The Mental Game of Music Practice

| June 9, 2013

music practiceI once took a weekend music theory class given at the famous Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and during the class breaks the students got together in the cafeteria. Posted on a column one week was a handwritten note, quoting some esteemed character in the school as having said “Practice is a sign of insecurity!” Beyond the initial chuckle this evoked, the quote has stayed with me over the years because it captures so much of the mental baggage around music practice – “You need to practice x minutes each day,” “If you don’t practice enough, you’ll be bad,” “I hear that so and so practices 8 hours every day, I’ll never be as good as he is,” “Only perfect practice makes perfect,” etc. With all of these messages coming from teachers, parents and other musicians it’s no wonder that music practice is such a loaded topic for many music-makers and those who gave up on an instrument. I can easily imagine that within the high-pressure halls of a top music school that some students would be practicing just to practice, with no objective in mind other than the need to spend more time practicing. So with all this in mind, in this post I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned on the mental game of music practice.

If you’ve ever taken up the game of golf you’ve probably seen that there is a cottage industry around the mental game. From countless books on mental toughness to the interviews with sports psychologists during a major championship, golfers are very aware of golf’s mental game. There’s a lot to it, but at the risk of oversimplification, I boil it down to the following – train yourself so that after hitting a bad shot your thoughts aren’t “I’m a bad golfer” but instead “That was a bad golf shot.” In other words, a bad shot doesn’t become a judgmental statement about yourself, but instead a dispassionate observation is made as to result and cause.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this, as the same can be said and done for music practice. Here’s how I see the mental game of music practice:

Manage Expectations

You see comments on musician message boards similar to “I’ve been playing now for x years, why can’t I play y, or I’m still bad, or I should be able to do z. This reflects expectations that we all have, some of which we’re aware of and some we’re not aware of, about where weshould be. Here’s something to keep in mind – “Don’t should on yourself.” Music learning varies by individual and is a process of personal growth. When you start to focus on the should, you leave the present and start sapping the value of your practice time. With music making, there’s no should, only you. Practice having respect for where you are and the progress you’ve made in your musical journey. This is not to say that having goals isn’t helpful, but make sure your goals are positive and non-judgmental.

Avoid Comparisons

Chances are that before you started to play your instrument you heard someone else playing the instrument, either live or recorded, and you were inspired by the music and infused with enthusiasm to start learning. Are you still in that same place? When you hear a great musician on your instrument are you still inspired, or do you go to “I’ll never be that good” or “I’ll practice 16 hours a day so I can beat him”? Comparisons can be useful, and stimulate our determination, motivation and competitive spirit. But they can also be destructive and lead to false measures. It may be easy to measure and compare technical prowess, such as speed, but music is about connecting with an audience. You may not be able to play notes as fast as someone else, but you can say what you have to say, to your audience, with fewer notes.

Raising Your Mental Game of Music Practice

So how do you deal with these expectations and comparison feelings? The zen based approach is to not deny them, but rather to dispassionately recognize them, see them for what they are, understand them, and to recognize the destructive nature of them as you continue to progress and contain those feelings. You want to be the casual observer who has no stake in the outcome – just observing with curiousity, but not caring about how it is going or judging on how it should be going. You’re just observingwhat is going on. Avoid judgments about yourself – you’re just watching your hands and fingers move, listening objectively to the sounds coming out of the instrument, and noting whatever touch sensory messages you’re getting from the nerve cells in your fingers.

When a mistake is heard you objectively observe what has happened. Is one finger getting in the way of another? Did something get pulled out of memory incorrectly? With each problem observed you stay dispassionately focused on identifying the needed technical cure, for example, that finger one needs to move out of the way first before the finger two starts to move. Then practice the needed change while continuing to be the curious, objective, observer. Be sure to also observe, again without judgment, the rate of improvement in implementing a needed cure. Does it take 20 repetitions per day for 5 days to internalize a needed change? Does learning to grab a new chord go any faster if practiced for more than a couple of minutes at a time? When you start to note the time required to make adjustments, you’ll start to get an objective indication of how much music practice time you need to achieve your goals.

Photo credit: onkel_wart (thomas lieser) / / CC BY-NC-SA


Category: Instrument Practice

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