as an arpeggio, again, it worked. Hmmm.

    So, next I heard that second chord as an arpeggio *in my head* as I played it: got it right. I couldn’t understand quite why, but it worked beautifully. Each time I tried.

    Then I listened to the Leon Fleischer clip above, and there was the answer: hearing what you want to do, even before you play. And wow: I understood why that mental trick I stumbled on worked: it forced me to listen for the right pitches, and my fingers followed.

    These little discoveries are so much fun!

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