One subscriber asked the question of how to avoid boredom during practice. This seems to be a pretty hot topic amongst players, and is something that I constantly battled myself for years. I remember the days when I used to practice scales in front of the TV, because I found them that boring!
I eventually found ways to trick my brain into being alert, aware, and engaged, no matter what the material is that I'm working on. For example, now I love practicing open strings, and can sometimes practice them for a whole 15 minutes straight (no TV involved!).
Outlining and summarising many of the topics already covered in this series can be a great place to start finding ways of tricking your brain out of boredom land. Why do I use the word trick? This word has two meanings that I like. One is "a clever or particular way of doing something", and the other is "a peculiar or characteristic habit or mannerism." I'll now break this down into two things; mindset, and tools.
I think the way that we've generally been taught (in school, college, and culture in general) is to just seek the "correct" answer so that we can pass a test, exam, or something similar. This sort of mindset can translate into practicing an instrument, whereby our aim is merely to find one "correct" way of doing something (whatever that might mean?!).
What if instead you asked yourself during practice "what are all the possibilities available to me at this moment?". Instead of finding one correct way of playing something, you discovered multiple - you created new possibilities that you might not have ever imagined of before.
Try it next time your practice - why not even apply this mindset to other areas of your life too! Find three, four, five, maybe ten different ways of playing one passage of music. Taste test and see which ones you like the best. I love cooking, and I have to say if there was no taste testing involved, then the food would probably not turn out very edible!
1. Practice System
45 Minutes total
Use a timer - no distractions once it chimes
First 15 Minutes = Fundamentals
Next 30 Minutes = Pieces
Finish as soon as the timer chimes
Take a 5 minute break and enjoy yourself
Don't forget this, because setting that timer can trick your brain into becoming super focused and not wasting time!
2. Divide and Conquer
I. Form and structure: Practice small bits and make those passages sparkle
II. Orchestrate the parts: Separate the voices as if each one were your part in an ensemble, then put them back together.
III. Separate the hands: Practice left hand only. Practice right hand only. Simple!
IV. Harmony: Reduce the passage to its most fundamental harmonic progression (knowing the triads found in Fundamental Harmony can help). Play your passage or piece as a simple chord progression, like a singer-songwriter!
V. Rhythm: I haven't talked about this yet, but I'll keep it brief. Isolate the rhythm and practice it, even if the rhythm is very simple. You can simply clap the rhythm, or play it on an open string, or conduct and speak the rhythms (remember ta & ti ti?). Do this with and without the metronome.
Dividing and conquering helps trick your brain because you are essentially simplifying things and practicing small bits in different, varying ways. This means that you can make something better much faster than if you were working on a piece of music as a whole. You can also rapidly practice different skills in a short amount of time. For example, spend 5 minutes just on orchestrating the parts, then spend 5 minutes on separating the hands, etc. etc. This constant shifting of focus is one of the keys to avoiding boredom, and inviting creativity.
3. Record yourself
This is really one of the most valuable things you can do when practicing. It instantly reveals what you actually sound like, not how you think you sound. It forces you to stop and reevaluate what you're doing. It forces you to stop and actually listen to your playing, and if you're bored then it will come across in your playing!
A word that from the 20th century until recently has been treated with undue contempt in the classical music world. Before the 20th century, improvisation was a very normal and basic part of a classical musician's practice and training. The Rule of the Octave (the harmonised scale found in Fundamental Harmony) is just one tool that you can use for improvising with. If that doesn't float your boat, then you can use your pieces as models for improvising.
It can be as simple as adding small and subtle ornaments, or as complex as adding ornate variations.
Here are some basic starting points to work with:
If the piece is in major, try playing it in minor and vice versa.
If the piece is fast, play it slow and vice versa.
If you find a chord shape that you like, shift that chord (hand shape) up and down the fretboard.
Put a capo on the first or second fret and play, experiencing the change in resonance and mood created.
Divide your passage/piece up into two, three, or more parts. Find two, three, or more people to jam with using those parts as material.
All of the above can help you memorize a piece, however simply having it as your end goal can sometimes stimulate you enough to swat away any of those boring bugs that might come your way! If something is new, never try and memorize it as a whole. Break it down into bite sized pieces that allow you to memorize easily and effectively. Think of it as a challenge, with the reward simply being that you can now play something without the aid of the score - it's now part of your memory!
I hope that you find your own ways and habits for keeping boredom out of your practice. I'd love to hear of any habits or methods you know of already, or any that you might discover.
Below is an email I received personally from legendary Australian guitarist/composer Phillip Houghton while I was researching him and his music. Phillip has an idiosyncratic way of writing with regards to spacing and layout, so I’ve kept it basically unedited. I’ll just let it speak for itself, hope you enjoy!
“In simplistic terms , regarding phrasing on the guitar , and how it influences interpretation and style , i like to think of "the big three" :
* RHYTHM : time , tempo , momentum , rubato , rit & accel , etc
* COLOUR : texture , timbre , tone quality , thin/thick , grains , etc
* DYNAMIC : volume , loudness , cresc/decresc , accents , etc
There are hundreds of other things , but for me , they're the big three. The guitar is very good at these things ; very responsive .
Regarding rhythm and especially rubato : i am aware of this when i write my music notation . I write rubato into the actual note values and rests , etc . Also , with this in mind , i'm really into what i call micro-rubato ( small-scale , between notes , almost imperceptible to the ear , more about "in the moment" ) and macro-rubato ( large-scale , between long sections , almost imperceptible to the ear , more about design and "destination" ) .
Neither interrupt the momentum of the music , but work to enhance the over-all design , architecture , style and emotion of the music ... by the crushing/releasing or the pushing/withholding of the "gravity" of momentum . Elastic . Morphing . Sculpted .
These qualities can also apply to colour and dynamic : the way we use gradations or shocks , so as to phrase , choreograph and design the character and style of what's in the score , as we get to know it , feel it , and explore possibilities . It's all about timing and to what degree we want to take things . Of course , things can also be made very perceptible to the ear ! , like a pie in the face !
But how far we can take things depends on our technique , which is us ( ourselves ) and how we can adapt to the hundreds of techniques that are possible on the guitar , and to those we have yet to find , incorporate , and make music with .”
Are you one of those people who have so much motivation to practice that it is on your mind almost constantly? Is practicing the first thing you think of when waking up and the last thing before going to sleep? Do you even dream of practicing while you’re sleeping?
If like me you answered yes to all of the above, then you could probably be classified as unusual… I probably do obsess about practice a little too much. If you answered no to most or all questions, then congratulations on being a relatively normal person!
But maybe you do want to increase your motivation, so that your practicing is really consistent. Maybe you want to be inspired to practice as soon as you wake up. Maybe you wish to cherish some special moments you had practicing earlier in the day before you go to sleep. If you do want more motivation, then I believe these habits can help you as they’ve helped students and myself personally.
Manufacturing Method #1: Make your practice space comfortable and easy
If you’ve read some of my previous emails, you’ll realise how simple and obvious many of the points I make are. What I’ve learned from both my own personal experience and teaching is that it’s very easy for us to underestimate and even forget the obvious. This is another example.
Make your practice space a place you enjoy being in. Make it comfortable for you. Maybe the acoustics are better in another room, so you enjoy practicing there more. Perhaps there’s a particular smell, charm or aesthetic about one particular room that makes you feel comfortable and stress-free there. Sometimes changing our practice locations every now and then can be really refreshing!
This is obviously quite a personal and somewhat intuitive thing, so I can’t say too much more about it other than this. Make sure the room you are in has all the tools you require within easy reach. This includes but is not limited to your timer, metronome, coloured pencils, scores, music stand, guitar rest, guitar, guitar stand, recording device, nail files and buffers, etc. etc.
Many of these are tools of self-assessment. By having easy access to them, you’re able to give yourself a wonderful lesson and make the practice time more fruitful in the long term, by means of having recorded your thoughts, recorded yourself, kept your tempo on track with the metronome, etc.
One more important tool of self-assessment that is often forgotten about is a mirror. Now, mirrors are not always the most portable things to carry around. However, in this digital age there is almost always access to a screen. Yes, once again you can use those distracting devices for good use!
I often use my Ipad (with the screen switched off) as a mirror when I’m travelling. Just put it on the music stand and angle it to see one of your hands. I can also use it to record myself and it sounds pretty decent, so two birds with one stone! You can set it to the ‘do not disturb’ mode or turn the wi-fi off if you are prone to checking those emails and things.
Manufacturing Method #2: Be patient
It’s often said that patience is a virtue; I believe it’s a habit.
Think of practicing like planting a garden. No matter what you do, the plants will grow slowly, never from seed to tree in an instant. So in music, no matter what new information or habits you acquire, no matter how life changing and amazing it is, your garden will always take time to grow. Think of all the new things you acquire as new seeds for your garden. Tend to your garden with love, kindness and discipline and those seeds will slowly but surely grow into wonders beyond your imagination.
Manufacturing Method #3: Study and listen each day
A little bit of reading and listening each day can go a long way. It could be new or old. I often find myself re-listening to my favorite albums and re-reading my favorite books fairly often. Make them easy to access so you won’t have excuses for not reading or listening.
If you need a place to start, I recommended checking out the resources tab of my website. There are many books and recordings that can start you on your own journey of learning and discovery. Also please feel free to ask me if there’s something particular you’d like to research and I’d be happy to help you find out more about it.
Manufacturing Method #4: Enjoy practicing
Try to keep note on how you feel while you practice. Are you stressed, worried or angry? If you feel negatively towards practice, chances are you will slowly begin to detest it. Here’s my suggestion. Every time you feel a negative thought emerging, replace it with a positive thought. This could be non-music related. For example, if you start to feel angry because you’re practicing something and it’s just not working, think of a happy memory you had with a loved one. Or think of an inspirational recording of the piece you’re working on. How did you feel during those moments? Once you change your thinking, your actual practice habits should improve too.
Manufacturing Method #5: Give your practice a goal, even if it’s an illusion
Now, we’re not all concert artists giving hundreds of concerts throughout the year. But we can pretend to be if we wanted to. When I don’t have a solo concert coming up for a while, it can be easy to drift around and practice without a clear goal. One day I’d be practicing one set of pieces and another day brings another set of pieces. Not too long and we can be led far astray. Remember the garden analogy - we don’t want to be growing different gardens all over the place.
Usually the goal of practice is for a performance (though this certainly doesn’t have to be the case). So when I don’t have a real concert coming up soon, I make a mock program and print it out as though I were really going to have a concert.
I’ve made a simple template that you can download here, which you can just fill in. Or you can design your own if you want. I’d love to see your program, so please send it to me if you like. You can really get the creative juices going in thinking about how your repertoire would work best as a program. Don’t be afraid to aim high if you want to. Go ahead and write Carnegie Hall as the venue on your program if you like. Your imagination has no limits.
I suggest printing out the program (so it’s present in the physical world) and sticking it on your fridge, or somewhere you can easy glance at it. You’d be surprised at the brain’s subconscious power at working on things when given little triggers like this. More on this to come in future emails.
Another plus is that if a concert opportunity does come up unexpectedly, you’re prepared for it! Or you could turn this illusion into a reality yourself and book an actual venue, date etc.
If you have a great program going that you’ve invested hundreds of hours into, why not perform it for people and share your journey with them!? This can often be one of the greatest and most rewarding sources of motivation, even though it might seem daunting or scary. These are usually the things most worth pursuing in life.
The next email will start exploring ways of learning pieces with efficiency and extra creativity.
One thing I find fascinating about our behaviour towards practice is that we very often know what we should do, but we don't do it.
Basic fundamentals (tone, rhythm, legato, dynamics, etc.) are very often neglected in practice, even though we know they're some of the most important facets of playing.
I want to give you a system of practicing that can make working on the fundamentals an automated process. This will eventually turn into a habit, which means that you won't need to rely on a system.
This is the system that I have used everyday for years. I've experimented with a lot of ways to practice and find this the most effective. I've given this to students and colleagues and they testify at how well it works for them.
1. Turn off all possible distractions (phone, tablet, computer, etc.)
2. Set a timer for 45 minutes
3. Give yourself 15 minutes to work on the basics
4. Give yourself 30 minutes to work on pieces and more advanced things
5. Once the timer chimes, stop practicing immediately
6. Reward yourself with a nice 5 - 10 minute break. Do something fun, relaxing and non-music related.
All of these steps are important, taking one of them out or altering them drastically will take away the system's effectiveness.
I'll break this down a little and talk about why this system is so effective.
Distractions suck and they happen very often in this age of digital machines that constantly beep. By taking these distractions away, it allows us to give our 100% attention to our given task/s. It gives us a peace of mind that we won't get led on to answering emails or taking calls or seeing what our friends posted on Facebook. Let's face it, do those really need to be addressed immediately? Will it really do any harm to wait 45 minutes max to answer that email or phone call or check that Facebook post?
I recommend doing this during times of the day where you're less likely to get really important emails or phone calls. I also recommend doing this for general health reasons and happiness. Set aside times during the day where you switch off all distractions; TV, phone, tablet - all of it, it will take away stress and make you a happier person.
Setting a timer is honestly one of the most valuable habits I've learned in regards to practice. It makes us value the time we have and strive to make the most of it. I've found 45 minutes to be an ideal amount, it's not too long to create fatigue or lose concentration and not too short, which allows us to get into a flow, get warmed up and have enough time to work with ideas.
I've found that working on the basics for 15 minutes before I work on pieces to be golden. This is like athletes who have routines or warm ups before a big event.
It's important to stop when the timer chimes so that we don't get into the habit of playing past our allotted time.
Rewarding yourself is more important than you might think. It makes you addicted to the thing you just did to reward yourself. You want to get addicted to practicing, right?
Try this system right now, today! But also, please be patient and give it at least a few days to really see the benefits. Let me know how it worked for you.
Dr. Daniel Nistico is a passionate performer, author and educator who specializes in the performance practice of 18th and 19th century guitar music. Daniel's teaching and research aims to revitalize the concept of being a well-rounded musician, with emphasis on topics like harmony that can lead to deeper musical understanding and provide tools for composing and improvising.