6 Things to Do When You’re Sick of Practicing

I finished up my degree practicing 5 hours a day for an average of 5 days a week - with the exception of reading break, Christmas break, Spring break and any other break really. Add it all together and I practiced a rough average of 5,200 hours over those four years, not including any rehearsal times for the ensembles I played in. That’s 5,200 hours building callouses and dexterity. Not a lot of fun involved, just technique, technique, technique, technique.

To make it more difficult, I'm no perfect practicing specimen. I fought through daily thoughts of tying my guitar amp around my ankle and throwing it into the river. 5 hours practicing in a concrete basement with no windows can lead you to some pretty dark places.

How did I get through that? How did I stop whining and get practicing? How do you do the same? Here’s what you can do...

1. Reward Yourself

Don't make it trite. Make it legit, sincere and inspiring. In my lowest times - after only an hour of practicing - I rewarded myself with 8 store bought chocolate chip cookies and an XL glass of whole milk. I'm lactose intolerant. It's the little things.

It takes mental fortitude to stay on task for a whole hour. Reward yourself like you deserve it.

As an added bonus to getting or doing something you enjoy, rewarding yourself provides positive reinforcement for your behavior and paves the way for it to happen again. The more you practice, the more you reward yourself, the better you feel about practicing. The only downside is you’ll run out of cookies.

2. Penalize Yourself

We are in a constant battle between our Current Self and our Future Self. Current Self is a go-getter. It wants to set a routine to accomplish 5 practice hours a day for 3 days a week, but Future Self - the often indifferent, busy and perpetually lazy self – might disagree later on. In order to ensure Future Self doesn't screw it up binge watching every show on Netflix, try setting a penalty for not accomplishing your task(s). Don’t make a wimpy one. Make it really hurt. This is what you call a "Commitment Device" and they’re all the rage these days.

A commitment device could be as small as doing 10 push-ups or as big as running 10 miles, but most likely it's something in between. The key is to pick something you loathe. The more you seethe at the thought of the task the more likely you’ll do everything you can to avoid doing it.

If you have one, get your significant other to hold you accountable. You can't hide from someone you share a living space with...forever.


3. Get a New Instrument

You have my permission to buy that Hofner bass, that Rhodes Mark 7, that mid-50's Tele. In the name of progress, of course.

I have a few different guitars that I switch between when practicing to a) help me be proficient on all types of necks and b) because I like it. Playing different guitars challenges me while the feeling of a different fretboard under-finger invigorates me.

Grab a cheap Casio keyboard when you normally practice with an upright piano or drop your fretted bass for a fretless one. The idea is to rediscover that "new and inspired" feeling.

4. Set Small Intervals

Practice what you need to practice in 5-15 minute intervals and then let yourself mentally check out for 5 minutes.

Not all of us are distance runners - the barefoot Kenyan runners of our instrument. Some of us are Usain Bolts.

My attention span is 14 minutes and 59 seconds, not a second longer. Stay incredibly focused and thunderingly motivated for 15 minutes and then give yourself a small mental break. Watch YouTube, listen to a song, count rainbows, listen to the birds sing. Do whatever floats your boat and then get right back at it.

5. Teach Someone

There's nothing like realizing you don't know what you thought you knew to light the fires of practice motivation.

For hours during university I would sit down to teach friends or family members only to realize that the gap between where I was and where they were wasn't as big as I thought. There were times where I was barely one step ahead of my students and the fear of running out of stuff to teach them drove me back to the practice dungeon.

Teaching someone has another added benefit - "the protégé effect." Studies show that you can solidify a concept or task in your memory banks when you explain it to - or perform it for - someone else. This happens because you are forced to think and explain things in new ways, while repeating the task and experiencing your student as they figure it out for themselves. Your concentration and emotional involvement then cause the knowledge/skill to seep deeper into your memory banks.

6. Or Maybe a New Routine is in Order

Even the local gorillas at the gym are smart enough to know they need to switch up their biceps routine every once and a while. Be strategic about your new routine and mix it up every few days, or weeks if you're a real Ironman.

Changing up your routine has a lot of added benefits, even if you don’t struggle with practicing. For one, approaching a problem from a different angle allows your brain to see different areas of improvement and encourages your brain to make different connections.

Ever ridden in the passenger seat on a road you’ve been on many times before? You see things that your brain wouldn’t allow you to see when you were driving because it was entirely focused on the sole task of not colliding with the other cars on the road. On the flip side, remaining focused on the road when you’re driving means you’re more likely to remember how to get home.

Balancing different perspectives will lead to stronger and more diverse connections.

Here’s a real-world example:

You’re learning minor arpeggios but are hitting a wall. Every time you go back to them you’re just not retaining the muscle memory. Up to this point you’ve been running through the patterns fairly monotonously in a typical eighth note rhythm in 4/4 time. To change perspectives, pick a key and record yourself chording a few different progressions in a 6/8 time signature (2 example progressions below).

When you’re done laying down the chords, practice the arpeggios while keeping in time with the 6/8 beat and with the chord changes. Introducing the different time signature reengages your mind, while playing over the chords trains your ear to associates the arpeggios with the chord changes. Also, playing a 6/8 signature forces your fingers to adapt to a triplet feel rather than a straight eighth feel.

By making 2 small changes – time signature and playing over some chords – it will all work together to further solidify those pesky arpeggios. Once you go back to your regular routine you’ll see how the skill stays with you.

For some more inspiration, here’s what one of my shorter 2-hour routines looked like in university (double it for a 4 hour practice).

Technique - Solidify what you know (30 mins) - Play existing scales, chords, arpeggios, etc. and consider your recall, proficiency and speed.

BREAK (5 mins)

Create - Improvise (30 mins) - Using what you already know improvise over some chord changes.  Don’t put this at the end when your fingers are tired and sloppy.  It helps you stay emotionally invested when you do it in the middle.

BREAK (15 mins)

Technique - Learn something new (30 mins) - Add the next scale or the next arpeggio. Or, if you're learning speed, bump the BPM up a notch or 11.

BREAK (5 mins)

Create - Write something using what you just learned (30 mins) – I learn best while creating.  It embeds what I've just learned into memory.  We naturally retain what we find useful, so make a use for it.

Hopefully these 6 tips will give you the tools you need to keep practicing. It all comes down to persistence and creativity.  If you want to find a way, and you're trying to find a way, you'll eventually break through.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brandon Waardenburg

Founder of Apparatus (an artist accelerator providing music advice and education to independent artists) as well as a musician, songwriter, "musicpreneur" and consultant. After receiving his Bachelors in Music back in 2011 he began working alongside independent artists, songwriters, producers and engineers in their quest to retain creative control.

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