Establishing a habit of regular Playing

We all lead such busy lives, and spread ourselves in so many directions. I’m not complaining.  We choose to make our lives complex, rich, and full.  But how does a student become consistent in their piano practice— or anything for that matter?  The first thing to remember is our motivation.  We are doing this for ourselves, to enrich our lives, to give our souls more voice.  A young child may just realize the pleasure of making music, and could keep in mind the end goal that they want to get really good. I think we all have to be reminded of this.  It’s not homework. It’s not work. Yes, it’s challenging, but of a completely different nature.  It’s what we want for ourselves.

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The experts tell us that we need to do something 30 days in a row for it to become a habit.  To help create space for that to happen, I think from a practical standpoint, that a written down schedule can really help.  I  recently asked a dear young student to make a lovely drawing of a piano or of anything that reminds her of her goal and to hang it on her bedroom door, or wherever she would see it often. It could even be something like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow with music notes coming out of it!  She thought that the best time to practice would be 6 pm— that would be while her Mom was fixing dinner, and she would be home at that time pretty much every day of the week. She decided to put the 6 pm time on her drawing in a big celebratory and beautiful way.

Should we add additional rewards for accomplishing this?  Like go see a move if she sticks to the schedule for a week or two weeks, or the whole month?  If you really want to, I suppose one could, but in my way of looking at it, the rewards are far more valuable than something external.  We all know that when we find a way to do what we really value, we will start to feel good.  Ever hear the phrase, “Time flies?”  Well, I would add “Of course it does, but the good news is that you are the pilot.”  It feels so good to be in balance with our lives and honor our desires.  Of course the rewards of making lovely music and meeting bigger and bigger challenges in our music making skills can go almost unstated!

Do you have any more ideas about how to establish great habits in your life?

Balancing the Head and the Heart


I was teaching an intelligent young student who practices regularly, yet still after several weeks of working on a not-very-difficult piece, still stumbled in random places when playing.  In those little stumbles, if you asked the student “what note is that?” or “how is this pattern different from that one?”, the answers were always spot on—it was clear that the needed knowledge was totally there.  So why all the random problems?  I asked her where she felt the music in her body:  was it more in her chest or in her head?  She readily answered it was all in her chest.  I must add that that is the best place to feel music in my opinion.  For some people, music fills their mind and gives them tremendous happiness; for others it’s more in the heart and body, like a child’s response to dance to the music without being taught to do so.  But in the case of learning and deciphering the score, it seemed clear that this student needed to be more centered in her brain.

First, I asked her to feel her heart beating in her chest which she could do instantly.  Then I asked her to play the piece just being aware of her heart.  The performance was just like before — numerous wrong notes and stumbles.  Afterwards she reported that playing that way was really easy for her—so that way of being in her heart is her normal pattern.  Then I asked her to take several breaths in and out through her mouth and to feel the air rise up to the top of her head. Initially it made her yawn over and over (which in itself is a sign that the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen!), but pretty quickly she was able to feel more alive and “awake” in her head region.  She played the piece while maintaining that awareness.  It was spot on – perfecto – steady and balanced– it was a little tiny bit slow, but not much — it was amazing the instant transformation to a piece that was solidly well played.

But what to do next?  The thought of asking a student to play music only from their mind would be horrible.  How could we balance the thinking and feeling aspects?  I asked her to breathe in focusing on the mind and breathe out focusing on the heart.  After a few breaths, she played the piece again.  This time I almost cried.  It was so exciting and beautiful.  It was like seeing a whole person playing— her total being, ‘body, mind and soul’, was all involved this time.  The music was not only accurate, but more importantly, it was also felt and expressed.

Where do you feel music when you play and when you learn music?  Is it in the same place or does it move about after you know the notes? See if you can shift your focus by  the breath practice and see if the music is harder or easier, or more or less rewarding to play!


Getting in a Habit of Practicing


Young students often don’t realize what we adults seem to know, is that it takes more energy to get a habit going. Once the habit is set, it takes little energy to stick with it. Some family planning will be involved with carving out a regular time for the student’s practice. Another important part that I have often taken for granted that students already understand, is the amount of Will that is involved. I find that it is helpful to talk to students about letting their intention be brought forward in the conscious in the beginning. “Why am I doing this?”, or ”What is it that I want?” are important reminders to keep on track. Sometimes just having a mental picture of playing a piece the way you want it to be, or reminding yourself that “now I get to have fun and pursue my expression in a way I haven’t been able to do all day long while I was at work or school”, or “I just want to begin to create something of quality and beauty in this time that I’m sitting here” are all important reminders.

Some students that I’ve worked with have been unable to differentiate the importance of doing different things: having a snack, talking with friends, or practicing an instrument have all had the same “in the moment” importance. I find that talking with my students about this helps them to create their sense of independence, helps them to create a “space” where they can begin to find purpose in developing new skills, and stretching into undiscovered talents in pursuit of wholeness and expression.

I was a Naughty girl

When I was learning to play the piano I sometimes did something that wasn’t very nice.  My mother loved to sing, and as I would play the piano, sometimes my mother would start to sing along from the kitchen, or wherever she was.  That annoyed me.  It was my music, my piano, and I didn’t ask her to sing and make it her music.  If only I had stepped back a little, and taken a bigger perspective on things, I could have said something like, “Hey, Mom. I don’t like it when you sing along to my pieces, but I know that you love to sing, so if you want to give me a special song to learn that you love to sing, I’ll try my best to play it for you.  But I would appreciate it if you don’t sing while I’m playing my pieces.”  But, no, instead of saying anything, I just played a few measures, and then would do a deliberate pause as if I didn’t know what the next note was.  I did that over and over.  I’m pretty sure that she got the message, because after a while, she stopped singing along.


Teaching on Halloween

I look back on that, although it wasn’t nice in terms of relationships with others, in a way it was a pretty good, healthy thing.  I was really identifying myself with music and making it my own. I should add, that in the years to come, making music with others proved to be one of the biggest joys of my life, and still is.

How do you identify with making music?  Can you make the bench and piano and the space around that your own private, almost sacred space?


To All Music Majors…

pianos bw“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at 2 AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life.  Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary.  Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft…”

Karl Paulnack (Director of Music Division and Member of the piano faculty, Boston University)