practicing Jan 13, 2018
You’ve begun to learn piano. You started out with little or no piano background and you’ve made some progress. You might be able to read some music and play a few pieces. But just as you start to become confident, you find yourself growing less and less motivated to practice. First of all, take comfort that you are not alone in this feeling! Every time we start something new, we get excited and put effort into it. Then as time passes, day-to-day commitment becomes less enticing and more difficult. Thus, we begin to lose motivation. Below are some tips for when you feel like you want to keep learning, but need to take steps to give yourself an extra boost of encouragement.
One of the biggest mistakes new musicians make is setting unrealistic goals for themselves. When you set unrealistic goals, you’ll likely find yourself measuring how far you are from those goals, rather than measuring your progress. That can quickly become frustrating and irritating. Many people are inspired to learn how to play piano because they hear a particularly spectacular performance or recording and they want to be able to play like that. Although it’s important to find inspiring role models, you’ve got to make sure to be realistic when setting goals or you might become disappointed. Remind yourself that your piano role models have crafted a full-time career out of playing piano and therefore they practice three, four times, or even five times as many hours as you do. Additionally, if you’re having trouble deciding which types of goals are realistic for you, think about your past New Year’s Resolutions. It’s widely known that most people fail to complete their New Year’s Resolutions past January and February, and this is because their resolutions are too extreme and therefore an unpleasant experience for the person and unsustainable for the long-term. If you are one of the few people who can say “this year I’d like to learn Spanish, French, and German” and then you actually do it… great, you probably don’t need this article. But for the rest of us, set realistic and achievable piano goals for yourself so that any level of your progress feels notable and worthy of celebration.
If you haven’t already, take a look at your weekly calendar and find one (or more) regular time slot(s) in which you will always have time to sit down and practice piano each week. Once you find a good time slot in the week to practice, stick with it. As crazy or hectic as your schedule may get, think of practicing piano as “me time” and do not prioritize anything else above it. If the thought of playing piano brings you joy, then every moment of practicing, difficult or easy, is a step towards bettering your mental health. The more routine and regular your practice sessions, the easier it will be to sit down and dedicate that time to practicing. On the other hand, the longer you go without practicing, the harder it will seem to get back into the groove. Once you compromise your practice schedule with something else, you then have an added task of finding a make-up time slot, and sometimes that effort alone can cause you to skip a practice session that week.
Once you’re able to read music, you should be able to acquire music you’re interested in playing. Whether it’s pop, classical, jazz, or country music, the likelihood is that your favorite songs have been transcribed for piano and are accessible on the internet. When we play music that we find boring or tedious, it makes us less likely to practice. The more personally interested you are with the practice material, the better. For example, maybe you want to learn your mom’s favorite song for her upcoming birthday. Personal themes and song collections like this help to inspire us to practice even when we’re tired or don’t feel much like doing it. Additionally, when you find a genre or an artist you like, it can inspire you to learn a whole collection of music. For example, maybe you want to learn the entire Carole King Tapestry album, or perhaps you’re more ambitious and you want to learn all twenty-one Chopin Nocturnes (if you do this, be sure to learn them in the appropriate order of difficulty, not in the number order).
Something that keeps us inspired to practice is the thought of performing a piece for an audience. To keep yourself on track with your goals, perform often for your family and friends. This can happen in various levels of formality, but the important thing is to perform often. For example, let’s say you’re working on a song you expect to finish learning in eight rehearsals (let’s say two weeks). When you initially set that eight-rehearsal goal, tell your family or a friend and mark it on their calendar “two weeks from today I’d like to perform my new piece for you!”. As you’re practicing and the timeline for the performance shortens, you’ll find yourself more inspired to practice longer, harder, and with more focus. Additionally, for an added benefit, you may want to ask a family member to listen to your progress at the end of each practice session. Although these performances seem informal, they’re great for your progress as a musician. When performing live, you experience a unique type of adrenaline, excitement, and pride that you just can’t acquire by only practicing and performing for yourself. Aside from these types of performances, you should also arrange for a long-term and more final piano recital. For a more formal performance, invite many people and prepare multiple different works. The bigger deal you make it, the more excitement and inspired practicing you’ll have leading up to it. As a side note, if you feel anxious about having a recital completely about you, invite other musicians or artists you know to present their work there as well. Additionally, if you set up a recital date and find you don’t have the piece where you wanted by the time of the performance don’t cancel the performance, just tell your audience that the work is still a work in progress and perform it anyway. When setting performance dates, it is important to always stick to your timeline.
As you set and accomplish your practicing and performance goals, keep track of them in a calendar or notebook on your piano. It can be very rewarding, inspiring, and educational to look back on the months that have passed and see exactly how much time and effort you need to accomplish different levels of goals. Keeping track of progress will also help you with long-term goals such as “learn five Christmas carols before the holidays”. Often, we learn more than just one piece of music at a time, so if you have a physical space where you can look at everything you’ve done so far, then long-term goals won’t slip away so easily.
Studies show that when you practice piano, spending too much time on a difficult section can actually hurt instead of help you. Essentially, when you work on a difficult measure too many times in a row, your brain becomes frustrated and tuned out instead of interested in absorbing new material. Therefore, you should practice each section for only 5-10 minutes at a time, and then move onto the next section before coming back to that challenging section later. This type of practicing is just like working out or lifting weights: You might work on one muscle group three times in a day, but you do so in spaced-out repetitions so you don’t over exhaust your muscles all at once.
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