Five strategies to beat practice procrastination

Pop-psych writer Malcolm Gladwell famously pointed out that mastery comes from 10,000 hours of practice in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success (2008). Although there is much debate over this claim, most of us understand that there is a correlation between practicing lots of hours and musical success. Scaled down to the span of a week, a day, or even a single practice session, practice time and effort enables us to learn our repertoire and helps us achieve the kind of muscle fitness we need for good tone and stamina. If you cannot spend two to four hours practicing every day for a span of at least ten years, then you will probably not get a place at the table of working trumpet players. But knowing that practice is important does not necessarily inspire you to practice. 

Some trumpet students, who have great potential in their talent and personality, have a hard time getting around to their practice. There may be a few different issues going on: I want to step back and offer some “work-arounds” that everyone can use. I offer five ideas to beat practice procrastination:

The first thing is to: Embrace your big goals (e.g., “I want to play in an orchestra one day” or, “I want to play jazz in clubs in New York City”) by making a firm commitment to a minimum quota of work every day. Some authors set a good example. For example, Stephen King, who has written 56 novels and 200 short stories, makes a habit of writing 2000 words every day. Every day. He normally sets the morning aside for this effort. For a trumpeter, it is harder to quantify your work-load (we don’t count notes like authors count words), but you can measure how long you practice: play your basic exercises (long tones, lip flexes, scales, technical studies) for two hours every morning. You will want to rest a few minutes between exercises. Pro tip: use these rest times to do short tasks like making breakfast, checking your computer (very briefly!), getting dressed. In the evening, practice your literature for at least an hour. That is the minimum quota you should set.

Why does this strategy work? Because it feels psychologically easier to work hard for just one day (and repeat this day 3,630 times, which equals the 10 years or 10,000 hours you need for mastery), than it does to work hard for a whole decade.

The second thing is to: Create a behavior chain. Instead of telling yourself, “I need to practice to get good,” try telling yourself, “When I make my coffee, I will practice my long tones.” Or, “When I have finished supper, I will practice my solo.”

Why does this work? Because you have created a sequence of activities that eliminates the need for you to tell yourself to practice (there is no self-nagging).

The third thing is to: Eliminate unnecessary options. Instead of practicing whatever impulsively comes to you, have set themes that you stick to. For instance, in the morning, I only practice on the B-flat trumpet. I always start with long tones, move on to lip flexibilities, and then finish with technical studies. It is a routine I can take to the bank, and there is no lost time or focus or motivation by figuring out other options.

Why does this work? Because, by keeping the number of your decisions low, a quicker, more organic flow is possible.

The fourth thing is to: Fantasize about the process, not the end result. Although it is nice to fantasize how cool you will be when you win a chair in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the way you will achieve this goal is to fantasize about what your daily practice session will be like.

Why does this work? Because this takes our mind off of impossible scenarios (having a job without practice) and focuses our mind on what is important (practice).

The fifth thing to consider: Eliminate easy excuses to not practice. Where is the “Oh forget about it!” in your process to get ready to practice? For instance, if your practice room is always cluttered and you cannot find your materials, then you might say, “Forget it! I’ll practice later.” Instead, take the time to clean up your space, so that this objection will not interfere. Try to use an “if-then” way of thinking if you have found some other stumbling block. Here are some other examples: “If I am too hungry to practice well in the afternoon, then I will eat a snack to make sure I have enough energy.” Or, “If I am too sleepy to practice after lunch, then I will take a short nap, so that I will feel up to a good practice session.” Or, “If I am too loud in my apartment to practice now, then I will get a practice mute that plays in tune, so that I can get my practice done.”

Why does this work? Because this invites you to respond to the excuse and fix it, so that you can practice as you intended.

If you have any good strategies to beat practice procrastination, let me know!










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