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Road Blocks to Regular Practice

Perhaps I should be writing this blog post about road blocks to writing blog posts. :)

Yes, indeed -- it's been two years since I've written a blog post on my website. I always seemed to find something more important to do. But asking myself to articulate some of the thoughts I have while teaching, practicing, rehearsing, and performing is an important part of my process -- and I might as well share that with anyone interested in reading. So, writing this blog post IS the important thing I have to do right now.

My practicing cycles -- since the time I was a teenager -- have always swung between intensely concentrated (frequent and long) and non-existent. Not only has it been a challenge to find a regular time to practice throughout the various stages of my life, it has also been a challenge to find the desire to practice regularly. I'm sure if I had desired daily practice I could have "found" the time to do so.

So, what held me back? What continues to hold me back? What holds you back? I can only speak to my own experience, but perhaps many of you can relate to at least one of the road blocks I discuss below.

1) Perfectionistic Avoidance

You don't have to be a "Type A Perfectionist" to bump up against this road block now and again. In fact, sometimes another name for this affliction is "laziness."

For me (a self-defined "recovering perfectionist"), I fight this battle every day. I want to avoid the reality of *not* sounding good sometimes. I don't want to deal with the flaws in my preparation, physical playing, in-shapeness, mental focus, sound, or ability. I want to ignore the reality of the hard, constant work that it takes to not only maintain playing a musical instrument but also excel and progress at doing it.

This gives me a very convenient "out" when things don't go well -- what I call the "if only" disillusionment. This train of thought lets me off the hook for ignoring the real work I can and need to do.

"If only I'd had more time..."

"If only I'd been able to listen to a recording..."

"If only there had been another rehearsal..."

"If only I'd gotten the music sooner..."

This mental game is avoidance of reality. It feeds my laziness. It places the blame on external forces rather than recognizing my responsibility. It focuses on the negative rather than the positive -- the time I didn't have rather than the time I did, for example.

You might experience it on a lesser level or just in a different way -- perhaps defeatist thoughts like "Well, it will never be perfect anyway, so I can take a day off," pop into your head now and then and let you off the hook.

However it manifests for you, avoidance is a poison to our positive habit-building. The mantra that has become my antidote for this poison is simple (not always easy!):

"Baby steps. Do what you can."

Those two little sentences erase the need for today's practice to solve ALL my problems and learn ALL my music to the HIGHEST level. I just have to pick up my horn, take a baby step, and I do what I can today.

2) Lack of Time

I have a long to-do list, just like you. It contains big things, of course, but what really fills it up are the little things -- the every-day things that eat away at little bits of time until the whole day seems to have disappeared. If I don't think about my day ahead of time and prioritize my list, practicing will usually fall to the bottom. And keep in mind, horn is my job!

For me, it's not really a lack of time. It's a matter of prioritizing my time differently. Do I need to watch another episode of the show I'm bingeing? Could I do some of my other work more efficiently? Could I ask for help with some things so they don't take so long? When I ask myself these questions, the answers are always very clear.

When I prioritize my list for each day, I have to include playing my horn in the top five things of the day or it doesn't get done. And then I have to schedule the time -- if I leave the time ambiguous, it's usually 10:00 pm before I think of it again. The best way to "find" time is to plan time. Make a schedule and you'll notice you can magically fit in your practicing!

Like any other good habit, you have to push through the first couple of weeks in order to get in the routine. Once you've done it every day for a while, you won't have to think about it as much to fit it in -- you may even miss it!

3) I Don't Know What to Practice

This is a common one from my students, but it still pops up for me, too. Even though I have TONS of stuff to practice, I don't always know where to begin or how to go about it. It's common to waffle between bored and overwhelmed.

The solution I give my students is the same one I follow: follow a formula that provides structure but can be flexible. Split your practice time into thirds:

First Section -- Warm-Up

Having a solid warm-up and maintenance routine doesn't mean you have to do the same things every single day. But having some continuity from day to day does help us to hear/feel our progress; it can also help us identity any weaknesses we need to focus on that day. I suggest having certain things you are sure to do every day and then have a few things that you rotate each day so you don't get bored and "tune out" during your warm-up.

Second Section -- Work Out

This part of practice can be the the mental and physical heavy-lifting portion -- tackle the new stuff, difficult stuff, stuff you would rather avoid. Set a timer if it helps, but dive in and do it. "Baby steps," is a good motto for this section, too. You don't have to do everything today, but you have to do something.

Third Section -- Refresh and Relax

This is the portion of my practice where I review what I've worked on previously (so I can refresh my memory). I do as much as I need to depending on my playing load that week. And then I cool down, just as I warmed up.

We can all be very creative in the ways we avoid practicing. If we turn even a little bit of that creativity toward making sure we DO practice, we can almost always be successful. Go get it!

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