Tips for a more Motivated Practice Session
Staying motivated and inspired to practice our instruments during these times is an exhausting endeavor. With no concerts planned for almost everyone at least until August, it is hard to find a reason to practice. I find it challenging to keep motivated when I have nothing coming up. As a freelancer who is still relatively new in the city and country, I must deal with slow or dead times several times a year. So I have created a list with ten tips to help you (and me) stay motivated and inspired while we can’t make music with other people.
Practice with recordings. I did this often as a kid in high school. My only musical interaction with people was once a week in my youth orchestra, and I missed playing with people. I was a kid in the 90s, so I had to photocopy bassoon parts that my teacher had accrued and find recordings, which were a mix of CDs and my teacher’s study tapes. (yes actual tapes) These days it is infinitely more manageable. Go to IMSLP, get the part, go to your favorite streaming service, find the corresponding recording, and boom, you are there.
Discover new pieces to play. During slow times I make a goal of discovering a new piece of music once a week. An easy way to start is to search for your instrument on IMSLP. Pick a piece that you don’t know and spend some time sight-reading. If you don’t know the composer, spend a little time reading up on Wikipedia. If you want new orchestral music, try finding a new piece by a composer that you like. For example, Mozart wrote 41 symphonies, do you know more than three? Who were Mozart’s colleagues? What music did they write? Who were Mozart’s teachers? What did they write? Etc. Etc.
Create a mock Performance. Did you find one of those new pieces interesting? Want to delve deeper? Is there a piece of music you have been meaning to learn but haven’t felt like you could tackle it? Pick a piece and pick a date, two months out. You don’t have to plan on playing for anyone but plan on recording yourself. Even just a simple phone recording can tell you a lot about your playing.
Zen practice. I try to do this for my warmup every day. Pick one or two scales, or even just a few notes, and practice them, slowly, focusing on your breath, your fingers. Become one with the scale, be one with the note that you are playing. Don’t worry about anything except the current note, the present moment. Listen to the sound and your body. When I do this as a warmup, my practice session that day is much more focused and productive. I think of it as an active meditation. Meditation on sound.
Create a project with your friends/colleagues. Big caveat. I know this isn’t an option for everyone and can take a long time and is potentially frustrating, and there is debate within the music world about doing work for free. However, if you have access to even just a phone, and need a reason to practice, you can experiment with playing “with” your friends. See if someone else would be game to play with you and just have fun.
Practice improv. I feel that the art of improv in the classical music world has, unfortunately, for the most part been lost. In early music, there are a few opportunities for improv, especially in renaissance music. Still, even working in the early music world, I get little to no chance for actual improv. I think this is a fantastic skill set that every musician should be able to do a bit of, no matter what instrument they play. Learning how to improvise can teach you a lot about the composition process and help you think beyond the notes. Pick a tradition, jazz or early music, (or both!), and try it out. Pick a melody and try to vary a few notes at a time. Or find a bass line and see what notes line up. An excellent resource to get you started from musical-u.
Learn a new instrument. This one is probably easier for the early music buffs, but modern players can do it too. If you are a wind player, find a guitar or ukulele and learn a few chords. If you are a string player, learn a few melodies on a Yamaha recorder. Playing a new instrument can give you not only a new perspective for your own instrument, but also it can help you learn to play better with your colleagues.
Compose a piece. Composing a piece of music could be part two to improv. Like what you just did, write it down! Make a harmony line to accompany yourself. Use your phone and record the new piece. The possibilities in music are endless, don’t think your music needs to be perfect. Creativity is essential to cultivate on all levels.
Take the day off. If you are feeling burned out, worried, stressed, depressed, maybe a break would be the best option. Listen to your body and your spirit, and if it doesn’t feel right today, don’t force yourself. If you must practice, just play a few minutes the Zen practice and put the instrument down for the rest of the day. Have a cup of tea, enjoy a book, explore other art forms: take a virtual tour of a museum, watch some TV, go for a walk in nature if you can. Give yourself a break. We all need this sometimes.
Play. The most important thing to keep in mind is that it isn’t called play on accident. I know it is easy in these dark times to lose track of the joy and meaning of daily practice, but try to keep that element of playfulness within each session. It isn’t about the hours put into the practice; it is about finding creative solutions to problems. Being a musician is a tough gig in normal times, and these are abnormal times. Forget the world outside for a little bit and think about practicing as your time, time to explore, and discover.