The adventures, thoughts, and general scrawlings of a classical pianist

Teachers Hate Her! This Pianist’s One Weird Trick for Getting Back Into Practicing

(Okay, it’s not one weird trick so much as it’s a multi-part framework, but if you expect a clickbait title to be truthful, hello sweet summer child, maybe the internet is not the place for you.)

So I spent most of 2020 feeling really crappy on the practicing front (and also, on all the fronts, ICYMI we are in a whole-ass pandemic). I had bursts of forced productivity where I bullied myself into expending all my energy pounding away at music like everything was fine, followed by long stretches of burnout where I felt hopeless and uncreative and all my discipline evaporated like it had gotten dusted in the Thanos snap. My pre-pandemic practicing routine was pretty rigorous and at the start of 2021, I found myself wondering how I was going to work my way back up to that, particularly as my relationship to practicing felt overly burdened with guilt and self-loathing after many months of false starts and forced busywork.

For the past few months I’ve been working my way back into a healthy practicing routine, and making minute but definite progress, and it all is happening only because I gave myself new rules and expectations that would have horrified my pre-pandemic self and honestly may horrify you too. But they’ve been instrumental (ha) in getting me to move forward and trust myself and actually feel good about sitting down at the piano, so I’m going to share what’s worked for me. (I have already written about and been interviewed about the crappiness of maintaining a practice routine during the pandemic with no live performances to work for, so that’s all I’ll say here because this post is not about that.)

Some disclaimers before we get started: the tips and methods I detail here are what I consider “harm reduction” guidelines for practicing; they are not practice/productivity hacks, they are not how I normally operate to achieve professional-level work, and I do not endorse or recommend this with kids—this is solely an account of the framework that has helped me to drag myself forward while in the recovery stage of dealing with a protracted crisis.

1. Trash your personal expectations. 

Pretty much every time I tried to practice post-March 2020, I ran into mental roadblocks that I’d set myself in the form of unspoken rules for what “counted” as practicing, and this was not a great place to be in given that I was struggling with brain fog and depleted surge capacity like everyone else. Like, if I did an hour of technical exercises but didn’t work on any repertoire, I’d basically say “Oh this was an unproductive day and I didn’t get anything done.” Or if I successfully learned a new passage of music but couldn’t get it “perfect” in a practice session, I’d say “I still can’t play this, so I haven’t accomplished anything today.” 

As you can imagine, this tendency to self-erase what little progress I made was not great for my self-esteem and the longer I went doing less-than-ideal practicing, the crappier I felt about myself, to the point that no marathon session of ultra-productive practicing could ever make me feel like I’d catch up on all the off days I’d racked up. Like a total bonehead I kept setting impossibly high expectations for myself, failing to meet those expectations, and then being all *surprise Pikachu face* when I felt bad!

Around the new year I had enough and, out of desperation more than anything, took the high bar I’d set myself as a lifelong high achiever and threw it to the floor. It wasn’t doing me any good to practice and then decide what I’d done didn’t count as practice, so I lowered my expectations and started counting basically everything as practice. If all I accomplished was hacking through a passage at quarter speed with multiple errors, I counted it as practice. If at the end of the week all I could do was thump through the notes of a piece without any voicing or shape whatsoever, I counted it as practice. 

I thought lowering my expectations so significantly would just make me feel worse about myself, but honestly after I started thinking this way I felt…fine. Actually, sometimes I felt pretty good about it? I started a habit tracker in my planner where I colored in the days that I’d practiced, and racking up the days gave me the momentum to keep going.

2. Establish super-clear and super-forgiving daily minimums

When I started unpacking where all my aforementioned unspoken rules came from, I realized that I’d basically defined a day of practice by whether or not I’d hit a maximum: whether I’d crossed the 5-hour mark, whether I’d done X number of technical exercises, whether I touched every piece in my repertoire. So I flipped the script and started motivating myself by hitting minimums instead.

My new daily minimum was this: if I sat down at the piano and just made some kind of sound—played one (1) scale, or reviewed a phrase from a piece of music—that was it, that was a day of practice for the books. No judgment, no qualifications; if I made a sound at the piano, I could check it off in my habit tracker and say that I’d practiced that day.

This is the part that probably horrifies you, because no one, no matter how talented, makes any progress if all they do is make a few seconds of sound and call it a day. (Also, this is pretty much the opposite of what we’re told as kids learning our instruments.)

Here’s the thing. The moment I have done my one scale, everything after that becomes voluntary. I’m not grinding away out of obligation knowing that nothing counts until I’ve hit a faraway maximum; every moment of practicing is bearable and productive because I’ve established that I’m only doing it because I really want to, I can stop whenever I want, and it all still counts no matter what. (And yes, this bears some resemblance to the Kimmy Schmidt Principle.)

The other thing is that I have yet to actually play one scale and call it a day. Because once I’ve overcome the resistance to sit myself down at the piano and touch the keys, stopping after one scale just seems incredibly silly. This is essentially how I trick myself into getting started in the first place, knowing and trusting that my high-achieving instincts will kick in and take it from there.

Like I mentioned earlier, I log each day of practice in a habit tracker in my planner. It’s nothing fancy; I just color in a box for each day that I’ve practiced. Sometimes after I play my scale (and then go straight into my one hour of technical work because hey, might as well), I’ll go and color in that day’s box, feel good that I’m “done” for the day, and then head right back to the piano because what do you know, I feel like doing one more thing.

One bonus to this “rule,” other than tricking myself into a productive day of practice day after day, is that it’s unintentionally created a positive association with the piano and with practicing. Amazingly, I’ve stopped feeling the burden of obligation weighing on me when I settle into the bench; because my practicing has all been voluntary and generally positive, I just feel better and happier practicing these days. (Yes, I am basically a small child.)

3. Create a comically low, easily attainable weekly goal

The daily minimum on its own works for getting me to sit down at my instrument; the thing is, I need something bigger to work towards to get myself to make progress. This is where the weekly goal comes in.

The key to setting a weekly goal is to make it so attainable that you are more likely to hit it than not. My guide to creating a weekly goal:

1. Think of a “big goal” you want to accomplish.
2. Think of what one day’s worth of progress toward that goal would look like under normal practice conditions with all your neurons firing properly.
3. Set that as your goal for the week.

For me, my “big goal” was to learn new repertoire so I wouldn’t get stuck spinning my wheels on old rep, so my comically low weekly goal for the past few months was to learn and memorize two new pages of music a week. For reference, in the Before Times I used to learn and memorize 2-4 new pages of music a day, and in some cases could accomplish that in one sitting in 1-2 hours, so aiming for two pages a week is so doable it’s hilarious and maybe a little sad.

Again! My pre-pandemic self would be horrified at this! I used to set near-impossible daily goals for myself to eke out as much productivity as possible. The thing here is that in the past few months of telling myself “you only have to memorize two pages a week,” I’ve learned and memorized more new music than I have all of 2020, where I’d try to motivate myself by going “okay, let’s learn this whole thing TODAY!” Then I’d feel really bad as I fell increasingly behind and found myself at the end of the week feeling like I was, say, ten pages in debt. (Then I’d start the next week feeling crappy and unmotivated and, well, that never felt great.)

Under this new, highly forgiving system, there have been weeks where I hit the two-page goal the very first day, which then gave me the momentum to keep going and continue memorizing “extra” music each day for the rest of the week. There have been weeks where I accomplished nothing all week and then just sucked it up and did my two pages on Friday. There have also been weeks where I slogged through just a few measures a day and found at the end of the week that boom, I’d hit my two pages, and that was actually something.

4. No value judgments allowed. 

This maybe rolls into #1 (trash your expectations) but it’s been enough of a thing on its own for me personally, so I’m treating it as its own thing.

I mentioned previously that I used to have all these unspoken conditions for what “counted” as practice, and if I didn’t meet these conditions, the spiraling would get intense. I’d call myself lazy and weak (a classic favorite), excoriate myself for being incompetent, imagine my mentors eviscerating me, tell myself I didn’t deserve happiness or success, and think of all the imaginary competitors out there working harder than me because they actually had what it takes. Very normal healthy thinking!

As the pandemic got worse and my ability to function dropped to upsetting new lows, I had a really hard time coping with what I interpreted as laziness and incompetence. Every time I couldn’t muster the motivation to practice productively given that I had nothing to practice for (i.e. most days) I would end up spiraling. (It doesn’t help that the acolytes of Hustle Culture were out here saying that anyone who wasn’t mastering new hobbies, learning new languages, writing a book, and pivoting to profitable online careers during the pandemic was simply weak—that’s already something the worst parts of my brain were saying about myself.)

At one point I realized that the facts frankly didn’t add up: no lazy, weak, or undisciplined person can make it through rigorous conservatory training and survive in a notoriously competitive and cruel industry. (I mean, at least not without an enormous dose of privilege, so.) It also helped to know that other accomplished, high-achieving people I know were struggling with the same thing.

So I started getting rid of my value judgments around practicing, and treating whatever happened in my practice sessions as neutral facts. If I only got 30 minutes of practicing in, I didn’t think of that as being “bad”—it’s just a fact, “I practiced 30 minutes today,” right there with other facts like “The sky is blue” and “Water is wet” and “The Metropolitan Opera really has no idea what they’re doing.”

Why this works

I’ve gotten to the point where my “crisis management” practicing is starting to resemble what I would expect from normal practicing, and I’ve had some time to observe myself and think through why this works so well. I think ultimately this method isn’t about changing the nuts and bolts of my practicing strategies so much as it is about getting rid of the all-or-nothing mindset of relentless practicing for practicing’s sake. The thing is that successful, effective practicing is just as psychological as it is physical, and it turns out that removing the components that made me feel bad and allowing myself the grace to be less than perfect most days is ultimately better than trying to muscle through the bad feelings.

Even with these super low minimums, lack of value judgments, etc., there have been some days where I just couldn’t drag myself to the piano even to play a scale, or weeks where I wasn’t able to memorize my two pages, even though memorizing two pages should be nothing for me. And here’s the thing: my penalty for not meeting my goals is…nothing. 

Because really, there are two outcomes when it comes to practicing (or not):

A. You make progress.
B. You don’t make progress, and your life remains the same.

There is no C. Because the “punishment” isn’t really a punishment—it’s just a neutral state of no change. (Obviously this does not apply if you’re missing a deadline for a performance or something and there are repercussions for that, but I think we have well established that this is a guideline for the abnormal state of big-crisis-no-deadline practicing.)

I can’t promise that this is going to work for everyone, and if the thing keeping you back is chronic depression or anxiety then you’re going to get more out of seeing a mental health professional than following the One Weird Trick a person on the internet wrote about. However! If your primary problem is that you’ve fallen out of a routine and you have a tendency to beat yourself up, maaaaybe give this a try! I can say with full confidence that this is not the worst advice anyone has ever put on the internet.

One response to “Teachers Hate Her! This Pianist’s One Weird Trick for Getting Back Into Practicing”

  1. Jesus Christ I love this.

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