Practicing, boredom, and guilt

November 25, 2014

In my first semester as an undergraduate music major, I struggled with practicing. I felt guilty about not putting in as many hours as I knew I should, but more than that I felt guilty about the reason: I was bored and frustrated in the practice room. I loved playing music, but going into the practice rooms felt like serving time: counting down the minutes until my hours were done, or sneaking out early with a pang of shame, while my playing more or less failed to improve. I didn’t talk to my teacher or my classmates about it because I thought my lack of enthusiasm for practicing was a sign of some kind of personal weakness.

But things got better. I gradually developed better ideas how to practice, and started to see results from it. My progress motivated me to get back into the practice rooms even more, and over the next few years practicing became my favorite part of the day.

photo, mandykoh
photo, mandykoh

As a teacher, I have tried to be sensitive to this problem. I find that my students who struggle with practicing are sometimes afraid to talk to me about it, and want to brush aside talk of their declining practice hours with thin excuses about having a “busy week.” But if we can address the problem honestly and openly, I can offer some suggestions to help them enjoy their practice time more and get more out of it.

I don’t think that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for practice room boredom, but in general I think these are some good starting points:

  • Put practicing on your daily schedule, and stick to the plan. It’s tough to scrape up enough enthusiasm for practicing when it’s the thing you have been putting off all day, and now it’s the only thing standing between you and some much-needed sleep.
  • Be goal-oriented in your practicing. Make a list of things that need improvement about your playing, and tackle a few things during each practice session. If you’re not sure what needs improvement, be sure to take good notes in your next lesson—as a teacher, I consider it my primary responsibility to help students hear what they really sound like, and what they could sound like. Or, don’t wait: make a recording of yourself (a smartphone makes this super easy), listen back, and jot down a few things that need work.
  • Don’t just try to improve your playing, work on improving your practicing, too. It’s an art form of its own. Soak up new practice ideas from your teacher, your classmates, and anywhere else you can find them. (Here are some of mine.) And, of course, invent your own.
  • Know your limits. Personally, I find that I can give about ten minutes of good, focused attention to a practice task before my productivity starts to decline, so I switch tasks at least that often. If I haven’t perfected something within ten minutes (and usually I haven’t), I’ll come back to it later with fresh energy. Figure out your own attention span and work with it, rather than against it.
  • Be honest with yourself and with your teacher about how your practicing is going. I guarantee your teacher can relate. She or he will probably have some great new ideas you can try, but might not know yet that you are in need of them.
  • Ride out the tough patches. Even once I started to get better at practicing, there still were (and still are) days when I just don’t feel like it. But there are lots of things in my life that need to be done that I don’t always feel like doing, and I still seem to manage. Sometimes the hardest, most tedious practicing seems to happen right before a breakthrough.
  • Start. I asked one of my students once what he found to be the hardest thing about practicing. He looked me in the eye and said, “Getting it out of the case.” Once he had his instrument assembled, he explained, it wasn’t so hard to just start practicing. (Cartoonist Scott Adams takes a kind of similar approach to going to the gym.)

You know practicing is important, and you love to make music. If your practicing is making you miserable, don’t give up on it! Make it fun and productive.