Finding the right practice motivation

May 25, 2023, 11:22 AM · Finding enough time to practice has been a struggle for me ever since I started playing violin. In high school, I was in too many activities and had too much homework, in college I've had too many rehearsals and have had to work too much at too many jobs... basically there are always excuses to not practice. With classes being off this summer, I decided to radically change my lifestyle in order to free up time to practice. I limited my activities to only musical ones-and only the ones that actually pay money, and I deleted all distractions off of my phone (even Instagram, the bane of my free time).
It didn't change a thing.
Some days my calendar would be completely empty and I would still find myself trying to sleepily squeeze in some practice at 11pm before going to bed. Maybe this isn't so relatable to everyone here, but I would rather take a 3 hour nap than spend an afternoon practicing. Or, I'd take a few hours to reorganize some obscure cabinet in my apartment. The days that I did practice- I would spend 30 minutes on scales and technique, decide it was time for a break, and get distracted (or sleepy) and never return to actually practice my repertoire. I really don't have that strenuous of a lifestyle- I work 4.5 hours a day at a desk and teach violin lessons twice a week.
All this to say, I think I finally figured out my problem. I will always, always find ways to distract myself from practicing. I just can't focus for longer than 20 minutes or so without getting tired. So, I made a way to plan for my distractions. Mind you, my boyfriend said this was a bit insane, but bear with me.

20 minutes scales and Schradieck
10 minute break
10 minutes last page Prokofiev
20 minutes 3rd page Prokofiev
10 minute break
15 minutes Bach Sarabande
10 minute break
20 minutes Schubert Quartet
10 minute break
10 minutes Hensel quintet
10 minute break
15 minutes Schubert quintet

This is one day of my practice plan. Basically, I set a timer and, when it goes off, no matter where I'm at in the music, I force myself to take a break. Sometimes, it feels like it goes off too soon, sometimes it seems like it takes forever. But, by sticking to a strict schedule, I don't allow myself to get exhausted by getting caught up in scale studies, or to turn a 10 minute break into a 4 hour one. I know it seems like not a lot of practice time compared to break time, but during the practice times, I am laser focused. I don't allow myself to even look at my phone until the timer goes off for break time. If for some reason I need to stop during a practice time, the timer resets so I don't lose any practice time. I even went as far to micromanage what pages I practice for how much time, as sometimes, I find myself spending far too much time on just one passage of a piece, and never even looking at the other pages of the work.
I'm not posting this for criticism of this particular day of practice. I'm aware that some people may think I'm spending the wrong amount of time on the wrong parts of my practice, or taking too many breaks. I also know that the timer method of practicing is not new or revolutionary, unfortunately I don't know the name of the pedagogue or psychologist who came up with it. I'm just sharing something that has finally worked for me in hopes that it might also motivate someone else who is struggling :)

Replies (24)

Edited: May 25, 2023, 12:20 PM · There have been times where I had the most outside time pressures, and I still managed to practice 3 hours per day, consistently, and there have been times where I had far fewer outside pressure, and I did way less practice.

Some of it is understanding the meaning of the task, which can, but doesn't necessarily relate to short, medium and long-term goals. I think that some of it is about having a clear belief the practice brings progress. Some of it is arranging the rest of your life where the level of practice you ideally want is sustainable; sometimes that can be about understanding that you are making certain sacrifices in order to do music (making it explicitly important in your life). Some of that can be about the more Freudian notions of sublimating desires into more productive (practice, if it even makes sense to use the term "productive") tasks. This is the more abstract psychology of why we even want a thing.

Then, once that is settled, there can still be a need to figure out the best way to work with your own habits, calendar, attention span, desires, energy, etc. I think that you are describing a detailed understanding of how this last aspect works for yourself. Whatever works at that point!

For me, the goal is to practice a lot, but without needing to be harsh or rigid with myself, and be able to integrate a thorough practice regimen with all the other things and social life I want to maintain. It's easier with the rigidity in some ways, but I think I'll get there without it.

May 25, 2023, 1:00 PM · Okay, now that I'm looking into the symptoms for under-active thyroid...that really sounds like me. Not the insight I was expecting when I posted, but definitely something I hadn't thought of before. I'll look into it! Otherwise, I agree with Christian that a lot of times I practice more when there are more pressures on my life. I didn't have as much difficulty carving out the time to practice during the school because the time was already carved out...I only had two hours to spare in a day so I knew I absolutely had to practice during that time or it would never happen. During breaks from school, it's much easier to put it off and never actually practice. Otherwise, I love practicing and I love the violin, but practicing when my brain is foggy or I am tired is torture. I play badly and it makes me want to practice less because I feel like a failure. If I could practice for three hours straight and actually get work accomplished the entire time, I would. I've beat myself up about it ever since I decided to pursue music as a career- it just doesn't work for me. Hopefully this strategy will in the long run though.
May 25, 2023, 3:31 PM · This looks like a great plan, and I'm glad it seems to be working! My prediction is that the more you work this plan, the (potentially) longer you might be able to sustain attention. But, either way, if this is working, keep doing it! We all have to find ways to figure this stuff out. Good for you!
May 25, 2023, 5:14 PM · This is a very good way to work. I used the same system to prepare for exams at university. I had a certain number of days to prepare, so I cut the material into that number of equal sections. I determined the number of hours a day I wanted to use and the number and length of rests I would allow myself. Then I stuck to the schedule and made sure not to exceed the times I had pre-planned. If some stuff was less than perfectly prepared I left it at that.

I used the rest of the day for other stuff (like daily chores or practicing the violin but also plain leisure).

I passed all my exams with room to spare though none of them with perfect scores. But on the upside I still had a good time.

To set a time limit for any task helps focus the mind. It makes executing that task more efficient. And planning and having recovery/recreation time has the same effect. I say: Stick with it!

May 25, 2023, 5:19 PM · I think this is a great system. You have to do what works for you! My son often does what I call ADHD practice -- 15-20 minutes of focused practicing followed by 5 minutes of playing something completely random, usually something he's not even working on. He also takes hourly breaks. It works well for him, but definitely would not work for me!
May 25, 2023, 10:12 PM · Susan, your son is doing an essentially optimal schedule. This is the Pomodoro Technique. The five minutes would actually be best spent in a full break. And a 30-minute break should be taken after every four segments.

May 26, 2023, 10:03 AM · It may already be part of your plan but I've also suggested to my daughter that setting aside a specific time each day (or different specific time each day, depending on class schedule in college) will help with distractions.
May 26, 2023, 4:30 PM · I was very glad that Lydia explained the Pomodoro Technique - otherwise, I would have spent the evening pondering how Susan’s son included tomatoes in his practice!
Edited: May 26, 2023, 10:57 PM · That is a good plan, but don't beat yourself up on the days when you slip.
"Motivation" -there is internal and external motivation. For children the external motivation comes from their parents and teacher. For me, as an adult player, the external motivation comes from preparing for the next event. Maybe that is the reason I am only a 3rd-tier player. Internal motivation; you either have it or you do not. It cannot be acquired or taught. You appear to have it. But, it must be matched with self-disciple. It means practicing when you do Not feel like, just as the majority of people go to work on time when they would rather not. I have personally known only a few 1st-tier artists, but what they had in common was an almost fanatical commitment to the project; on a daily basis saying Yes to the violin means saying No, shutting the door, to many other good things or people. Apocryphal story: a major player's habit was; get up with the alarm clock, coffee, etc. get dressed, get in the car , drive around the block, go in the back door to the studio, practice without distractions, no telephone.
It's your job.
I like the idea of Hemingway's work ethic. He would write all through the morning hours, then stop around noon, when he knew what would come next, [no writer's block]. Then the rest of the day and evening was free for socializing, fishing, whatever. He produced one novel per year.
Hypo-thyroid? - that is very common, detected with a blood test, and treatable.. I also have that.
As both a violinist and singer I sometimes on a good day alternate short sessions on the violin with short sessions on vocal work.
Reduce the rehearsal time; don't get sucked into too many low-paying orchestra jobs.
May 27, 2023, 6:50 AM · I would add an element of social accountability to your plan if you run into trouble keeping to your schedule. Find somewhere public or someone private to where you report that you actually went through with your plan for the day. I found this helpful at some point for something.
May 27, 2023, 11:01 PM · As a question, do you practice because you want to, or because you think you should? From you description, it sounds to me like it might be the latter.

If the latter, and as a second question answered yes or no, do you enjoy playing your violin?

Edited: May 29, 2023, 8:41 AM · Before I was 12 I practiced my 30 minutes each day because I was told to and I did want to feel some approval at my next weekly lesson.

Then I quit playing and lessons for over a year.

Since I was 13 I have always practiced toward some goal. I had joined the high school orchestra and I could tell I was better than the other players. After the concertmaster graduated at the end of my first year I felt I could learn to play the graduation solo he had performed and become the next CM. So that was my goal that summer and I achieved the goal.

In my teens I would also play Mazas, Mozart and LeClair duets and the Bach Double with my father. And I got a number of solo gigs around the county even played one square dance and was hired as a cellist to play a solo for a professional dancer who came to town to give a performance. (Getting $5 back then was like $100 today.)
(Yes, I got started on cello lessons before my 15th birthday which continued for the next 2.5 years. My violin background gave me enough of a head start that I joined the community orchestra as a cellist the evening after my first lesson.)

Next goal was to get through the concerto music my father had (and played)- so my goals became Mozart 3 and 5 (he didn't have 4 or 1 or 2 - or 6). The Mendelssohn came next and then (inspired by upcoming 16th birthday present - a concert with Heifetz playing the Beethoven), The Beethoven, which I had pretty well "in hand and mind" by the concert date. I also whacked away at the Brahms and Tchaikovsky (that he also had) and some of the Bach Sonatas & Partitas.

So now I had two instruments to practice every day - the cello for lessons and the violin for orchestra and just "because."

So those beginnings (lets say "75 years ago") led to a lifetime of chamber and orchestra playing and performances to practice for so it was always possible to find a goal for every note I "practiced." I added viola playing when I was 40 - so I became a triple-threat, able to handle any part in a string quartet, to be outdone by the "quadruple threats," who also play double-bass (I've know and played with two of those). (It is sad to see a really good bass player in his mid-80s have to drop out of orchestra because of the difficulties of transporting his instrument.)

I would no longer even attempt to play the concertos of my teens nor the ones I worked on for the next 30 years. At a certain time in life, if one is lucky enough to have that time, practice begins to seek a different goal - just to slow the obvious and inevitable decline - and that's where I am now and have been since my mid-70s. (I assume it is working, because the decline is still progressing/(i.e., declining), and I'm still practicing.)

May 28, 2023, 12:55 PM · The efficiency of doing the Pomodoro technique combined with interleaved practice (block-based "random" scheduling of practice chunks) is very high. Basically, you spend just two or three minutes on a given task, and then you switch to another one. You can switch back and forth between two tasks, but the switching is important -- it forces your brain to stay engaged (because of the contextual interference effect).

I've found that for me, my greatest successful discipline came with starting my day by practicing, and then going to work. That way, I got to practice when I was fresh (spending it almost purely focused on technical work), and I came off the session (somewhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the day and schedule) with an endorphin high, much like a jogger.

That schedule doesn't work for me any longer just due to the logistics of my day, but for those who can do it: highly recommended.

I've never found a good rhythm for practice discipline after my son was born, and consequently, I practice far, far, too little. My biggest problem is just getting started. Once I start, with clear goals in mind, I can usually manage fine.

Edited: May 28, 2023, 6:27 PM · Very, very interesting topic with many, many helpful and often practical suggestions. May I add a theoretical outline of motivation that one of my late colleagues (and friends) and I discussed decades ago.

Many motivational speakers equate motivation with enthusiasm. But you can't rely on enthusiasm, especially for spending many hours in detailed practicing. It's great to have enthusiasm, but it ain't so easy to control - it comes and goes.

Hopefully, this analysis of motivation will help. There are 4 basic elements of motivation:

1. Vision. This is your goal, but it's more than a goal. In your mind's eye (and ear), can you imagine what you want to sound like? Can you get a picture in your mind and a sound in your brain of what you want to accomplish?

2. Inner drive. This is the emotional component, which includes enthusiasm. There are two kinds of inner drive:

- The first is what we traditionally think of as motivation. It is that inner emotional and often spontaneous energy that moves you to achieve. It is based your values, your excitement of the moment, your inner love of music, etc.
- The second emotional component is based on your needs. For example, you want follow your teacher's teaching and advice, you need to follow the expectations of others and do what they want you to do, you don't want to disappoint anybody important to you, you need to do what your body wants you to do, you want to be an example to others, etc.

3. The third element is strategy; it is your specific plan for how you are going to achieve your vision. It is a great deal of what is discussed on this particular discussion thread. And, indeed, you want to make your strategy or plan as specific as possible.

4. And the 4th element of motivation is action. You have to follow through and actually do something in the real world. And especially in playing an instrument like the violin, to gain mastery and success you have to do lots of things and spend a lot of time doing things when you don't feel "enthusiastic." You have to do many, many things for which you're going to run out of giving yourself a "pep talk" every minute.

How one balances these factors is of course an individual matter. But I hope taking a bit of time to be analytical about your motivation will help you fulfill the kinds of practice and performance suggestions that so many have recommended in this discussion thread.

Edited: May 28, 2023, 4:47 PM · Sander is so right that this is a valuable thread; I find myself returning and rereading these posts, and I liked his analysis of stages and application of motivation. The point about spending time doing things that you don’t feel enthusiastic about was a good one. I think that youngsters who don’t stick with learning the instrument on which they have started have often had a problem of this sort. Maybe they do actually like music, but haven’t seen how the minutiae of practice and the learning of skills will take them towards the ultimate goal. Neil poses a question which Sander has indirectly answered.

Andrew’s brief musical Bildungsroman was fascinating, and Lydia and Joel are, here as always, contributors whose names say to me “Hey! Stop and read this carefully!” Gracie really kicked off a good discussion here, and I hope, as OP, she has also found it useful.

May 29, 2023, 8:24 AM · Richard: Thank you for your comments. In talks on motivation, I wrote the following handout, which I often have used:

Motivation is NOT the same thing as enthusiasm. You can’t rely on enthusiasm every day.

Elements of Motivation:
a. Is not just a goal.
b. Visualize and feel what it would be like to achieve. Create a true “vision” of accomplishing your goal.
a. The emotional component, but is more than enthusiasm.
b. Driven by values and needs.
c. Use positive “self talk.”
a. Specific, “do-able”, and well-organized, and include deadlines.
b. To-do list (overall and daily), placed in order of importance by using the “method of paired comparison (i.e., choose between 2 items at a time).
c. Make a “have done” list at the end of the day.
a. Do something every day, no matter how small or momentary.
b. Don’t put it off.
c. Focus your attention on one thing at a time, no matter how small or momentary.
d. Have a daily “minimal chore” (e.g., 3-minute system).
e. Make a “have done” list at the end of the day.
f. When you do something, no matter how small or momentary, give yourself a pat on the back.
g. Never give up – never, never, never.

May 29, 2023, 12:57 PM · Sander, I really appreciate your contributions here.
May 31, 2023, 11:34 AM · I hope these quotes help:

"Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time. Thomas A. Edison

“All things are difficult before they are easy.” – Thomas Fuller

“Learn the best from the best, and always include your own inner voice and vision.” Sander Marcus

“We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes – understanding that failure is not the opposite of success; it’s part of success.” – Arianna Huffington

“Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” – Earl Nightingale

“The activity you’re most avoiding contains your biggest opportunity.” – Robin Sharma

June 1, 2023, 8:11 AM · I love these quotes, thanks!

Lydia, I don't get the method you describe, the interleaved practice. For example if you have scales, etude and two pieces to work on: how do you do that? Switching from one piece to another and back?

June 1, 2023, 8:11 AM · I love these quotes, thanks!

Lydia, I don't get the method you describe, the interleaved practice. For example if you have scales, etude and two pieces to work on: how do you do that? Switching from one piece to another and back?

June 1, 2023, 1:47 PM · Time management is a skill that must be both learned and practiced. I recommend Stephen Covey. Learn how to make and execute a time management plan. You will find that you have more time than you thought possible when you get scheduled. Most of us waste a lot of time just trying to decide what to do next. A time management plan resolves that and pays the dividend of yielding actual free time.
June 1, 2023, 3:02 PM · Two of the best books I've ever read on personal time management are by Alan Lakein:
- How To Get Control Of Your Time And Your Life.
- Give Me A Moment And I'll Change Your Life (Tools For Time Management).
June 1, 2023, 3:30 PM · Correct, Mikki. You don't just switch pieces. You switch sections. So maybe I practice eight tough measures for three minutes, and then I switch to a totally different eight measures that have a different type of difficulty for three minutes. I switch back and forth between two or three focused tasks for 20 minutes. Then I tak a 5-minute break.
June 4, 2023, 5:03 PM · The Pomodoro method that Lydia Leong talks about is very similar to athletic practice methods that have been proven in research studies to be more effective than most other methods. (Note: Athletic departments have more money to do real research that Music Departments.) Practice techniques of frequent switching were compared to 'grinding it out' sustained techniques. Frequent switching, for athlete training, is far more effective in developing performance skills in the game. It's most likely the same for music performance.

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