Motivation for Musicians: The Practice Snowball

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By Miranda Wilson

The Music Avalanche

Have you ever thought of your list of music you have to learn as a gigantic avalanche that’s about to hit you? Tiny, helpless, and struggling, you try desperately to stand up and run, but…. Yeah, me too. I currently have several hours’ worth of scores to learn, including two major chamber works and a recital program’s worth of solo pieces.

The trouble with the music avalanche is that you sometimes feel so overwhelmed by it, you can’t get started.

(I’m writing this post because I suspect a lot of my readers are about to go back to college, and maaaaybe haven’t done quite as much on their summer assignment as they were supposed to. Take heart, there is still time to do something about this.)

We know that we need to get started. We know that “the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”

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But sometimes even starting seems overwhelming. Avalanches are no fun. You know what’s fun? A snowball. A lovely, tiny, manageable little snowball.

The Snowball Concept

I was recently flipping through a book by the financial self-help author Dave Ramsey and came across the concept of a “debt snowball.” It’s a way for debt-stricken, financially overwhelmed people to figure out which debts to pay off first. Basically, you line your debts up in order of size, regardless of interest rate, and make minimum payments on all but the smallest. That one, you put as much cash into as possible so that you pay it off first. Then you repeat this until all debts are paid.

I’m no mathematician, so I can’t say for sure if this is really the most efficient way to pay debt. But what struck me about the snowball concept is how manageable repayment looks when you see it that way. Tackling an avalanche of debt seems impossible even to start. A snowball, by contrast, looks easy.

Ridiculously Small Goals: the Musician’s Best Friends

Enormous goals seem so overwhelming, you don’t even want to start. But if you have a ridiculously, idiotically, laughably small goal, somehow it doesn’t seem so hard to sit down in your practice chair, get out the cello, and do some of it. That’s what I was getting at a few years ago when I wrote “Backside in the Chair: How to Practise When You’re Unmotivated.”

Here’s how I made a practice snowball of my own this month. Instead of balefully eyeing the stack of scores sitting on my piano that hadn’t even made it to the music stand, shuddering, and going off to make a nice cup of tea, I wrote a list of the gigantic tasks I had before me. The biggest was to learn a difficult composition by a living composer that was full of extended techniques and hard counting. I have to admit, I’m not the quickest with this kind of thing and I tend to drag my feet about it.

So I put that score last on my list, even though it was technically the thing I knew would take me the most time.

The first thing was about the easiest thing I could think of. You guessed it, backside in the chair.

The second thing was also very easy. I had to turn on the screen of my phone (easy, I’m practically surgically attached to the thing anyway) and open Google Music. So easy.

The third thing was that I had to make a playlist of all the pieces I’m learning, with several interpretations of each, to give me inspiration while I’m learning the score.

The fourth thing was listening to the playlist. I allowed myself to do this while out walking my dogs in the sunshine, because sometimes you have to bribe yourself.

The fifth thing was backside in the chair again, this time with the full scores of all my pieces. I allowed myself to do this with coffee, because of self-bribery again.

After that, I started getting so excited about the music that I forgot to procrastinate, and it wasn’t hard to

6) get out a pencil and start marking up the scores

7) mark up the cello parts with things out of the full scores

8) go back to some of the recordings and listen to them along with the full score, conducting and singing along most of the time

9) get out the cello, warm up a bit

10) note-crunch the easier bits of the shortest, easiest movement of the easiest piece, plan fingerings and bowings for the harder bits

11) get more coffee, open the full score, sing and conduct a bit more

12) go back to the cello, plan and write in my fingerings, make up some exercises to help myself through the tricky bits

13) get out the metronome, have a competition with myself about how fast I could get some of the fast runs

14) …. etc.

Before I knew it, hours and hours had gone by, and I was feeling more energized and motivated than I had in ages. Somehow, getting into the swing of a routine and a habit made the whole thing seem less daunting, and one after another I started getting into more and more of the scores. I know now that I’ll have them all learned by the time I need them.

Little and Often

I’ve blogged before about my “little and often” method of getting stuff done. I’m an incrementalist, not an “all-nighter before the exam” kind of learner, and I find that once I’m in the habit of doing a little here and a little there, I get into the flow of it and I surprise myself by doing more than I even set out to do in one practice session.

Inspiration from the Quotidian

One of the reasons we often feel unmotivated is because we seem to be lacking that creative energy and spark to do anything. Something I’ve noticed about my creativity, however, is that my best flashes of inspiration often come out of mundane routines. Like the time when I sat down at my practice chair intending to get the opening of the Schumann Concerto sounding respectable, but ended up figuring out a way of practising and teaching it that made that hard run (you know, that one) foolproof for even the most nervous performer (read all about it here!).

So if you find yourself struggling with the late-summer blues, try writing your own list, starting with the most absurdly small tasks. OK, so having your scores learned is reward enough in itself, but I find I do much better if I reward my small tasks with small treats, such as a latte or reading a chapter of a novel in the sunshine. I schedule these reward times in my calendar so that I don’t feel in the slightest guilty for doing something that’s not work — and paradoxically, this makes me work harder.

And for some reason, once you start, the “no motivation” problem somehow becomes less and less of a problem.

What are some of the things you do to motivate yourself to practise?