How to maintain motivation to practise?

Let’s explore!

We’ve all had days when we’re itching to get our hands on our instruments, dreaming of the moment when we get to the practice room to try out that new piece. And then we have days when the muse is simply not cooperating, when even unzipping our instrument case feels like a chore.

The problem is, we know that to make any progress at all, we need—above all— consistency. Focus. Concentrated practice.

So what do we do when it seems motivation has gone down the drain?

The roots of motivation

Let’s begin with a basic question: Why do we play music? Why do we bother practising at all?

Well…maybe we like music. We have a competition coming up, and we’d really like to win. Our parents force us to practise; otherwise there will be no screen time (or dinner).

Great. (Well, maybe not the last one.) If we like music, why not simply listen to it? If we want to feel successful and accomplished, why not pick another field? If our parents weren’t there to nag (ahem, remind) us, would we quit? And why did we choose our particular instrument, as opposed to any other?

What we’re trying to do is strip away the outside factors and get to the heart of the matter: our intrinsic motivation. This is when doing the thing itself (practice) is its own reward.

Think of when we were younger, how we used to spend hours playing in the sandpit, or drawing, or building things. We tend to lose some of this unbridled joy as we get older, but it doesn’t have to be that way. What do we really love about playing music?

For me, it’s a combination of relishing the challenge of technicality (thrill of learning hard things) and appreciating the unique ability of music to inspire the imagination and communicate beauty. What is it for you?

The crucial thing we must clear

Before we go any further, we need to deal with the elephant in the room: burnout.

The condition of being unable to concentrate, no matter how hard we try and focus. The utter lack of engagement in the things we used to enjoy. A persistent irritability at our lack of progress, or maybe life in general.

Sometimes burnout is accompanied by feelings of anxiety and depression. If you are experiencing this, please talk to a professional about it. But even in the absence of these symptoms, burnout can be the ultimate joy-killer and motivation-crusher.

If we are burnt out, we need to take a break.

Maybe we’re obsessively passionate (perhaps that is what contributed to the burnout in the first place), and we are afraid all our hard-won progress will be lost. Be assured: we will get back faster if we look after ourselves first.

But don’t just take a break. Reconnect with the things that bring you joy. Spend time with your family and friends. Go to the beach. Go on a hike. Pick up painting again. Nourish your mind, heart and soul until you feel more like yourself again—and keep feeding yourself these key ingredients to keep yourself thriving.

Breaking through the bounds of routine

What if we’re not burnt out, but just bored?

(Musical) life has settled into a familiar humdrum of scales, etudes, the same technical issues on the same repertoire. We’re itching for some novelty. Anything to break out of the mind-numbing daily discipline we engage in as classical musicians. Why not do just that?

Lay aside all those technical exercises for a moment, and allow yourself to be silly. Play your repertoire in the most ridiculous way possible. Or better yet, lay aside that repertoire as well, and start improvising. Or pick up jazz, or some folk songs, or fiddle tunes. Or your friend’s ukulele or harmonica. Play your favourite pop songs by ear. Hold your bow by the tip. Play out of tune (gasp!). Play your piano while lying on the bench.

Get it out of your system. Have a good laugh. Who knows? We might return to our practice with fresh inspiration.

Musical cross training

Speaking of inspiration, let’s not confine our musical experience strictly to studying the material that our teacher provides us.

Athletes engage in cross training: the act of training in other sports or forms of physical activity with the aim of increasing performance in their sport of choice.

Similarly, we need not only be exposed to classical music. In fact, our favourite composers were likely heavily influenced by their country’s folk music, the historical events of their lifetimes, and their own personal experiences. Likewise, we can cultivate these connections to the world around us that will not only enrich our music making, but burst through periods of motivational drought.

There are a plethora of musical genres to explore, as well as other forms of performing arts. If music is a language, it is surely only one of many. And if music is storytelling, there are endless good stories in the form of novels, films, and biography.

Have we considered our life journey thus far? Our joys and sorrows, connections and influences, and what we wish to communicate through our own music?

The discipline of delight

At the end of the day, the journey to mastery is still going to be filled with many unavoidable moments of—believe it or not—boredom. Monotony. Repetition.

Ask any Olympic swimmer who shows up at the pool day in, day out, swimming the same ol’ laps marked by the same ol’ lane ropes. Or the marathoner who laces up their runners every morning, does their warm up, and hits the tracks. Or the researcher who turns up at the lab, runs experiments over and over, and spends countless hours analysing data, writing papers, and applying for grants.

Why do we think we get a free ride?

This is not to say, of course, that all this repetition is mindless, or that it needs to be tedious and uninspiring. But in order to scale the heights of our aspirations, to coax our repertoire into flowering under our fingers, we cannot avoid work and perspiration.

Perhaps one of the most crucial lessons we learn from our musical journeys is this acceptance—and enjoyment—of the process. That lack of visible process day to day does not mean we are not accumulating effort that will eventually result in our next breakthrough.

And we are not designed to do it alone. We can practise in community, cheering each other on. We can track our progress, and celebrate all the little milestones. That’s what we’re here for at Tonic: to enjoy the journey together.

Panzhu Wang is an Australia-based amateur violinist. She has a Doctor of Medicine from the University of Melbourne.