By Michael Tedder
Thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, you likely haven't been doing many live shows lately. Maybe you're in a position where playing a livestream show makes sense for you. But even if you're not going to perform anytime soon, don’t use that as an excuse to stop practicing.
It's understandable if you've been slacking off with your practice. The isolation and financial hardship of the pandemic have been emotionally and psychologically draining for many of us, and once joyful tasks now sometimes seem pointless.
But if you haven't been staying on top of your instrument, it's never too late to get back on the horse. In fact, it might be the distraction you need during tough times.
To learn why it's important to keep practicing and to get advice about how to stay focused, we reached out to Emi Ferguson, a professional classical flute player and member of Juilliard School’s Ear Training faculty, and Marcus Johnson, NAACP Image Award-nominated jazz pianist, author and music business educator, for advice about how to stay motivated.
Go easy on yourself
"So many musicians are out of work right now, and are busting their butts to make ends meet for their families. Trying to find time to practice while working as many odd jobs as possible to bring in money is excruciatingly difficult," says Ferguson.
"You are not failing if you aren’t able to find the time to practice that you want. Try to prioritize finding five minutes a day that you can put all devices away and focus on your musical craft - whether through practice on your instrument, silent mental practicing, listening to music, or just breathing and listening to your body. Those five minutes will add up."
Beating yourself up because you haven't been able to practice isn't helpful, though Ferguson says she understands why we do it to ourselves. "When I don’t practice for a stretch of time I can feel it physically, but with each day that builds up, one can get this pit in your stomach - of self-shame - as you know the only person you are letting down is yourself and that you alone have the power to change that," she says.
"Patience and care for oneself during the process is key as practicing music is like learning a language, or going to the gym. Musicians are athletes of smaller muscles, and taking time off has a direct impact on maintaining musical fitness and the strength one has built up through practice.”
Focus on focusing
Some musicians might find they are so busy scrambling for work that they can't find the time to play. For others, it's a matter of focusing. If that sounds like you, then rest assured that Johnson completely understands.
"Give yourself the space and acknowledgment that a lack of focus during these acutely disruptive times is okay," he says. "We are all scared as hell. Times are very ambiguous. Being human, this leads to fear and anxiety that prohibit us from focusing."
The good news is that if you've lost your focus, you can always work hard to get it back.
"The way to regain your focus is to go deep on your goals, dreams, objectives. Maybe take some time out to create a vision board about where you see yourself and your career in a specified period of time. I recommend 90-day time horizons at a time. This allows for you to build focus with less stress and with concrete goals. Choose no more than five goals. If you meet them, replace them one by one, but no more than five at a time.
'One goal should be building your practice, starting with five minutes. Then 10 in week two, 30 minutes for week three and so on. But it's key for you to set your own goals and your own time limits. Build it up. It's just like a runner who hasn't run in a while, it takes practice, discipline, and frequency to develop endurance. Be diligent, but be gentle."
Do more with less
"This idea of focused practice time is very important. Three 15-minute focused practice sessions a day can often give longer-lasting results than several hours of unfocused practice," says Ferguson.
"Don’t focus on the amount of time you’ve spent practicing, but on what your goals are and what you need to do to achieve them. What is the most valuable use of your practice time for your musical development? Ultimately, make your practice schedule work for your life.
'Mindless practice feels like a chore. Try to bring the same level of care and attention to each note that you practice as you would in a performance so you don’t make subpar practice-playing a habit that comes out in performance."
Build it back up
If you need to get your chops back up after a fallow period, Johnson says to start slow and then focus on building yourself back up.
"Just because you are home, don't bully yourself into thinking you have more time and judge yourself for not practicing or not wanting to practice. Some days will be better than others," he says.
"If you have taken a break, start with five or ten minute intervals. Scales for ten minutes, break, ear training for ten minutes, break. Sight-reading for then minutes, then break. From there, monitor your progress and adjust at your comfort! You will build your endurance back in no time."
Think about the future
Whenever you need a burst of motivation, just remember that this pandemic will be over eventually. "The way to stay focused in this pandemic is to focus on what you see in the future. It's our North Star, a destination, even a dream," says Johnson.
"Things will get to a new normal. The motivation to practice should be that you will be able to get back out in front of your fans and supporters with even greater skill, and thus create an even more enjoyable experience for them. A little different perspective is to also think that if you are not practicing, know that your competitors are. You can't let them catch up to you right? Set that practice schedule!"
The year has been mentally draining and you might feel too wiped out to practice. That's okay, but keep in mind that if you can push through the exhaustion and try again, it might be just the thing to lift your spirits.
"I can tell whether I've been practicing based on my mental disposition. Over time, we develop a symbiotic relationship with our instruments. It's an actual relationship. The sounds, the feel, the emotion, the release is all like having a friend," says Johnson.
"When you miss that friend you miss that friend. When I was in Law School, I thought I was going to be a lawyer for sure. But after six months away from my piano, I rushed back to it and started writing. That work became my first CD. Every time I play, it's a cathartic experience!"
Play for whatever audience you can find
"We have all adapted to using our home spaces as our work spaces - whether that is practicing or working via Zoom, we all have to be thoughtful and communicative about what we need to do our work, and how we can support our housemates with what they need. Try outlining specific times where you can practice that won’t interfere with housemates’ work and vice versa."
Maybe it doesn't make sense for you to livestream a show, but if you live with someone, consider treating them to a private performance. "If you are sharing a household with other people, perform for them and invite them to share in the success and progress you are making. Listening to someone practice is not the same as hearing someone perform, even if it is the same piece, and it can be easier for someone to understand why practicing is important if they see how powerful the results are."