Motivation and Concentration

Question: I find myself taking constant breaks, procrastinating, if you will. It takes a certain amount of motivation to start my practicing. I am a lover of classical and operatic music, and I love to compose pieces off the top of my head, but I can’t promise myself a 1-hour practice daily. I don’t know if I’m just being lazy or the work seems overwhelming. Have you heard of this problem from others? What can I do to stay focused?

– Melody (California, USA)

Albert’s reply: I’ve found that in most cases procrastination is caused by making projects overwhelming in our minds. When we actually get down to work, often it is not nearly as difficult as we imagined.

I had a revelatory experience on this front the other week. I recently completed a half-marathon despite the fact that I had just started running nine days before. I was in the middle of my fourth workout and spontaneously figured that if I could just keep putting one foot in front of the other for an extra hour or so, I’d achieve this goal. (My iPod registered 13.20 miles, the last of which were rough going, to say the least.) This experience forced me to wonder: What is the equivalent of the half-marathon in other areas of our lives? For some, it’s practicing piano. If you’re procrastinating, you’re likely making the task much more difficult in your mind than it really is.

You might simply need to organize your practice. Create a simple checklist of tasks to be completed during each practice session. If an hour a day of practice is your goal, split it into two 30-minute sessions. For the first one, start with a warmup of 10 minutes or so of scales. Then, while your mind is fresh, carefully practice a new piece. Not knowing how to practice is often the root of concentration difficulties. This website has dozens of articles on practicing piano.

For the second half-hour session, it’s best to continue practicing your new piece. You can also use some or all of this second session to refine music you already know.

There’s a very simple time management tool which I use for my practice sessions and which I recommend above all: a timer. The first thing you should do is time your practice sessions. Use a stopwatch and stop it anytime you take a break. Time only your actual practice time: If you stop to answer the phone, stop the timer. Don’t cheat!

The use of a stopwatch alone will spur concentration, since you won’t be able to stand pressing the stop button too often. It will force you to be honest with yourself. Moreover, with this method you’ll learn exactly the amount of time you’re actually practicing. Keep a daily practice log and average the total time per day over a week or so of practice.

Once you’ve gotten a baseline by doing this exercise, I recommend using a countdown timer instead of a stopwatch that counts up. Set it to 25 minutes. The rule is that while this timer is running, you must not stop it, except in case of emergency! The countdown timer alone will give you a surprising amount of motivation. It will shift your focus back to practicing whenever you’re tempted to procrastinate.

Finally, one thing that I think all music teachers should do for their students is practice. The teacher cannot learn for the student, but a teacher can show the student how to practice. During lessons, I sometimes have my students practice for me, as if I weren’t there. If you are not currently working with an expert teacher, this is a step I always recommend. A skilled teacher can recognize practice mistakes immediately. If you are currently studying piano on your own and are struggling with practicing, it may be time to seek the personal guidance of a teacher.

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