Start at the end

Here we go! Another one of Casey's ridiculously counter-intuitive posts. Start at the end. It doesn't get more contrarian than that, does it?

This is the way I was taught to practice, and I continue to do it because it works. Time and time again I share this practice technique with my students, and I can always tell when they follow my directions because their playing sounds smoother and more confident. Learn how and why starting at the end works so well. Don't worry, we won't be going backwards.

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Finding the sweet spot that makes learning addictive

Can you start by balancing on the board in the sand? (Santa Cruz, California, October 2010)Whatever you are working on should be easy but not boring. Interesting but not frustrating.

The best progress takes place in the sweet spot where things are just challenging enough to be engaging. If you're a tennis player, you'll have the most fun with someone playing close to your level of ability. You don't want to play with a total novice, but on the other hand it's no fun when every serve is so strong that it zooms by before you even know it happened.

There is an art to choosing just the right level of difficulty. Video games are very good at continually calibrating themselves to your ability at any given moment, which is what makes them so addictive.

Whatever skill you want to learn, make a game out of making it a game. That is, figure out how to make it as engaging as possible. As Mary Poppins said, "In every job that must be done there is an element of fun/you find the fun, and snap! The job's a game."

Start with the right material. At the bookstore or library, you put down the book that doesn't grab you right away because it's too dense, but you might also skip over something that looks too trashy or fomulaic. Don't feel guilty about rejecting Ulysses - maybe it will be just the right thing in the future.

When you've got something you can sink your teeth into, you know. Get good at finding that feeling, whether you're a pianist working through classical repertoire, a Spanish student looking for instructional material, or a fencing enthusiast seeking an opponent. Insert Goldilocks reference here.

Make your progress visible. We all rubbed our fingers raw trying to snap our rooms clean with magic, so that is eliminated as a possibility (unless you got it to work for you, in which case please let me know!). But even without magic, many of us don't mind cleaning when we can see the results with every swipe of the rag or push of the vacuum cleaner. Make your progress visible and you will find yourself conditioned to return to a given task.

To get a better sense of your evolution you might take before-and-after pictures, videos, or audio recordings. You could also create a chart or graph of your work over time.

Be a statistics nerd. The drama of an apparently dull moment of baseball can be heightened when the announcer shares a stat like, "He has a .129 batting average so far this season, but a .401 career batting average when facing this pitcher." All of a sudden we're invested in the outcome of this slumping second-stringer's at-bat.

You can geek out on statistics in order to set goals and motivate yourself to grow. In running, a sport where it's just you and the clock, you will find more depth and nuance when you can design workouts that have a specific target in mind based on past performance and future goals. You would play with various combinations of speed and distance (tempo runs, interval training, long runs, negative splits, etc.) in order to optimize your performance for a specific race.

As a musician, you might use a metrononome to track the tempo at which you can play a given phrase comfortably. You could also document how much of your piece you learn each day. I like to track the date a student begins a piece and the date that piece is mastered. As the student breaks through a plateau, we can compare two equivalent pieces and point out that one took two months to master while the newer one took just two weeks.

Avoid unnecessary repetition. If you understand a math concept, you should do a few problems to solidify your understanding today, a few more tomorrow, and a couple at the end of the week. A page of twenty-five problems is busy work if it too easy, and impossible if it you can't even do the first one.

If you don't understand the concept, you'll need to break it down into smaller pieces, look at it from a different perspective, or rebuild the foundation by reviewing previous material. Repetition won't help.

"What's your practice strategy?" I ask. "I'm going to play it over and over again until I get it right!" my student says brightly. No! Play it correctly the first time, and you'll only need to play it a few times to make it solid. If you can't play it correctly the first time, it's too much. Break it down, take it slower, or both.

Use rewards. My students love getting stickers. Not only do they enjoy picking out just the right one (there is an inverse relationship between the age of the student and the amount of time it takes to choose a sticker), they enjoy the closure that it represents ("You have fully mastered this piece!").

Even as an adult, you can reward yourself for the acquisition of a skill or the completion of a goal. Even better, give yourself positive reinforcement for the little steps along the way. Karen Pryor, in her excellent book Don't Shoot the Dog!, tells of using tiny bits of chocolate to get herself out the door and on the bus to an evening class.

While the opportunity to perform onstage might be seen by many musicians as a punishment rather than a reward, applause is certainly a nice way to be acknowledged for all your hard work learning a piece of music. In the meantime, dessert or some down time (TV, a novel, a game) can be a great way to reward yourself (or your child) for a focused practice session. Over time, you will condition yourself to look forward to practice because you'll associate it with the pleasure at the end!

There are many other ways to enliven the process of learning something new. When learning a new skill, apply strategies and techniques from something you're already good at. The more you can make it a game, the more you'll want to play!

Quit before you're ahead

After last night's post on the discipline of stopping, I was still thinking about whether I had made a point worth making. "Am I talking about moderation? Everyone knows that moderation is a good idea. Am I saying, 'Quit while you're ahead?' Well, duh."

And then I realized: What I'm really saying is, quit before you're ahead. Just when you start to see results, have the discipline to let it go for now.

I ask a lot of questions when I'm teaching. "What strategy are you going to use to practice this?" I'll query, hoping that she'll be able to articulate the concepts I've been drilling over the last eighteen months.

"I'm going to keep playing it until I get it right!" she says confidently.

"NO!" I say, pretending to be a severe turn-of-the-century schoolmarm. "You will play it correctly the first time, and then repeat it only as many times as necessary!"

We don't want mindless repetition. That is bad. Either play it for fun or play it for results - if you've got neither of those, just stop. And of course, the same goes for running. There is a nimbus of good stuff just outside your comfort zone, but if you venture too far outside of that, you have reached the point of diminishing returns. The trick is that, for most of your training, you will end your run feeling like you could have done more. And that is good.

Or is it? I'm probably an expert at teaching music lessons (I've put my 10,000 hours into that for sure), but I'm not an expert at running. I'm just an experiment of one. But I know that last night, when I stopped running at 1.64 miles, I felt like a stronger person even though my legs have gotten weaker.

Where else should you quit before you're ahead?

Attention Conservation

Attention is finite. To the degree that you can focus, you can conserve your attention in order to accomplish what matters.

In the image below, a flashlight is trained upon a page of sheet music. It's illuminating most of the page, dimly.

Now, we move the flashlight closer to the page:

As you would expect, the beam of light gets both brighter and smaller. The flashlight bulb puts out a consistent amount of light, so as it covers a smaller area it is more highly concentrated.

You can see where I'm going with this: your attention behaves the same way. The more focused you are, the less attention you waste, making you more effective. It's called concentration, get it?

This may seem like a no-brainer, but many players do not behave in a way that reflects an understanding of this concept. They start at the beginning of a piece of music and hack through it until it's over or until they run out of steam, whichever comes first. And then - horrors! - they might just go back to the top and try again.

A better approach: focus all of your precious attention on a tiny section and polish it until it shines. If you're doing it right, you'll be totally exhausted well before you learn the whole page. That's okay - there's always tomorrow.

Attention: A limited resource that you can make the most of by improving your ability to focus.

Can you think of any applications of this concept beyond learning a piece of music?

When not to use momentum

I've talked about the value of momentum, how it allows you to create a positive feedback loop when learning a skill. However, there are times when momentum actually slows you down or interferes with the learning process.


Heavy Lifting

When you tax a muscle beyond its ability, you allow it to grow. When you do it right, this process is so intense that it fills up your entire physical and mental experience. Big results come from this kind of effort.

At the gym, you aDon't be a dumb bell! Slow, deliberate work is most effective. Photo by jerryforlife.lways see dudes putting a ridiculous amount of weight on the barbells and then lifting and lowering as fast as they can. They are letting momentum do the work for them instead of the muscle. A better approach would be to lift far less weight and go as slowly as possible, feeling every sensation on the way up and the way down. This is much harder, and that's why it will pay off.

My piano teacher, John Swiedler, used to tell me, "You should practice so slowly that a listener will not be able to tell what you're playing." Why is this slow playing so important? Because it prevents you from being able to use momentum. This leads to a deeper understanding of the music you are playing. Students always say, "but it's easier to play it faster." Exactly. If it's easy, you're using momentum. We don't want it to be easy. Bwahahahahaha...


"My brain is full."

There's that Far Side cartoon where a student raises his hand in class and asks to be excused, because "my brain is full." Now, part of the punchline is that he has a smaller head than his classmates, but in reality, this feeling happens to those of us with normal-sized brains all the time. It's that feeling you get after staring at a single math problem, crossword, Sudoku puzzle, or highway map for a quarter of an hour with no apparent breakthrough. Believe it or not, very good things are happening in your brain even though it feels like it's melting.

Yes, he has a band-aid, but slow practice won't hurt you.Where this often comes up in music lessons is switching between chords on the piano. One chord is A, the next chord is D. The pianist has to locate the three notes of the A chord, and then find the three notes of the D chord.

Students always rush through this, and sometimes accidentally get the notes right. They are using momentum. Far more difficult (and far more effective) is to slow down and do the mental heavy lifting that this activity requires.

Find each note separately and deliberately. Think out loud. Take note of which fingering will work best, and be consistent. Resist the temptation to rush yourself. Stay completely calm and in control.

It may take you minutes, not seconds, to find the next chord. Paradoxically, however, it is precisely this slow, painstaking process that will allow you to nimbly hop from chord to chord without conscious thought in the near future.


The bonus

You lifted ten pounds instead of your usual forty and you were incredibly sore the next day. Two weeks of this regimen, and you see muscle definition you thought you'd have to lift eighty pounds to get.

You see that same crossword puzzle sitting on the kitchen table the next morning. All of a sudden, three previously inaccessible answers pop out at you ("Aha! Magnum, P.I.! Elk! Spartacus!").

You lay your hands on the instrument, and you play a difficult passage with ease and precision on the first try.

An unexpected bonus often comes along after a period of concentrated effort. There is thus another layer of paradox here: Take the slow, frustrating path, and it ends up being the quickest, smoothest one. Deliberately avoid momentum in the short-term, and you'll end up gaining a lot of it in the long-term.

The two different kinds of mistakes

Musicians (particularly music students) sometimes get hung up on mistakes. "You played so well!" "Yeah, but I messed up on that one part."

Especially since so much of the music we hear these days is sanitized and computerized and auto-tuned within in an inch of its life, we lose perspective on our humanity as musicians and hold "no mistakes" as the standard we aspire to.

Wildflowers are neither flaws nor errors. (Photo: Per Ola Wiberg)This standard creates problems in learning and playing, because we're only looking out for wrong notes and lose our connection with musicality and emotion. We aren't in touch with how comfortable we are with a piece, we're only thinking about getting through it for the sake of getting through it. Play, mess up, go back to the beginning, play mess up, go back to the beginning.

What's more, fearing mistakes can create psychological reactance: we are trying so hard not to mess up, that we mess up. This is a negative feedback loop that affects students from beginner to professional.

It is true that a bad habit is difficult to unlearn. There are certain kinds of mistakes that become bad habits. Ironically, these are often created by the very attitude that seeks to avoid any mistakes. Steamrollering a piece of music with unrealistic expectations leads to rushing, tension, frustration, fatigue, all of which foster the type of mistakes that tend to stick. Let's call these errors.

On the other hand, there are mistakes that happen simply because you're a human being striving to accomplish something. These imperfections occur and can be brushed off with no lasting impact. We'll call these flaws.

The following table shows the difference between errors and flaws in several common circumstances:

Situation Flaw Error
writing an essay typo drawing a conclusion not supported by the facts
public speaking saying "um" saying something offensive
driving a car swerving around debris speeding through a red light
getting an injury bumping your shin on the coffee table hurting your back as a result of weak muscles and poor posture when lifting boxes
eating a couple extra cookies eating ice cream when you know you're lactose intolerant
healing scab scar


The relationship between each flaw and error is imprecise at best, and one could argue that any mistake is a result of carelessness or excessive speed. But there is a difference, which is that all of the flaws are generally things that could happen at any time, while the problems created by the errors are avoidable or caused by long-term issues. 

In music, flaws show up when you lose yourself in what you're doing, and when a piece of music is unfamiliar. They are superficial, and can mostly be ignored. They are the human element showing up in your otherwise mindful, methodical work. Sometimes they appear when you get tired, and as such can be indicators that it's time to give the instrument a rest.

Errors, on the other hand, flourish in tense situations where there isn't time to think. When you're going too fast, you have no time to exercise good judgment and your work suffers. "I always mess up at this part. I keep trying but I can't get it right." You can bet these ingrained errors, these deeper issues will show up in a performance situation as tension or, inevitably, mistakes.

What to do about it? Slow down, relax, be mindful, and take the music in small sections. Let go of the flaws, and do everything you can to avoid the errors.

Rebuild it the same way it was built

Whenever possible, get inside the head of the writer or the composer of a piece you're working on. How did this song come into the world? Learn it by retracing the steps the artist took to create it in the first place.

Strumming the guitar Try to get it by feel first - I'm sure Bo Diddley never sat down and wrote out a strumming pattern in his life.

Learning a classical piece Imagine Haydn at the piano, transcribing the notes onto the page in small groups. Learn it the same way.

Mastering a specific guitar solo Find the scale shape that makes sense in that key, and play around with it until you find a few licks that match what you're hearing on the recording. You know that Hendrix was also just poking around until he found something he liked.

Figuring out an acoustic pop song Don't forget to use a capo if you've got a lot of chords that aren't available in an open position. Why would the songwriter be playing a bunch of barre chords on an acoustic? If it sounds easy, it should feel easy.

Learning fingerpicking on the guitar, or an intricate repetitive figure on any instrument Except for classical music, don't worry about making it identical to the recording - just get the gist of it. If the person who played the part on the record was being loose and spontaneous, you should be, too. Forget about the twenty pages of minute variations and just play.

Combining sections of a pop song Put the record on really loud and play along with it. Don't ask me "how many strums until..." Listen to the record, play along with the record, listen to the record, play along with the record, ad nauseum. The person who wrote it had to play it repeatedly to get the right feel.

Finding the groove of a song on the piano Tap it out on your legs, as though drumming, to get the relationship between the hands. Rock piano is very percussive.

Assimilating a rapid passage Play a few notes at a time in short bursts. You can't play the whole thing that fast yet, but right from the start you're teaching your fingers how it's going to feel when you do.

While you might not be able to follow this path all the way to the end, your playing will be stylistically appropriate even in the early stages of study on a given piece. In other words, it will sound like you understand the music.

How to not keep playing the same thing over and over again

You know how when you say a word many times in a row ("Donut. Donut donut donut donut donut...") it starts to sound weird? It gets divorced from its meaning and becomes pure sound. This same thing happens when you mindlessly play the same musical figure ad nauseum. Here's how to get just the right number of repetitions of a musical passage.


Small segments, slowly

First of all, you should be working on sections so small that you can play them correctly on the first try. If you mess up, you are either taking too big a section, or going too fast, or both.

Don't be a hero! Don't think that going slowly or breaking things down makes you a weaker musician:

  • The slower you practice, the faster you will learn.
  • The tighter your focus, the shorter your practice.


The Comfort Score

Do you have a small-enough chunk to work with? Good. Now play it, paying attention to how it feels, not just how it sounds. Now, give yourself a Comfort Score from one to ten.

This score is not "how many mistakes did I make?" If you made mistakes, you might be going to fast or playing too big a section. If you chose your section well (it could be just one note), you didn't make any errors. Instead, ask yourself, "How comfortable was while I played that?"

Ten is "I can play this effortlessly with my eyes closed." One is, "I think I just passed out in the middle from concentrating too hard."

If your score was any lower than eight, play it again. Keep evaluating yourself, and keep repeating the passage, until you score eight or nine. Do not aim for ten, because you will go mad.



By the time you score an eight or nine, you have played the musical passage a few times correctly, evaluating yourself every step of the way. Your playing feels relaxed and masterful. When you reach this point, stop. Resist the temptation to play the phrase again.

Your choices at this point:

  • Go on to a different section or piece
  • Practice a section adjacent to the one you just played, overlapping
  • Expand the section you just worked on
  • Go have some ice cream


There's always tomorrow

When you come back to this piece at your next practice session, it will probably take you fewer repetitions to get to a Comfort Score of eight or nine. Good! Eventually, you'll be able to score a nine on your first try. This doesn't require hundreds of repetitions. Intense focus and thoughtful self-evaluation will shorten your practice time to only what is needed.

Momentum: more important than talent

One big thing you have to forget about is whether your kid is talented or not. Just take it off the table.

Here's the thing: for kids, it's all about the work they put into it. Yes, work. It's not all going to be fun, although it might be enjoyable. You have to help the kid set up a routine for playing every day. Or at least four days out of the week, at least ten minutes a day. If you can't do this, the chance of your kid succeeding with the instrument over the long haul drops precipitiously.

It's all about momentum. If you can build momentum from the very beginning, you will be amazed at how well your child will do. Some early success on the instrument will help her continue to stay motivated to practice, which in turn leads to more success. "She's so talented!" Uh-huh. How mysterious.

Contrast that with the alternative: Teacher and kid cover pages 10-12 in the first lesson, and kid doesn't look at them again for the rest of the week. Kid comes back, teacher realizes the kid didn't practice. Two things happen then: First, the teacher knows that practicing is going to be an issue and unconsciously holds back her best stuff. Second, the kid gets assigned pages 10-12 again. There goes the momentum. It takes a lot to fix this problem: The kid has learned that practicing is not a part of taking music lessons.

I cannot overstate the importance of the crucial first few weeks of music lessons. Developing the practice routine is a lot like practice itself: getting it right on the first try is exponentially better than fixing mistakes. It takes seven repetitions to learn a given musical figure, and thirty-five repetitions to un-learn it once it's been learned incorrectly. Likewise, a child who gets off on the wrong foot has learned incorrectly that learning an instrument is about attending the music lesson and nothing more, and once a child makes this erroneous assumption it is extremely difficult to get him to a place where he is learning music for real.

This is such an avoidable problem. But how involved should you be in preventing it? This depends on the age and temperament of your child. For most children under twelve, you can pretty much assume that you will be overseeing daily practice, reminding your kid to do it, and providing rewards for doing it/consequences for not doing it. If you are not willing to be this involved, it is unlikely your child will succeed at music lessons, even if it was his idea.

For children twelve and up, it is a judgment call. You have to choose your battles on everything at this age, so maybe you want music lessons to be something you don't have to be involved in or fight over. If this is the case, you have to decide whether you are okay with spending the money on lessons even if your kid isn't practicing. The exception to the momentum rule is that sometimes when teens are given the space to develop their passion for music, it will bloom on its own.

Be prepared for the teacher to have a say in this, too - your teacher might not be willing to work with a student who is not practicing. Children who don't practice are not fun to work with.

Many a parent wants his kid to be a natural - our culture fetishizes prodigies and overnight successes. But practicing music is really about training the student to feel pride in a sense of accomplishment - to derive pleasure from a sense of progress after a period of hard work. That's not glamorous at all! So what's the shortcut?

You guessed it: momentum. The funny thing is, momentum starts to look eerily like talent when developed early and cultivated faithfully.

Scales are for snakes

Don't waste the limited amount of time you have on this planet just playing the notes of a given key in sequence (i.e., practicing scales mindlessly).

Do writers warm up by typing "the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" for thirty minutes before getting to their real work? Nope. Writers might use warm-ups to get their creative juices flowing, but the warm-ups they use are not mindless repetition.

The best way to warm up as a musician is to play actual melodies. Actual songs. And save the scales for the cold-blooded members of the animal kingdom.


Goals of all sizes are worth setting when it comes to music. I just got a text message from a teenage student of mine who set a goal in October to write ten new songs by January 1, letting me know that she had completed the task. Some students are working on even bigger goals: college admissions, recording an album, and so on. We prepare for these lofty achievements by breaking the goals down into tiny pieces. If you are having trouble making something happen, try working it on a microscopic level.

Perhaps you are learning a new piece of music. Your ultimate target might be "be able to play this piece of music well from start to finish."

Too many of us attempt to do this without having prepared for it. We mess up and go back to the beginning, mess up and go back to the beginning. By doing this, you are programming your fingers to fail you.

A different approach
This procedure works best when you are playing from a printed score, but it can be adapted to by-ear styles as well.

The micro-goal: play the last chord. Or even one note of a chord - if  you can't play the chord all at once, your micro-goal becomes, "play the chord correctly." Let the entire world be just one note at a time until you've got it.

Now play the second-to-last note, or chord. Put them together, in time. Go as slowly as you need to go, but do play the notes in rhythm - use a metronome if necessary. Your micro-goal is "play from the second to last note to the last, comfortably and cleanly, in time."

Once you have accomplished this goal, add another note, and so on.

Most people can expect their focus to start to waver after fifteen to thirty minutes. You can tell when you are getting tired because you start to make weird mistakes you haven't made before. This means it's time to take a break, or move on to another type of musical activity. Perhaps you'll discover another goal, such as playing a piece up to speed, memorizing a piece, or improvising a song.

My role as a teacher is often to help students identify micro-goals within each of their musical activities. The more you can do this on your own, the more successful your practice will be - and ultimately, your larger goals will reflect this stronger foundation.

The most important day to practice

Besides today, that is?

The most important day to practice is the day of your lesson, immediately following the lesson. Playing for even a few minutes is enough. This simple act will affect your practice results for the rest of the week.

There are two reasons for this:

1) Reviewing what happened in the lesson while it is still fresh will reinforce the improvements and tweaks made during your lesson, and greatly increase the possibility that you'll remember and implement the suggestions your teacher made throughout the week. If you wait until three days later, you may not even remember what the suggestions were about even if the teacher's comments were written down, thereby making the lesson useless.

2) Practicing when you come home after the lesson creates a sense of momentum that will carry you through the rest of the week. When you make the effort to practice a little right when you get home from the lesson, you'll feel good about yourself and your results, and you'll be that much more motivated to get back to it then next day, and the day after that, and so on. This creates even more momentum, as you and your teacher will be thrilled by the improvement you'll exhibit and you'll continue your achievement into the next week and the next.

If you can't practice immediately after your lesson, at least practice the day after the lesson. Try this and you'll be amazed at how much more you will enjoy your practice time.

Talent? Yes. Hours of practice? You bet.

Seeing this video of a little boy playing Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", it is tempting to say, "Wow! That kid is so talented. I wish I (or my kids) had that kind of talent."

Yes, this child has a tremendous ear. But the thing is, his ear has been developed. His fine motor skills have been refined. How? Hours and hours of practice every week (initiated by Barrett himself) plus an average of two to three lessons per week.

Barrett's parents aren't professional musicians. They don't even care if he becomes a musician. They only saw a few green shoots of a natural inclination coming up through the soil, and decided to nurture them by providing him with access to a piano, music to listen to, and skilled teachers.

What's kind of cool is that he is an Eclectic Music student, and he has really found a home here. Sometimes Barrett will stop by after preschool and just hang out for awhile, playing various instruments and jamming with whichever teachers or students happen to be around. It's pure fun, although since Barrett has two younger siblings it takes some logistical creativity on the part of his mom to make it happen.

It takes time, energy, and sacrifice to support a young musician, and it takes consistent effort on the part of the student to make music. You see this video, and you see only a five-year-old "prodigy" playing Mozart. It looks like magic. I promise you it takes passion, dedication, and plain old hard work to make it look that easy no matter how old you are.

We should all find something in life to get so excited about that we get up early or stay up late to do it, the way Barrett does with music. If there's anything to be wistful about here, it is to wish we could have found our life's passion at age four. But at whatever age you find it, follow Barrett's example and get down to business. After all, he does have a bit of a head start.


My appetite for practicing music is exactly like my appetite for food. I get hungry to play, and I’m slightly uncomfortable until I’ve had the opportunity to do so. Things go well for awhile, and then all of a sudden I’m “full” - my brain gets fuzzy and I get distracted, and the music in front of me becomes rather cold and unappetizing. If I keep going after that point, I don’t feel well, so I quit. Then, not too much later, I get a craving for something sweet and I want to go back and play again.

I am fasting (for religious reasons) from sunrise to sundown every day until March 20. Although I am abstaining from physical food, the musical food will do very well in the meantime.


Heller - Etude in A Minor

Grieg - Waltz

“Sinking in the Lonesome Sea” (traditional)

Finding time to practice

Learning to play a musical instrument requires practicing every day, even if sometimes it’s only for a few minutes. For schoolchildren, I recommend sitting down to play right after school, following a snack. This is when a kid is still fresh and able to concentrate. No tears, no stress - done and on to the next thing!

It isn’t that practicing is more important than homework, or family time, or playtime. It’s because mastering an instrument is part of a daily routine like eating, sleeping, bathing, or exercising. You can’t save it up and do it all in three hours on the weekend, any more than you can brush your teeth for the entire week on Monday morning. Therefore, if you are going to make the commitment to weekly music lessons, there must also be a daily commitment to practice.

Homework is truly overwhelming for many families these days, and I understand the panic that sets in when a deadline is looming, Dad is out of town, and the library is closing in ten minutes. On truly hectic days, practice needn’t be intense - perhaps it will simply consist of running through a few favorite pieces for less than five minutes. Though even small, token practice sessions like these will have a cumulative effect on a student’s musicianship, the student is also learning the meaning of commitment, the power of self-discipline, the value of routine, and the art of time management. These life skills will be even more valuable than the musical skills in the years to come.

Of course, there may be days when it’s not possible nor worth it to add one more thing. Too many of those days, and it becomes necessary to evaluate the big picture - which activities truly add joy and satisfaction to our lives, and which ones are draining our time and energy?

If we are realistic about the level of commitment necessary to succeed at music, we may find that it’s actually not a good time to pursue it. On the other hand, being honest and clear about the time required to practice may move us to make the time. Learning how to do this paves the way for a lifetime of musical achievement and enjoyment.

On Practice

There’s something about playing music every day.  Showing up every single day to see what you can do.  Why is it so hard? 

Discipline is hard.  We eat every day and sleep every day, but even these biological drives are difficult to regulate.  How much should we eat or sleep?  When?  For something like exercise, or practicing an instrument, or even flossing, there is an internal struggle – sometimes even an external one.  The child who shows up merrily to her piano lesson each week is the same one who was rolling around on the living room floor crying and declaring the piano her mortal enemy.  For me, as a professional, the practice issue gets confused with others.  Irrational fears come out: “What if I practice every day and still suck?”  Priorities and goals seem to bait-and-switch on me: “Why am I playing classical piano when I really need to practice original songs for my gig next week?  Maybe I should just play drums instead.  Or wash the dishes in the sink.” 

After years of struggle, I have come back to what worked for me when I was fifteen: playing songs.  Playing songs, every day.  There’s not much more to it than that (you can keep your scales and arpeggios, Mister). 

Yesterday I had a sick day.  I can’t be still when I’m home sick, so I played.  And played is really the word.  I tweaked a Maybelle Carter-style guitar solo I’d come up with for “Sinking in the Lonesome Sea.”  I worked out an intro for one of my original songs that I forgot about and didn’t play on Sunday.  What a great feeling, to rediscover a song of mine that I lost!  I knew I was working, and working hard, and practicing these parts over and over, but it felt like play because there was no deadline, no other agenda for the day, and no pressure.  It was like being a kid (one with a runny nose, very adept at rhythmic transcription). 

Today I was back at work to infect a number of children and adolescents with my summer cold virus and enthusiasm for music.  There were some nice moments at the K. house, working with a family of five kids who have an honest-to-goodness band.  Brandon had written a melody to which his brothers added a bassline, a drum groove, and a B-section featuring Shaun on alto sax.  It was really exciting to hear it come together – it is the first of many original compositions, I think. 

I wish some of my afternoon students could have seen what the K. family accomplished this morning.  Practice doesn’t seem like practice when you can enjoy the fruits so regularly and so immediately. 

Mia did really well today – I was so proud of her.  She’s been my student for nearly four years, which is almost half of her life since she just turned eight!  I always enjoy spending time with her.  She is working on a version of Guaraldi’s “Linus & Lucy” which is way above her level, but she keeps blowing my mind with her willingness to read the music carefully, count out loud, break things down into small sections, and, most importantly, keep going, always with a positive attitude.  Unfortunately, she has no motivation to play the piano when she’s at home.  She’d rather be, well, playing. 

I guess until “practicing” means “playing” in the same way that one says, “playing outside” or “playing baseball”, there’s no point in forcing the issue.  I suppose it’s my job to help them all get to that place of devotion and love, and I have a hunch that it’s by example. 


I had one of my best gigs ever last night. I had a really good time, and I think it showed.

I spent the early part of the day doing some practicing – as opposed to playing. It was not a joyful act. I thought I had changed, but there I was on gig day falling back into the same old patterns. I felt pressured to do better than I had in the past, to succeed, to push myself, to perform new songs, to impress; I ended up feeling inadequate and bored.

I decided to take a break and go play in the yard. I noticed a few mulberry trees a little over a foot high around the south side of the house, growing fast and distinguishing themselves from the rest of the weeds. I decided to transplant them along the back fence, where someday they might help to cover up the view of the apartment building behind my house and provide a little more privacy.

As I worked, my mind continued to sing the songs I had been working on. Sometimes the singing in my mind spilled out of my mouth. I had a pleasant time in the ninety-five-degree heat – that’s what singing is for.

I went back inside and puttered around the house. I thought about why I signed up to play at Limerick Junction on a Sunday evening, for free, in the first place. I guess because as a musician, it’s my job to play music for people – whether I want to or not, sometimes. In the past, I’ve always been glad I did it – I meet new people, I get out of my comfort zone, I stay in the game, I try out new songs.

I came back to an idea that’s worked for me in the past: instead of thinking I had to come up with some amazing, epic set, I should just sing a bunch of songs. Songs I happen to feel like singing tonight. Songs I like, some of which I wrote. No pressure, no epic statement: simply transmitting the joy of making music.

So that’s what I did. I went upstairs to the guitar and played this time – refreshing my memory on a few things and tweaking others. And then I got ready to go, and went, and just got up there and did it.

And while I was onstage, I remembered another reason I perform: because the audience makes me able to do things I didn’t know I could do, or didn’t know I would do. I surprise myself. It’s an exciting collaboration.

Feeling at the top of my game, I decided last night that I would wake up early this morning to play. I did it, and I think I’m going to do it again tomorrow. I memorized a Schumann piece, reviewed some Scarlatti, and learned the intro to “Martha My Dear.”

There’s a freshness and ease to my musicanship lately which is showing up in my playing, practicing, performing, and teaching: I am inhabiting the world of songs. It doesn’t matter what instrument it’s on or what era it’s from or whether I wrote it or not – whatever song I am working on, I want to get wrapped up in it. It may seem an insignificant concept, but it took me eight years to get to this point. And this is where I’m going to live from now on.