Can You Help Me Fix a Habit
April 9, 2019 5:42 PM   Subscribe

So, this time last year, I was embarking on what would become a 9-month streak of practicing piano really consistently 6 days a week at a very low intensity of practice session length (~15 minutes). I was doing well at being consistent and sort of letting that be its own reward, but not making a lot of progress. There were some life changes, my income went up, I moved, and I got a teacher! And now that I have an external force of motivation, I... somehow cannot practice to save my life?

There are a variety of reasons why this is probably the case -- the life shakeups definitely interrupted the habit, and the new job is generally more energy-intensive and brain-draining. Hopefully not so much so that I have to give up the attempt to learn piano forever, but my relationship with it is definitely veering toward pathological aversion.

What really seemed to kick it off, though, was when a former teacher casually expressed disdain for the 15-minute practice habit and urged me to step it up to "30 minutes per day at least," a challenge which promptly backfired into my practice discipline self destructing under the idea that It Had Never Been Anywhere Near Enough.

So, here I am. I've tried a few things to get back into the habit, including chaining it together with an easier habit (reading a bit of a novel), and eliminating the set duration to my practice times, but that has recently deteriorated into not doing the easier habit either, and practicing roughly 5 minutes on the days I practice at all. I currently hate the idea of going anywhere near my keyboard and am in a state of weird tension and mild distress the entire time I'm playing it, regardless of the difficulty level. This even happens doing a C scale, for example. I'm a beginner and have never learned a complete song successfully (and keeping the ones I partially learned in my head and fingers takes, well, practice), so I don't have a comfortable repertoire of "fun songs" to fall back on.

Despite having a new teacher who hasn't done anything more practice-shamey than to inquire how practicing went before lessons begin, I seem subconsciously bent on self-sabotaging whatever task I'm assigned during a lesson, and so if I'm given something seemingly un-failably easy to do, I'll mysteriously miss 4 practice days that week so I've forgotten or never learned whatever bit of music I was supposed to be working on by the time the lesson rolls around.

It's super weird. Any suggestions for rebuilding a habit that has turned sour?
posted by space snail to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I would try to forget that other teacher. Not easy, I know, but when I was taking lessons for my instrument, my teacher never asked how long I practiced, and now that you mention it I think this is a good thing. Everybody's aware of how good you're getting, and if you want to pay $X/week to progress slowly then that's your prerogative.
posted by rhizome at 5:46 PM on April 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you like games, the app Yousician can be a fun way to practice because it gives you feedback on your timing and awards you with stars when you play correctly. The app has scales and basic songs.
posted by xo at 6:08 PM on April 9, 2019

Last year, my six year old was struggling a bit in piano, even though she loves it. We were having a hard time prioritizing practicing, which meant that whenever we got to the piano, it was always a fight. This school year, we started encouraging her to practice just a couple things every morning before school, when she's fresh. And I mean, sometimes this might be like three minutes at the piano total. Believe it or not, this gentle beginning really turned the experience around for us. For a couple months into the school year, we were still working off those conflict emotions we'd built up, but within the last few months even the hard parts have gotten easier. Now she's reliably practicing for ten minutes every weekday morning, and usually not wanting to stop when it's time for breakfast; and on weekends she'll go to the piano on her own whenever there's down time and run through her week's repertoire; and lessons have none of that annoying "I know I didn't practice enough but I'm tired of this piece and I'm frustrated so I'm going to clown and waste time" thing; and instead they're more likely to have "I know we only got through the first two phrases last week, but I was so excited I just couldn't stop and here's all the progress I made on my own."

I know six year olds and grownups aren't exactly the same, but ... sometimes we secretly are the same. Your feelings are valid and I get them and I also think you can turn them around. My recommendation: start with two small things every day, at a time when you're fresh. Don't ask more than that of yourself. Then see where you are in a few weeks.
posted by eirias at 6:17 PM on April 9, 2019 [13 favorites]

Deliberately do silly things with your practicing. Set a timer so that you have to stop after ten minutes. Learn pieces that you would be ashamed to have anyone hear you play. Play badly on purpose. Play at the wrong tempo on purpose. Get used to playing badly and non seriously. Play a really loud and angry piece and pretend you are playing it as an attack on the teacher who unintentionally discouraged you so badly. Do the exact opposite of what that teacher would recommend or approve of, deliberately, until you exorcise them.

Play easier pieces for fun, rather than trying to progress, now that you are brain dead from so much work. Right now you may need to practice for fluency and habit, rather than improvement. This is kind of like reading mass market romance novels at the end of a long day instead of something highbrow that actually requires some concentration.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:19 PM on April 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

Hokay so, there's a few basic data points that are missing from this question that will probably help guide further answers:
1. How long have you been playing the instrument/ where are you in ability?
2. How happy are you actually playing the things that you can play?
3. Can you sight read?

Regardless of those specific answers, practicing sucks, when you're not getting anything out of it, and the best answers, I hope, will be those that can navigate you off your specific plateau.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:20 PM on April 9, 2019

Practice discipline is a vexed topic. There’s a huge literature on how to do it or not do it, on what works, on what happens in the brain when we do it, of how different musical cultures think about it. It is reified, cathected, fetishized, mystified, and you are hardly the only musician to struggle with this.

Any practice is better than no practice, except when you need a break from practice, which many of us absolutely do from time to time. Disciplined, methodical practice and spontaneous jamming practice each have value, but without the former the latter will never get you very far. Thus how you practice matters as much as or more than how much you practice. Some kinds of skills benefit from micro-practice like you pursued before. A lot of repetition, over spaced out but frequent bursts, is absolutely the best way to refine fine motor skills and touch. Other kinds of practice require longer time frames and different modes of attention. You can do repetition drills while watching TV and that might even help make them unconsciously fluent. But you may need to be closely attending to how you layer dynamics over a complete movement or piece or song, with each repetition taking many minutes.

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan used to tell a story (often repeated by Pandit Ravi Shankar, also a student of Ustad Allauddin Khan, Ali Akbar’s father and a legendary pedagogue and sarodist/sitarist) about how his father would tie his hair to a tree branch when he practiced so that if he fell asleep his head would jerk up and he would wake up and complete his many hours for the day. Ali Akbar spoke of this with mixed emotions. On the other hand he was the most fearsome instrumental technician you will ever hear and I’ll turn down Yngve Malmsteen’s Marshall amplifier and tell him so.

David Sudnow has an interesting little book called “Ways of the Hand” that is a deep meditation on his learning to play jazz improvisation as a pianist — on how he learned and what his hands knew that his brain had to struggle to articulate. Many smart thoughts in there specific to piano practice although I’ve found it useful as a guitarist too.

I am five years deep deep into my own process of intense daily structured and rigorous practice after 20 years of not playing at all after abruptly leaving a professional career as a guitarist — it’s all so psychodynamic! I struggled with enormous self-doubt and shame at having let my high level skills deteriorate to barely competent playing. I decided to start over as if I was a beginner and practice at least an hour a day, systematically for most of that time — scales and exercises and repetition of carefully learned famous leads. Many days I go much longer, and those days I let myself freely improvise and jam too. But I take days off, and sometimes I travel and take a week off. And I always come back refreshed and eager to get back to it. I also find switching instruments (electric to acoustic, and for me some other instruments, and vocals) keeps it fresh. (I’ve made it back to a professional level too, so now I have lots of material I have to practice for a busy gig schedule.)

Practice is partly about opportunity too. Putting a keyboard everywhere you spend time can help.

But it’s mostly about making the time and overcoming inertia and procrastination and especially anxiety and (self-)criticism. A lot of that can be about will power, but it works better when it’s about desire (or fear works, short term, like having an audition in a week).

As with fitness, it’s cumulative. The habit sustains itself. If I don’t get my daily hour and I’m not on a break I get annoyed and try to claim it back in following days. You know that because you’ve already experienced that flow. So you may just need to power through and it will come back.

More power to you. It is the coolest feeling to master something through patient methodical daily incremental effort. Especially as you get older and lose other physical abilities it really feels amazing.
posted by spitbull at 6:22 PM on April 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

1. How long have you been playing the instrument/ where are you in ability?
About a year and a half, but I haven't made much progress during that time and have never learned a complete song that wasn't a single-page practice exercise. I've been able to play things that have involved both hands doing different rhythms, but I'm probably still solidly in whatever the very first grade of skill level is.

2. How happy are you actually playing the things that you can play?
See above. I don't really have a repertoire. At any given time, I generally have one piece I'm newly learning and intimidated by, and one piece I took so long trying to learn that I couldn't stand to play anymore and is rapidly fading from memory because I've moved on. I've been encouraged to try to maintain the old songs or practice multiple songs at once, but that's something that could only happen if I were practicing longer than 5 minutes. I tend to only have one thing going at a time.

3. Can you sight read?
I can read sheet music (almost fluently in treble clef and with much effort on bass clef) but I can't sight read in the sense of playing something straight off a page without long pauses. Maybe if it were incredibly simple and right hand only.
posted by space snail at 7:05 PM on April 9, 2019

You are doing great!

One way I approach habit change is I think about what I’m moving toward. What is it that makes this practice worthwhile To Me? For you it might be a desire for increased creativity, memory, or stamina. You might be longing to play a particular song or style of song. You might have a vision of yourself playing music to a specific person. Your ultimate end goal(s) may impact your tactics.

I suggest breaking the long term goal into component parts. Creativity? Sit down at the piano and make things up and see what you like. Memory? Well, start by committing a bar to memory and gradually work up to a line. It’s ok if you take years to get a line memorized. Stamina? There are piano exercises for that.

Getting your butt onto the bench is possibly easier when you can remind yourself why you’re going to the bench. Don’t think about what you should be doing. Think about what you want to be doing.

And keep track of your progress. Make a note after each session of what you worked on, how you felt, and what you noticed. Keys easier to reach? Faster reading? Fewer pauses? Sore butt? Impatient? Anxious? Resented the composer? Every month or so, flip through precious notes. Celebrate what you’ve accomplished.

You keep saying what you can do like it’s trivial, but I want to point out that you’ve attained a level of skill that is real. Be kind to yourself.

Also, feel free to bribe yourself.
posted by bilabial at 7:18 PM on April 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

After reading your update, I totally agree with forgetting the judgment about practice time. I went back to piano lessons as an adult, with my beloved childhood teacher, and I made slow progress playing stuff I liked, and that was enough. We talked more than we played during lessons, I got a lot out of it, and I was paying, and I wasn't working towards any particular goal (competitions, leveling up, whatever serious piano students do) so that was fine.

One awesome thing my piano teacher did for brand new students was to teach them pieces they could learn to play, but were nowhere near able to read. In my case as a kid it was Fur Elise, but for other students it was anything they were excited about playing - TV show theme songs, video game music, whatever. Could your teacher help you learn something that you love, that inspired you to want to play piano in the first place, that seems like it's outside your current ability but maybe really isn't? Playing what I like to hear was what made practice a joy for me.
posted by a moisturizing whip at 7:19 PM on April 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Set a goal that you can’t go near the piano for a week. Maybe more. Then the next week you can only practice one day. Even if you want to practice more, you only get one day. Now practice time is a scarce commodity. Keep it scarce for a while. Add a day or so every week or two. You could consider taking or not taking lessons during this time. It may not help completely, but it might shift your internal landscape of what it means to practice and why you’re doing it (spoiler: it’s not for that obnoxious teacher who should know better than to chide students for actually practicing - I mean, really).
posted by danceswithlight at 7:21 PM on April 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

It sounds like in addition to falling out of the habit, you're bored! Exercise pieces and scales wouldn't get me to the keyboard either. What kind of music do you want to be able to play? There are easy arrangements of fun songs, your teacher can help you find something that fits. What's your favorite musical? Do you sing at top volume anytime 'Let it Go' from Frozen plays? Well there's an easy arrangement for that! (This might not be the exact version to learn, my point is there's an easy version of your favorite song out there)

So then this week you learn some small (one measure is fine!) portion of the song, and practice the G major scale. Just that is enough, for your 5 minutes. Then you will be singing 'Let it Go' all day, bonus! And eventually you'll build some momentum and the habit will be back and 15 minutes is totally plenty if that's the place of learning you like and can maintain.
posted by lemonade at 7:39 PM on April 9, 2019

Also: start with the chorus or main theme... So you get to the fun part immediately.
posted by lemonade at 7:44 PM on April 9, 2019

Just to be clear, I'm currently working on (and having great difficulty getting myself to practice) popular "fun" music, not exercises! The exercise book was from when I was self-teaching--my teachers haven't been very interested in assigning from it.

I just mentioned the exercises to emphasize that I while I could finish the exercises, I haven't been able to learn any of the 'real' pieces to completion -- I tend to get overwhelmed after a couple of pages and "real" songs seem to be like 4-7 pages in length, even simple Disney stuff.
posted by space snail at 8:03 PM on April 9, 2019

What does "overwhelmed" mean here? There is a state of frustration I get sometimes when the thing. just. will. not. be. played. by. my. hands. It's actually a tingly extremities thing where coordination breaks down, kind of like "bonking" in endurance sports, after which I take some breaths and shake it off and change what I'm practicing for a while. Or end the practice session.

Do you use a metronome? It can be tedious, but practicing at half speed (or just slow in general) really, really works! There are two or three things happening, right? Reading the notes, hitting the right keys, and in the right time, twice over between two hands (and maybe a foot). As a drummer, I think of this kind of thing as "multidimensional coordination" and is not a natural thing for people to do! Instilling muscle memory is a physical thing, so unless you're already at that level of proficiency it'll feel like the other kind of exercise.
posted by rhizome at 9:10 PM on April 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Maybe you don’t really like playing the piano at all. Have you examined your motivation for doing it?
posted by spitbull at 3:06 AM on April 10, 2019

I understand the feeling of being overwhelmed. When a piece is 4-7 pages, I’m thinking OMG, how am I going to get through this? And somehow I do, just by starting in bite size pieces and going on to the next part and the next part until I’m done. I’m learning a two-page piece right now (which is deceptively harder than I thought) which I started learning last week. First I went through it, hands separately, to the point where I’m relatively comfortable with it. This doesn’t mean perfect. Then when I felt ready, I started putting the easier sections hands together until I felt comfortable with that. Parts of the piece are easier than others so when I go to the piano I start with those, they get a bit better each time, and then I start working on the harder parts. I’m basically just slowly chipping away at this piece. Also, the amount of time I practice varies – could be ½ hour, could be two hours depending on my energy level and other things I need to do that day. I guess I’m kind of anarchist with my practicing – I have no particular goal (other than to learn this piece by the end of the month, to play at my piano meetup group), no goal for that particular practice session; I don’t have a set time or day or amount of time I’ll practice. This is what works for me right now.

I read somewhere that you should try to master something in your piece within 20 mins. This could be a phrase, two phrases, a technically difficult section. If you don’t feel really comfortable with it in 20 mins, then you need to break down that section you initially chose even further.

Practicing piano can be really tedious and discouraging. I once spent an hour on one bar that had a fast complicated passage – starting really slow and upping the metronome by two each time until I got it. So don’t feel bad if you have to repeat two beats of a bar or something over and over again to really get it – because once you get that, then you can apply what you learned in that bar to the other parts of the piece and those parts get a little easier.

If you haven’t been able to learn a “real” piece to completion, you may need to start with something easier. There’s no shame in that. You can’t run before you walk. Also, I note that when you didn’t have a teacher, you practiced for 15 mins/day, 6 days/week for 9 months. Which is amazing! So now that you do have a teacher, and with all your life changes, you’re finding hard to get back into that groove – maybe you need to not have a teacher for awhile to find your groove again? Even if they’re not practice-shaming, them asking you “how did practice go?” might be annoying to you and causing you to self-sabotage. I’d suggest going back to your teacher when you have a question about something. Like, is what I’m doing here correct? Can you give me ideas for this? Etc.

Anyway, keep plugging away at your piano. You learn a lot about yourself through piano practice (I'm biased, as you can tell), and it can be really satisfying, like going for a hard run. At the end you can say, I did something for me, even if it's just mastering one bar.
posted by foxjacket at 8:00 AM on April 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think you should learn one of those pieces you've started all the way through. Pick the one you like best, get the teacher to help!

It's usually a matter of breaking it up into sub-parts ... each 7 page piece is 3x 2-1/3 pages so you learn three digestible songs then splice it together. The music often lends its-self to this, if it's musical or american songbook stuff there's verse-chorus-bridge; more classical pieces will have movements.

A clear goal and the completeness may help you out of this funk, and it sounds like you already have a start. What do people do with this instrument? They play songs, and here is one you know how to play!

I'd also do some kind of banishing ritual for that ex-teacher, every time you sit to practice now. Get out of my mind, practice-shaming wrong person! Rattles are good for this. This encouraging TED talk breaks down the benefits of small practice consistently!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 8:24 AM on April 10, 2019

The fact that you stuck with it for so long on your own is admirable, and speaks to your interest and dedication. And now you have a teacher! You’re doing great. You just need to change the music in front of you. When you say you have “exercises” do you mean tuneless straight-up exercises, or do you mean progressively harder mini-tunes, like 8 bars of Oh, Susanna or Simple Gifts? That’s what you need to be working on. The fact that you’re chipping away at something but making no satisfying progress means you’re working on something too hard. No wonder you have the practice blues – you’re sitting down and giving it your best but nothing is happening.

It’s ok to have a longer, harder repertoire piece, but you need to be making consistent progress on small things, too. This will not only A) teach you how to play the piano but B) give you a hit of “I did it!” on a regular basis. James Bastien The Older Beginner is the standard, but ask your teacher if they have a favorite.

It sounds like you want to play the piano before you know how to play the piano. “Real” music, even simplified arrangements of Disney tunes are HARD. I’d be studiously avoiding the piano, too, if I felt like it were a treadmill of going nowhere. Try to find fun and reward in achieving simpler things, and practicing will become easier.

(If you ever need encouragement, memail me. I just started my first "real" piece after over a year of very hard work with a teacher.)
posted by missmary6 at 12:23 PM on April 10, 2019

Additional thoughts on practice time -- 15 minutes of effective practice blows 30 minutes of noodling around out of the water. Also, why do you play? For fun? Then practice should be fun. If 30 minutes of practice is not fun, don't practice for 30 minutes. That teacher was talking in platitudes and did not have your needs in mind. Don't let them make you feel badly about YOUR hobby.
posted by missmary6 at 1:12 PM on April 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

When I was learning the piano, I was playing ‘real’ music of about a page or two in length for a long time. I think 4-7 pages is really daunting. Would something like this Rockschool G1 syllabus look approachable? There are some sample sheets and nothing is hugely long. It’s easier to find classical music that’s at the right level if that’s something you’d be interested in.
posted by plonkee at 2:27 AM on April 11, 2019

Wait. Are you just working on one piece at a time?

Maybe add a second piece so that when you’re bored or frustrated with one you can work on the other? Boredom and frustration are normal and natural parts of learning. They are not failings, but are developmentally appropriate. Sometimes the human brain needs time away from information in order to assimilate and contextualize that knowledge/skill.

So if it’s not an option to add a second ‘fun’ piece, explain to your instructor that you want exercises that are relevant to your long term goals.

And as mentioned above, figure out what those goals are.
posted by bilabial at 3:11 AM on April 11, 2019

Hi all! Thank you for the ideas!

I think the winning combination to get me back into practicing in the short term is going to be:
1) An app that reacts to what I'm playing and awards me with stars and magical noises for playing like I'm at a casino
2) The fact that the freemium version of the app cuts me off at 10 minutes, leaving me with only my IRL practice piece to play if I want to continue (I'm not actually going to cut myself off from piano, but this does pull in a similar reverse psychology element)
3) Pursuing shorter, easier pieces of music in general

Related to 3, does anyone know of a repository of popular music for purchase that's really well-categorized by difficulty level? I realized that my music school's strength is not in helping me find appropriate music to play, and that I've basically been pinging back and forth between inappropriately difficult arrangements I found on my own and dumbed-down versions provided by my teacher that are too boring to make myself practice (basically whole note chords), and ideally I could just go to a place and select something from a list of stuff reasonably close to my level.
posted by space snail at 3:39 PM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you've found a way forward but please can I give a shout out for a piano book - the Schaum Red Book (grade A). I'm a beginning piano player also and my husband (who plays piano at an advanced level) and my teacher both have pointed out that this book is really good at teaching you a series of pieces that build up your skills gradually. So by the time you've learned one piece the next one is just a little more of a stretch. That's the beauty of working through a book rather than a random collection of songs. The songs in the book are fun and catchy (well, most of them) although it's really for kids so of course a bit juvenile. There is a reason it's been a classic for so long- my own teacher started learning with this book over 50 years ago!
posted by hazyjane at 12:30 AM on April 12, 2019

does anyone know of a repository of popular music for purchase that's really well-categorized by difficulty level?

Do you have a decent library nearby? If so, please try BOTH of these suggestions:

* visit the branch with the largest collection of sheet music (it'll probably be the main branch, but occasionally library systems have their strongest collections of something at a local branch)
* do some searches in the online catalog for any artists or types of music you can think of that you like - maybe "easy piano 80s" or "easy piano jazz" or "easy piano Elton John"

Then, CHECK OUT ALL THE BOOKS. Any book of sheet music that looks remotely possibly fun and not completely overwhelming, take it home and see what you think.

I am probably a tiny bit more advanced than you - most of the pieces I can play through are literally a page long. I am always looking for more stuff to play.

I have recently tried "Hamilton - Easy Piano Selections" (actually, surprisingly, a little too easy for me - those whole-note chords you mentioned) and a Ben Folds Five book (too hard for me) and a collection of a bunch of different songs from musicals. To my utter surprise, the opening song from "The Last Five Years" (at least, in the arrangement in this particular book) is a good challenge for me. It's about 7 pages long, and I am working through it using some of the principles in Fundamentals of Piano Practice. I have been having the most success with identifying tiny little itty bitty pieces to practice. Like, there's a two-bar series of chords that's repeated a few times in the piece, and I kept having trouble with those, and finally I went, "Right - I'm just working on those two bars." (Well, actually, those two plus the bar before and the bar after, because it's good to have the connections.) And just working on those two bars for a few minutes one day, then for a minute or two another day, really makes a difference. And then there are larger chunks of the song that are actually not super hard, so I can make it through those more easily. So I've been working on it for a few weeks now, and I can play ... maybe 75% of it? But I can hear real progress, especially when I focus on a short section.

And I practice maybe once or twice a week. I enjoy practice a LOT and would like to do it more, but that's what I manage these days.

So try out a bunch of books and see if there's anything that you enjoy playing. The great thing about the library is: if you find a book that has ONE piece in it that you like, you get to play that piece as much as you like, and ignore the rest of the book. (Or maybe you'll luck out and find a book with several pieces you find fun, and then you can order a copy for yourself.)

Finally: I really like the suggestion by danceswithlight of forbidding yourself to touch the piano for a while - but if you get stuck again, and would like to try something different, maybe give yourself the following assignment: every day, you will play one chord. (Or even one note.) That's it. You can play more if you want to, but as long as you depress at least one key (or three keys) on the piano, once, you're done for the day.

I've often found that giving myself ridiculously, laughably easy goals sets me up for success, because it gets me over to the piano, but places no expectation on myself beyond that.

Good luck! And HAVE FUN!
posted by kristi at 6:31 PM on April 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

LIBRARIES HAVE SHEET MUSIC??? This is very valuable information.
posted by space snail at 4:09 PM on April 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

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