Finding Motivation To Practice

September 9, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 Comments

Finding motivation to practice: music-learning grounded in social experience and demystification

Perhaps one of the most common problems that we as musicians have (and by musicians I mean everyone involved in music) is finding motivation to practice. I hope this paper will provide you with some tips and methods to help you find motivation to practice, and make the learning process more rewarding. Ideally, motivation should come from within each of you and your own interest in music. Practice should not be something you dread, and it should not be something to be endured. You should be able to enjoy your practice, find it rewarding, challenging, and even fun. No-one likes to be forced to practice, and nobody (believe it or not) likes to force anyone to practice. So, the main question this piece of writing seeks to answer, at least to some extent, is: In what ways can we as musicians find motivation to practice?

A brief search in Google of ‘motivation to practice’ produces typical suggestions that encourage students to:

  • make practicing part of the routine
  • Set realistic expectations for practice time accordingly
  •  Set up a reward system..

These are all good suggestions that can certainly help to motivate students to practice. However, they miss an important factor in finding motivation to practice: they are not related to the act of music-making or the music itself. This paper argues that students can draw motivation to practice from the act of music-making and the music itself.

Learning and the social nature of music:

So, we’ll begin with some of the most common factors that people who make music like about it. The most common assertion offered by musicians is that it is extremely enjoyable to make music with other people. Music is and always has been primarily a social act that happens with other people. Most of the acclaimed musicians in history had very social musical lives. Given the social nature of music, it should be a priority of people who learn to make their music-making and learning as social as possible. The issue I have with the way I learnt was that I did it in a very isolated way. I would practice the piece of music I was learning, go to my weekly lesson and play for my teacher, and then go home and practice for the next lesson. So, apart from the occasional performance, my teacher was, by and large, the only person who heard me play on a regular basis. I found this demotivating because I felt very isolated and wasn’t sharing the music I was making or the learning process with other people. In short, my learning was not social which goes against the social nature of music.

So, when I was about 21, I changed this. I played to friends on a regular basis and got them involved in the process of learning of piece of music. I’d ask them what they thought of certain passages, or if I was having difficulty I’d ask if they could suggest anything that could help. And I did the same for them.

I found this motivating for a number of reasons:

  • I was no longer only playing to one person on a regular basis; I was playing to various people almost daily. I thus had motivation to engage with the music I was learning in a social environment on a regular basis.
  • I no longer felt isolated in my learning because so many people were involved in the learning process.
  • And helping other people with their learning helped me make sense of how people learn, thus stimulating my own learning.

I would encourage those seeking motivation to practice to play to people other than their teacher on a regular basis. Moreover, if you can make music with other people on a regular basis, you will vastly improve as a musician.

Understanding through musical analysis

Analysis is quite a scary word for a lot of people, but I think it’s a very important tool for musicians to motivate themselves to practice. Analysis can be very simple, and it can also be very complicated. In fact, it can become so complicated that it is rendered useless, in my opinion. This sections describes the basic tools you should be learning and utilising from the beginning of your studies that will help demystify music and motivate you to practice by making the music more accessible.

We’ll begin with points / activities that surround the piece you are learning:

  • Identifying the composer, style, period, and date the piece of music was written in: Knowing a little bit about the composer, what other music was being written at the time, and even what was going on socially is a very interesting thing to do and can help develop a context to the music you are learning.
  • Listening: Listen to the piece you are learning being played by other people; listen to other pieces written by the same composer; listen to pieces written by composers writing at about the same time. And attend concerts!

With both of these points you can include your friends and family and share your new found knowledge.

We’ll now move on to musical analysis:

  • You should identify the key signature: what flats or sharps are included and whether or not the music modulates to another key. Now this might seem like a difficult thing to do, but it will help you to organise and understand the notes that you should be playing in a piece.
  • You should identify the chords that are used: I think this is a very important practice to get into from an early age, perhaps especially for pianists. It is very useful to start thinking in terms of chords. Thinking in this way frees your mind from getting bogged down with individual notes to thinking of the bigger picture harmonically. This greatly helps with sight-reading and organising your musical thoughts.
  • Form: Again, analysis of form is a very useful tool for developing overall musicianship. By form, I mean whether the piece is in something like rondo form (ABAB) or ternary form (ABA) [Sonata form] and so on. Now these terms are not meant to intimidate you. Analysis of form is often very simple and will help you understand how the piece is structured. Instead of the music being a group of notes thrown together randomly (some music actually is a random selection of notes thrown together!), you’ll begin to recognise the music as something that has very clear structures.

Analysis can go even further, but for me these areas are a great starting point to help you develop as a musician.

So, How does this help with motivation to practice? Essentially, this kind of analysis makes the music more accessible. It:

  • Helps you understand how the music is organised
  • And a by product is that you become a better musician

Setting musical goals

Setting realistic musical goals to achieve in a practice session organises your practice. Almost all musicians will have been told at the beginning of their studies to practice for 30 minutes a day. This is good advice, but can be supplemented with the setting of daily musical goals. For example, instead of saying ‘I will practice for 30 minutes today’, you might say: ‘I will learn the first 8 bars of this piece of music’. Instead of adhering to the traditional 30 minutes of practice, you could practice until your goal is achieved. Having a clear goal will make your practice more efficient and help you get motivated to practice.

It is important to implement manageable goals. One way of doing this is to divide your teacher’s expectations into 5 or 6 daily tasks. If the first task is to work on the first section of music, the second task will be to work on the second section of music, and so on.

Summary

To conclude, this article has introduced three important approaches to learning that can aid students find motivation to practice which can be bracketed under the following themes: the social nature of music, musical analysis, and setting musical goals.  It is hoped this article aids students find motivation to practice which holds as its focus and ultimate goal an adherence to the social nature of music.

Rupert Avis
Music Teacher & Doctoral Researcher (University of York)