Maintaining Motivation to Practice
Practice is such an important factor in acquiring any new skill. Especially during the first few years of learning a new instrument, practice is essential to gaining confidence, consolidating new knowledge, and progressing towards individual learning goals. Although there is a lot of information out there on the importance of regular practice to achieving goals, maintaining motivation to practice is often overlooked. This is particularly troublesome, as without sufficient intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to practice, students tend to mindlessly practice the same things over and over again with nothing substantially improved by the end of the week. Below I will share some of my top tips I have used to help my students maintain motivation to practice most efficiently and effectively.
Setting up a non-negotiable daily routine for practice in our busy schedules is the key to ensuring we don't make endless excuses at the end of the day. From my own experiences, a morning or early afternoon session is the best time.
Some students prefer to do blocks of practice in 3 x 10 minute intervals, whilst some students prefer to do their practice in one long sitting (typically 30 mins). Whilst both of these are effective, the most suitable length of practice should be better determined by the level of mental alertness, difficulty of practiced material and overall time to practice. Most importantly though, any practice is better then none, and it is better to stay mindful and alert for shorter periods of time, then practice mindlessly through a long session of time.
Reflecting back on my own experiences learning the piano as a teenager, 20 mins of practice tended to be the longest time before my mind started to wander. At this point, I would typically take a water break, go outside, have a walk, or change tasks to something less demanding. Overall, I generally increased my practice as the pieces increased in level of difficulty, and also towards the end of a deadline such as an exam, concert, or presentation.
Practice sessions should be broken down into multiple parts that address technical skills, pieces, and overall enjoyment. Most importantly practice goals should be developed each week and used to determine how long and often practice should go for. As goal-driven practice is more easily measured in terms of success, maintaining and working through practice goals may take anywhere from 15-60 minutes a day. Despite this variance in time, the main objective of this type of practice is to ensure the goal is achieved by the end of the practice session. By focusing on the process rather than the end product, we can begin to become more aware and mindful of how we are using the time we set aside to practice, and thus implement effective strategies to achieve our goals.
Below is an example of how a practice session can be broken down into 3 specific stages.
a) Warm up (Typically 5-10 mins): This is where technical drills and scales or studies/ old repertoire are practised and reviewed. Dependent on what your individual goals are, this could be anything from the use of AMEB scales, arpeggios, Hanon exercises, Czerny studies, octave studies, finger-strengthening exercises, or piece specific technical exercises.
b) Pieces (Typically 15-30 mins): This is where specific goals designated to a particular day are worked through. E.g.: Ensuring both hands can play at both slow, medium and fast speeds using a metronome for bars 18-30. As this is a very specific goal, this ensures the practice is most effective and time efficient whilst getting straight to the area of weakness when we are most attentive. Simply practising through a piece from beginning to end is mostly ineffective, and mindless practice, unless it is for the purpose of practising for a performance.
c) Review and Evaluate (ongoing throughout/ 5mins): At the end of every practice session, like the end of a day, we should always reflect and evaluate on the quality and nature of our practice. This can help us plan for subsequent practice sessions and ensure we are mindful of what does and doesn't work. Examples of questions we can ask ourselves are:
What areas need more work?
Were my practice strategies effective? Yes why? If not, what else could I try?
What can I do in my next practice session to maintain or improve my progress?
Questions to follow up with my teacher in my next lesson.
Students can start a practice journal or tick off goals planned with aid of a teacher, emphasising the importance of self-reflection and perseverance.
Learning an instrument involves hours of long-term dedication and practice, some of which is not always enjoyable and may result in periods of self-doubt and reduced interest. More so, research shows that when a student’s feeling of competence is not reach or supported, they are most likely to give up. Therefore, providing ongoing support and constructive feedback are thus important to maintaining a student’s motivation to practice.
Effective ways in which to support instrumental students to practice is nurturing a growth mindset to support resilience, emphasising the importance of effort rather than outcomes, embracing challenges, letting go of the need to be “perfect”, and stopping negative thought behaviours such as assuming past mistakes define abilities and that those abilities never change. Furthermore, by encouraging students to take ownership over their learning through choosing pieces they like, sharing their personal opinions and ideas of how they would like to use their lessons to support their interests, students can gain a better sense of musical fulfilment and value within their lives.
These are just a few ideas in which practice can be supported. I would love to hear your thoughts on ways in which you stay motivated to practice, or ways in which you structure your practice to using your practice time most effectively.
Thank you for reading