Who Cares if You Practice?

As players and teachers, many of us obsess over what to practice, how to practice, and how many hours to practice. This often puts the cart in front of the horse.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jason James

There is no shortage of skilled musicians in the world, so why is it important for you to work day after day in the practice room?

First you need an clear answer to “what am I trying to accomplish and why?” Once you have an answer, keep asking “why?” (like a persistent three-year-old) until you reach the ultimate benefit. Is the ultimate benefit worth your time and emotional labor? Does it matter?

Last month, a student asked me what he should practice. I asked him to describe goals he was passionate about achieving. One of his goals was to play with better rhythm.

I asked, “Why do you want to play with better rhythm?”

He looked puzzled and replied, “Because rhythm is the most important part of jazz!”

“Why do you want to be a good jazz player?”

“To move some hips!”

We soon uncovered the ultimate benefits:

  • Playing music he wanted to listen to
  • Finding spiritual fulfillment
  • Connecting with listeners

Once we discover the benefits we’re truly passionate about, the “what and how” of practicing become more clear. We nurture motivation rooted in mastery and purpose. But the goals need to be intrinsic in order to stick.

When I persistently ask myself “why?,” sometimes I discover ultimate benefits worth working toward:

  • Personal fulfillment
  • Fascinated with the process
  • Resonating with an audience
  • Preparing for performances I’m excited about
  • Learning a new skill
  • Hanging out and playing music with my friends

However, sometimes I discover motivation rooted in fear or obligation. This kind of practice might be effective in the short term, but it doesn’t sustain a fulfilling lifetime of music-making.

  • Seeking approval from an authority figure
  • Fearing public humiliation
  • Earning a grade
  • Justifying previous efforts
  • Feeling guilty or lazy for not practicing
  • Competition

Some fascinating studies show that the “rewards and punishment” model of motivation can actually destroy creativity. (See Dan Pink’s TED talk and his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.)

What ultimate benefits inspire you to practice?

– ST

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