Unless you’re major is in piano or you are a concert pianist, you don’t have to spend 6 + hours a day practicing to get good at playing the piano. In fact sometimes when we have lots of responsibilities throughout the day, more time sitting at the piano can actually do more harm than good. Hopefully by the end of reading this you’ll have learned how to use your daily habits to construct a system for success.
EXPLOIT YOUR MOTIVATIONAL TIDE
All too often do we say we will do something and put it off for the next day and they never happen. We tend to procrastinate in different areas of life including working out, dieting, financial planning, sending that thank you card to your mother-in-law. However we have times where we’re super motivated to do something and then times that we are not motivated at all. It’s like a tide moving in and out each day. That’s why it’s important to be ultra productive during these motivational peaks (when the tide comes in) and set up a system to make practice extremely easy to do in times of your de-motivation (when the tide goes out). Instead of simply saying ‘I’ll try harder’, exploit your motivational tide. The next time you get that burst of inspiration to play, grab a pen and paper and carve the time into your schedule. I recommend a huge paper calendar you can get from Wal-Mart. You will have to confront it every day because there’s no way to avoid them hanging on your office wall. Plus they have a lot of space to write down extra notes to track progress which we’ll talk about next. I also recommend a calendar app like Google maps to have reminders throughout the day.
Gauge your productivity by tracking your progress. You already have the dates in the calendar. After the date has passed jot down a little note about what you were able to accomplish that day, the time it took for you to accomplish it and if you didn’t get to it, the specific reason why e.g. ‘I had an project to complete by Friday and really needed this time to get work done’. Learn from your habits. Don’t expect every day to be the same. If you thought Tuesday at 8:50am was a good “fresh” time but you never get to it, try Tuesday at 6:45pm. Keep going until you hit a sweet spot for that particular day.
When you are in your de-motivated times, your schedule is already carved out to include practice times so you don’t have to sit and think about it but just do it. One way to ensure that your butt will be on that piano bench when the time comes is to have very little blocks of time so small that even on your laziest day you can say ‘Eh -- I can do that’. We’re talking five to fifteen minute micro-sessions at the piano.
EXTRA TIDBIT: Set a 6 month goal and a 12 month goal with a sentence of what you want to be able to play e.g. I want to have “Linus and Lucy” performance ready in 6 months and “Rhapsody in Blue” in 12 months. At the end of those goals set the date to have a mini recital for close friends and family. You can also set mini goals e.g. 3 months, 8 weeks, by Christmas etc. You can be the life of the party playing tunes for everyone around the piano.
MASTER THE ART OF DAILY MICRO-PRACTICE SESSIONS
Be very specific and detailed about when you can realistically practice. If you’re not sure, start by planning times where you know your mind is fresh. Block out a few 5 to 15 minute sessions throughout each day of the week where you can realistically fit your micro-practice in for every day. e.g. Upon waking up, before going to work, After dinner/before bed. If there’s a day you know you won’t get to the piano, be realistic about that too. Bear in mind that missing a day is almost like missing 3 days in terms of consistency however don’t let that discourage you from having extremely high quality productive sessions which I’ll talk about in just a minute. Keep in mind that our minds tend to be freshest upon rising. It’s also a good time to practice after you eat a meal but not immediately after. Plan your early practice sessions on weekends or days you are off.
‘IT’S TOO OVERWHELMING!’ -- HOW TO AVOID PRACTICE HELL
For the long practice sessions it is important not to overdo it. Sometimes we say ‘I’m going to get 6 hours of practice done on Saturday!’ and we get to Saturday not necessarily feeling like practicing for 6 hours but here we go! Then after an hour and a half our mind starts to stray. We begin thinking about random things like ‘when am I gonna get my tires replaced?’ and then we descend into the black abyss of “Practice Hell” where you practice forever and seem to get nothing done. When your brain starts to tire, simply walk away. Does a restorative chore like folding clothes or preparing a snack or even running to the grocery store. When you come back you’ll be surprised how fresh you will feel after only a few minutes. Folding clothes while watching TV is okay but try to avoid TV or internet by themselves as they will take you into another place called the “I’m Done For The Day” realm.
Sometimes we can get frustrated even in just a few minutes of focused practice. We will be practicing the same thing that a few minutes ago we were doing fine in but now it seems we are regressing and making mistakes we didn’t make before. I have a theory that it’s because we are not breathing enough and our brains get fatigued. A lot of us tend to hold our breath whilst playing and this inhibits the flow of oxygen to our brain which we need to have focused practice. Simply taking 3 deep slow breaths will cause a euphoric wave to pass down your body and you will have another burst of brain energy. While practicing, focus on your breathing so that you never run into a brain fatigue situation.
‘BUT I WANT TO BE ABLE TO BLOCK AN HOUR -- FIFTEEN MINUTES ISN’T ENOUGH TIME!’
I understand the thought however when we don’t have the time we think we need, our tendency is to just do nothing until the time opens up for us. We need to make the time although you can get much more done in less time than you think. Realize that even 5 minutes of practice is plenty if you know how to use them. Focused practice is key. You should be playing things you don’t already know. This is the stuff that won’t sound pretty and nobody should be standing by saying ‘hey, that sounds great!’ unless their listening to the end result of your practice session.
How do we do this? We focus on one task at a time. Multitasking is a myth and studies show we can only focus on one thing at a time. In fact, if you’re “good at multitasking”, you’re not really doing a whole bunch of tasks at once but are switching between tasks quickly. So how does this relate to practice? Focusing on one thing at a time could mean focusing on your right hand vs. both hands, focusing on your timing in a certain phrase, focusing on fingering or just getting one passage down at a time. It’s always better to undershoot than to overshoot in your micro-sessions so aim small.
Making time to practice is key for any of this to work. If you want the change to happen you’ll make the time to practice despite all the business going on in your life. Remember to exploit your motivational tide, stick to your system and enjoy the process. It is designed to help map out your practice schedule, schedule micro-practice sessions and use the strategies to avoid falling into Practice Hell. Perfect practice makes perfect playing and if you get the practice part right; your playing will be stellar.
Harry L. Rios
Founder of HarryLRios.com
Harry L. Rios.com