Putting on the Pressure: How to Motivate Yourself in the Practice Room

Remember those times in school, where you were assigned a huge project and given a deadline to finish it by? You know, the ones where the teacher threw an enormous assignment at you as soon as you walked into the classroom: “Write a 15 page paper on the history of the French revolution and give a presentation in front of the class…”

In situations like this, you immediately become stressed out. There is this huge sense of urgency with this due date now looming on the horizon and you can’t relax until it’s over. We set out to finish ahead of time, but despite our best efforts, we usually end up procrastinating and doing the work right before the deadline.

With time running out we stay up all night and push ourselves to focus. Out of nowhere comes this incredible work ethic and drive to finish the project on time. At the end, we always end up completing the project and surprising ourselves along the way that we were capable of doing this much work in that little time.

Even though we dread these big projects and frequently put them off until the last minute, there is something very valuable that we discover about ourselves in the process. When we are faced with the pressure of completing a project and there are some serious consequences, we become intently focused and highly motivated.

Goals that at first seemed too big and intimidating, we surprisingly push through and complete. Imagine if you were able to channel this kind of motivation and work ethic all the time, even on mundane practice days. What would you be able to accomplish?

Feeling the pressure

In school or work, there are outside forces that are pressuring us to complete projects and move forward. Deadlines are set for you and the results of your work will be presented in front of your peers, so the stakes are high. Even if you went to music school you had pressure in the form of recitals, juries, projects, private lessons, and performances. It’s like everyone else is setting your goals for you and making sure you complete them.

However, when you are learning on your own, it’s a completely different story. There are no deadlines, no jury of judgmental peers, no risk, and no major consequences. If you fail at a project or give up on a goal, there is no one to punish you except yourself.

Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Learn at your own pace. No stress and fear of public failure. Create your own agenda. Be your own teacher.

“No pressure, no diamonds.”~Thomas Carlyle

After awhile though, these positive aspects of learning on your own slowly become drawbacks. We get lazy, we lose focus, and we don’t work to our full potential. With no deadlines or external pressures, we get too relaxed and lose motivation. This is true for everybody, no matter how hard we try to change it.

So how do we fight this inevitable laziness within ourselves, especially when we are practicing something like improvisation?

Set a goal and a deadline

Some musicians are highly motivated on their own, while others have to be forced into the practice room. Think about which category you fall into. If you’re like me, it can change from one day to the next. Some days hours spent practicing will fly by like nothing and on others it’s a struggle just to walk into the practice room.

Regardless of your mindset as you start your practice session, the most important aspect of your practice routine is focus and direction. You can be the most driven person in the world, but if you lack focus you might as well wasting your time. If you want to continually improve as a musician, you need direction.

Step one: Set a goal for yourself.

What do you want to accomplish musically? What players or solos do you want to study? What do you want to sound like on your instrument? The great thing about discovering this music on your own is that you can learn what you want to. You don’t have to work on a project that someone forces on you, you can pick things to work on that actually mean something to you.

Without a goal, you’re just running the same exercises and etudes. Yes, it’s good that you are practicing everyday, but the reality is that you’re staying at the same level, not improving. Define your goals. Physically write them down on a piece of paper. Once you’ve specifically identified these goals you know where you’re headed.

Step two: Make a deadline.

Now that you have a goal, you need a time frame in which to complete it by. Having an open ended goal without a date to finish it by is useless. You’ve identified what you want to do, but where is the motivation going to come from to actually do it?

To solve this problem, set a deadline to have this goal completed by. Challenge yourself here. A little stress and anxiety can get you focused and motivated very quickly. Set a realistic deadline that will test your abilities, and you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Make some consequences

The aspect of a school or work project that really motivates us is the fact that there are consequences. If you don’t finish that 15 page paper, you’ll receive a failing grade. If you do poorly on your project at work, you will look bad in front of your peers and you may even get demoted. The pressure comes from these consequences and our motivation arises from the need to avoid these consequences.

As I mentioned before, when you are practicing something on your own you don’t have these types of external pressures – it’s you vs. yourself. So what are your consequences going to be when you don’t achieve your goal by your deadline?

Just having a goal and deadline is no guarantee that you’ll actually put in the work to finish something, you need a consequence that means something to you. Here are a few examples of some goals and consequences you might make for yourself as an improviser:

Goal #1: I want to learn three standards and be able to play well over them. Pick out the three tunes and set a reasonable deadline.

Consequence: On the day of your deadline go to a jam session and perform these three tunes. This is your test. If you’ve done the work in the practice room, it will show as you sit in for these tunes. However, if you’ve been lazy, you’re going to be humiliated in front of a live audience – this should be enough to keep you motivated!

“Logical consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.”~Thomas Huxley

Goal #2: I need to transcribe a solo to get some language.

Consequence: If you’re having trouble motivating yourself to do this, get someone else involved. Call up a friend or fellow musician and tell them you want to go over a solo that you’ve transcribed. Set a date to get together and have that solo ready to perform by the due date. The simple fact of performing for someone else will make you put in the work.

Goal #3: Write an original composition.

Consequence: This is a goal that many musicians have, but never seem to get around to. It’s time to put a stop to this process. Start by setting up a recording date for this new tune. Call up some players to perform it and set the time and place. If you don’t have it ready you’re not only going to look like a complete moron, you’re going to be wasting everyone’s time.

*It’s very important that once you set a deadline and a consequence you stick to it. No backing out of it. If you’re serious about getting better, you need to be held accountable when you start slacking.

Work everyday towards this one goal

One of the biggest barriers to the realization of our goals is that we often try to tackle too much at once in the practice room. We have ten different goals and we try to complete a huge project in one practice session. If you want to improve, you first have to make your goals realistic and achievable.

Instead of trying to become the next John Coltrane overnight, set one realistic goal. This goal is now the main focus of your practice time. You’ve got your goal and your deadline and now, it’s time to get to work.

Take this goal and break it up into small pieces. Make a daily schedule and a weekly schedule until the day of the deadline. Identify achievable milestones that you want to hit on the way to finishing your big project. If your goal was to transcribe an entire solo, start by learning two measures a day. By the end of a week you’ll have a chorus and before you know it, you’ll have the whole solo down.

By breaking up these large goals, the project actually seems achievable. And, with a daily and weekly schedule, your practice won’t be unfocused or random. This is a great way to get the ball rolling when a task seems impossible. Try this with your next musical goal and see what happens.

Inspiration can be motivation too

The source of your motivation doesn’t always have to be the fear of a negative consequence. Sure this type of thinking will get you to complete your projects, but after awhile your practice will becomes a chore, not the fun and exciting process that it used to be. One of the greatest sources of motivation that we can draw from is inspiration.

The feeling we get seeing a master perform live. Hearing a record that transports us to another place. Learning from a great teacher. These are all situations that inspire us as musicians and we can easily transfer this mentality into the practice room. To recall this feeling put on your favorite record before you practice, go to more live shows, and record your lessons to quickly recall those words of wisdom.

Motivation and dedication can be hard to come by when you’re on your own, especially when you are attempting something overwhelming and difficult. By using a few of the tricks above and creating your own deadlines and consequences, you can not only achieve your current goals, you can surpass your original expectations.