Music Practice

Written by Doug Hanvey, a private piano teacher from Portland, Oregon. 

Find Time To Practice Music

These tips are oriented towards teachers and adult students, but a creative teacher will be able to translate these principles for their younger students.

In our increasingly complex and frenetic world there seem to be endless tasks and distractions that keep us from the things that really matter to us. If one of the things that matter is learning the piano, it would be worthwhile to occasionally reflect on how we choose to spend our time.

Endless Information and Techno-Distractions

Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize winner, said: “A wealth of information means a scarcity of whatever that information consumes. What information consumes is attention. A wealth of information,” said Simon, “creates a poverty of attention.”

There’s more information to digest than ever before. Every day, most of us spend hours watching TV, catching up on email (many of which are a waste of time), sending texts, playing computer games, surfing the web, or some combination of these.

Our capacity and availability for giving attention is no less critical to learning the piano than it ever was, despite the fact that we live in such an attention-impoverished time.

Start an Information Diet

So what can we do? If you’re serious about becoming a better pianist, and feel that you never have enough time to practice, consider an information diet. Meaning: kill your TV. And Facebook. And Twitter. And 80% of your email. Stop mindless web surfing. And computer games.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

––Robert Frost, from The Road Not Taken

Ten years from now, would you rather have taken the road of practicing for 5,000 more hours or have spent those 5,000 hours mindlessly surfing the web and watching TV?

Which road would lead to a more fulfilling life, so that on your last day you would be able to say “I gave it my all. I chose to spend my time on what really mattered.”

You know the answer. And you know it’s up to you.

Every “Yes” Is A “No”

Have you ever realized that each time you say yes to something, you are simultaneously saying no to something else?

Each time you log on to Facebook or spend half an hour roaming the Internet, you are saying no to something that might be more productive and valuable, if you were consciously aware of your values and used them to organize your time.

In his book The 4-Hour Workweek, author Timothy Ferriss pointed out that most media is “time-consuming, negative, irrelevant to your goals, or outside of your sphere of influence.” Ferriss challenged his readers to look at what they’ve read or watched today and deny that it wasn’t one or more of these things.

For the sake of mastering your instrument, I challenge you to do the same.

8 Questions

Here’s a brief exercise to help you decide if an information diet could be useful to you. For our purposes, “media” means any combination of TV, Internet use (web surfing, emailing, instant messaging or chatting), talk radio, newspapers, magazines, books and audio books, computer games, and use of numerous other portable electronic devices (unfortunately, ways to become media-spellbound expand daily).

I purposely kept “listening to music” off the above list, but in all fairness, while it’s something every music student should be doing regularly, it too can become a distraction from actually playing. Balance is the key.

You can do this exercise by mindfully reflecting on the questions, or by writing in your journal:

  1. Which kinds of technology and media do I consume the most?
  2. How many minutes or hours on average do I consume media or use technology as a distraction (i.e. not for work)?
  3. Why do I use the technology and consume the media that I consume? Is it a conscious choice or a habit?
  4. Am I trying to avoid something by distracting myself with media? What?
  5. Do I crave using technology or consuming media? Might I even be addicted?
  6. Is my use of technology and media related to the sense that I don’t have enough time to practice my instrument?
  7. How do I feel and behave after exposure to various types of media? (For example, studies indicate people usually feel more depressed after watching TV; and higher levels of Internet use have been associated with adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.)
  8. Could reducing my use of technology and consumption of media enhance my progress as a musician?

6 Practical Tips

If you think you could benefit from reducing your reliance on technology and consumption of media, here are a few practical tips, courtesy of Ferriss:

  1. Ask yourself about any information you are about to consume: “Will I use this information for something immediate and important?” If your intake of information is not both immediate and important, then don’t consume it. Just say no.
  2. Practice “the art of non-finishing.” Starting to consume an information source does not justify finishing it.
  3. Always ask: Am I being productive or just active?
  4. Always ask: If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?
  5. Never check email first thing in the morning. Get something important done first.
  6. Try an indefinite media fast. No newspapers, magazines, audiobooks, or nonmusic radio. (Music is permitted). No news websites. No television. No web surfing at the desk unless it’s necessary to complete a work task that day.

More than a century ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There are many things of which a wise person might wish to be ignorant.” These days, his advice seems more relevant than ever. What might be worth ignoring and saying “no” to, so you can start saying “yes” to that which is more important?

Doug Hanvey offers piano lessons in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of 88 Keys to the Blues, a method which helps students master fundamental piano technique and musical skills while learning basic stylistic elements of the blues. The course builds a strong foundation for playing and improvising in blues, jazz, rock, and other popular piano styles.

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