Backside In the Chair: How to Practise When You're Unmotivated

By Miranda Wilson

“I’m having trouble motivating myself to practise.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard this, I’d be that mythical creature, a rich cello professor.

Motivation is sporadic. Motivation is elusive. Motivation is not rational.

If we were motivated by rationality, all it would take to make us practise more is reading the famous 1993 study by K. Anders Ericsson et al. that showed that the best musicians are the ones who have done more deliberate practice than the rest.

The paradox of it all is that while you can love music deeply enough to make it your profession, meaning that you’ve already put years of your life into practice, you may still dislike practising to the point that you almost never feel like doing it.

Why not? Boredom, tiredness, stress, and good old laziness are part of it. But for most of us who know just how hard it is to be a musician, the feeling of being overwhelmed is the overriding force that stops us practising. When you contemplate the mountain of rehearsals and gigs and students and trips coming up and family obligations and money worries and music you have to learn, you can lose the desire to even because it all seems insurmountable.

And so it is that you start making empty promises to yourself that you’ll practise right after you’ve had a cup of tea and a nap and folded laundry and tidied up and vacuumed. (Ah, procrasticleaning.)

Of course, if you leave it any longer, the mountain becomes exponentially taller and you feel exponentially more overwhelmed, even though you know that if you don’t start paying down your practice debt now, it’s going to bankrupt you. And all of a sudden it’s three o’clock and you know you don’t do your best work after three o’clock so there’s no point starting now. You’ll do it tomorrow when you aren’t so tired. And so on.

I’m pretty sure most professional and pre-professional musicians feel this way often, or at least sometimes. Practice can be energizing and deeply satisfying, but actually making yourself do it doesn’t get easier.

We might not be motivated by the thought of being better, but most of us aren’t motivated by guilt trips either. The fact is, you can’t berate or belittle yourself into practising more or better. If you could, wouldn’t everyone have already pulled themselves up by the practice bootstraps?

The first step in getting yourself to practise is self-compassionately acknowledging that you are a human being, not a robot. Life isn’t always easy, and you’ve been through painful experiences, stresses, and anxieties that others may know nothing about.

For a moment, forget it all and just...exist. Close your eyes, breathe, count to ten. Then — and this part is single most important step in the process — sit down in your cello chair. That’s it. That’s all you have to do to set the process going. Get your backside in the chair.

Sit in it and see how it feels. Sit and be and breathe.

Then pick up the cello. I am not being sarcastic when I say this is a huge step in the process. Just pick it up and hold it. Maybe pull out the endpin. Tighten your bow. Then sit for a while with it.

Once you’re sitting with the cello, set yourself a ludicrously small goal. You only have to do one thing today. Like tuning your cello. Let's do that.

Well. Now that your cello’s in tune, you might as well play a scale. Let’s set one more ludicrously small goal, like one scale. One one-octave scale. Hooray! You accomplished 200% of your day’s goals!

Notice how you feel when you do this. Does every fibre of your being still resist practising? Ask yourself seriously: why are you resisting?

Have you been through a traumatic experience, such as a fight with a colleague during rehearsal? Did a conductor humiliate you in front of the entire orchestra? Did a recital go terribly?

Or has nothing particularly bad happened, but you feel scattered or sluggish or simply frustrated that your previous efforts haven’t resulted in noticeable improvements?

How do you feel when you think about yourself as a cellist? Bored? Boring? Restless? Inadequate? Ambivalent about your career choices? Or worse: mortified? Deeply wounded? Terrified of failure? Or even — here’s a thorny one — terrified of success, because you might have to stop messing about and actually do something?

Acknowledge the inadequacies and insecurities that are a normal part of your human experience as a cellist. Think about how you would counsel a dear friend who was experiencing your feelings right now. Chances are you’d be far more compassionate with her than you’re being with yourself. Is it self-indulgent to be this gentle in your self-talk? I don’t think so. No more self-beration! You’re in the chair now. The hardest part is done.

OK, well, now that you’re there, you might as well do something else incredibly small. Like an exercise in long tones to try and find your best sound. (Try “Bowing and Breathing” from pp. 12-13 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.)

And, little by little, remember what drew you to play the cello. No one becomes a professional cellist without first loving the cello. Consider the drama and theatre of the cellist's little rituals, the pulling-out of the endpin, the rosining of the bow, the double-stopping and harmonics and plucking as you tune it. Tapping your fingers on the strings to find a pitch. The visceral pleasure of drawing the bow across the strings to release sound.

Go deeper. Remember the day you knew you had to be a professional musician because something about it called you. Maybe it touched you so deeply that it felt as if it had cracked your chest open and exposed your heart. What was the experience that did this to you? A passionate teacher, a life-transforming concert, a piece of music that became an obsession?

Now think about how cello playing works under those elusive optimal conditions, where it’s going so well that the cello practically seems to be playing itself and you’re so high on music that you’re practically floating in the air.

It’s easy to forget those times when you’re stuck in the daily grind of scales.

(A word about scales. Why don't you just do another one? Now that you're in the chair and everything.)

Look at that. Almost without realizing it, you’ve exceeded your day’s ludicrously small goal by 300%. It’s time to reward yourself.

The concept of rewarding yourself — bribing yourself?! — to practise is a little controversial. We musicians are brought up with that monk-like, ascetic worldview that practice is a form of virtue, and that virtue alone is its own reward. Well, yes. And no. We’re not superhuman. Even if the prospect of success doesn’t motivate us, the prospect of something pleasurable should. (Don’t believe me? Read up on dopamine.)

So go ahead, get out of the chair, and reward yourself with ten minutes of whatever your pleasures might be. Mine are Etsy and Shutterfly. Yours might be ten minutes on social media, or cake and ice cream, or video games. And let's not call it “a guilty pleasure.” I hate that expression. Can we please expunge it from the English language and replace it with “a pure pleasure”? If you're going to do it, why not mindfully enjoy every minute of it until the ten minutes are up?

Can you sit back down in the chair? What would happen if you set one more tiny goal? An arpeggio? A Popper etude? What would happen if you just opened that orchestral score you've been putting off preparing for next week's rehearsal? What would happen if you just looked at it and thought about fingerings for the passage-work in the fourth movement? Two bars? Half a page? The whole page?

Breathe. Notice how you feel. Are you slightly more energized to work on it, now that your backside’s in the chair and the cello’s in your hand? If not, just complete one tiny goal, put the cello down, get up from the chair, and congratulate yourself that you got into the chair today.

No doubt you see where I’m going with this. The idea is to build up the habit of disciplined practice in small steps. When you break the insurmountable into tiny pieces and accomplish just one of the pieces, somehow that feeling of constriction and resistance slowly melts. “Oh well, I’ve started now, I might as well do some more.”


Why does this work?

To put it simply, there’s an overlap between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation on its own is hard to summon up. You think little Wolfgang Mozart loved all those hours of practice from toddlerhood onwards, with Papa Leopold as the original helicopter parent? I keep seeing a social media meme that makes light of procrastination by claiming that Mozart only composed the overture of Don Giovanni on the morning of its premiere, but this scathing rebuttal puts paid to that particular myth. We'd like to believe that Mozart's luminous talents emerged fully-formed and effortlessly, but they didn't. Mozart worked more, and more diligently, than just about any musician who ever lived. He was exceptionally disciplined, often under the most stressful of circumstances.

I can't call Mozart and ask him to verify this, but I'm pretty sure he found the results of his self-discipline highly satisfying. Did he sometimes wake up in the morning not feeling like composing? Almost certainly. If you were Mozart, you might have to reward yourself with billiards or by writing obscene letters to your cousin. But if you pushed through your resistance and did your work anyway until you got into the flow of it, chances are you'd start to feel good about that. (Oh hi, dopamine.) Intrinsic motivation starts as a form of delayed gratification, and you don't even have to be a Mozart to experience it.

Extrinsic motivation is easier to quantify than intrinsic. Most of us have non-negotiable deadlines for mastering repertoire in the form of rehearsal and concert dates that are planned months or years in advance. Showing up at the appointed time with your scores learned to performance standard is compulsory, at least if you care about getting hired again.

The grey area — and the practice room is often a particularly gloomy shade of grey — happens when we have to make our own deadlines for getting our stuff done. In a well-known study from 2002, the psychologists Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch did an experiment with three of Ariely's own university classes, where one group had strict deadlines for submitting three essays, another got to choose their deadlines but were held strictly to them, and another had no deadline at all other than the last day of classes that semester.

Guess what? The class with the strict imposed deadlines did better than the others, and the class with no deadlines did the worst. We humans respond well to structure and routine, even as we rebel against it. 

A key point, which Mozart knew very well, is that things don't have to be perfect. They do, however, have to be done. If you don't believe me, look at Mozart's handwriting on some of his scores. Forget glib platitudes like "Practice makes perfect" and its self-righteous friend "No, perfect practice makes perfect." There is no such thing as perfect. The whole concept of perfection is nothing but the publicly acceptable face of our old nemesis, procrastination. If we got rid of it once and for all and replaced it with some good old-fashioned Mozartean discipline. we'd all be much better for it.

Whether it comes from within or without, the discipline that starts with your backside in the chair builds your feelings of motivation until it changes your mood from lassitude to energization. The habit of efficient practising can become a meditative, almost prayerful ritual that becomes as essential to our happiness as our daily soap operas and our feel-good yoga classes.

There's a reason medieval monks chanted all that plainsong so many times a day. Virtue was only part of it.

The trick is to start your practice-room rituals in the first place until practice becomes not just your habit, but your pleasure, your calling, your culture, your way of being.

It starts with the chair.

©  Miranda Wilson, 2016. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission.