How to Stay Motivated at the Piano (When the Going Gets Tough)
I wanted to do a simple sit-down video today while my laptop is at the shop. What I want to talk about is the issue of motivation – namely, how to stay motivated at the piano when you aren’t feeling it.
The video and blog post cover much of the same content, so feel free to either read or watch as is your preferred method. 🙂
Motivated at the Piano
We all know the simple story of motivation – one week you’re all fired up and no force on earth can pull you away from what you’re doing, and the next week you can barely slog through it (or abandon it entirely). This is normal, we all go through it.
To stay motivated on a consistent basis, you need to give yourself consistent fuel. Any time my own motivation starts to lag, I do a bit of an evaluation on my habits, and I usually find I’m missing one of the pieces of the puzzle, which we’ll talk about below.
Motivation sometimes pops up all on its own, but generally needs coaxing and fuel to keep momentum. Here are some ideas on doing that.
What inspires you?
If you want to be constantly motivated to sit on that piano bench and work hard and become awesome, you need to be constantly inspired to sit there in the first place.
I’m inspired to play music by many things. One of them is probably pretty obvious, but worth saying: Listening to music. There are a few key albums that always fuel me up and leave me eager to get playing. These albums and musical inspirations are different for everyone, so it’s worth taking note of those truly amazing albums that you completely love. That way, if you’re in a slump, you can pull out the album or whatever it is, and remember why you love music in the first place.
Sometimes listening to a radio station is enough to fire me up. I hear a really awesome song, and suddenly I want to run over to the piano and play awesome songs.
But for musical motivation, I think it’s completely essential to listen to music on the regular, in whatever format you prefer. If you’re learning music, you have to immerse yourself in music to feed the fire.
Keep things light
Staying motivated at the piano means having fun while you’re there. If you hate doing something, it doesn’t matter how much inspiration you find – you still won’t want to do it. And if practicing is dull and painful and you hate doing it, then you have to adjust it to feel fun and rewarding.
Yes, practicing piano is hard work. It’s a lot like exercising. You have to find a way to do it that you enjoy, or else it’ll never stick. For example, I absolutely hate jogging and lifting weights, but I love yoga. Sometimes the last thing I want to do is hop on my yoga mat, but I’m always glad I did once I do it. Practicing piano can sometimes feel like that – you’re not always going to be happy-dancing to the bench, but once you get going, it should be enjoyable.
One thing that I like to do, both for myself and my students, is do practicing games. You keep track of how many minutes you practice, and then when you hit a certain point, you get a prize. I tend to switch up what the game is (right now it’s climbing a mountain), but the concept is always the same. I love treating myself!
Who is/was your favorite teacher?
Whether or not you currently have a piano teacher, I want you to think about this. Who was your favorite teacher in school/piano/martial arts/etc.? Why were they your favorite?
When you’re practicing by yourself, I want you to remember the qualities of your favorite teacher, and be that teacher to yourself. Sometimes we can get really hard on ourselves – we make a mistake and get mad at ourselves, and we’re strict and joyless. Well at least that happens to me sometimes at the piano bench.
But your favorite teacher probably wasn’t overly critical, judgmental or negative. Your favorite teacher probably held you to high standards, sure, but probably also gave you plenty of encouragement and praise for your successes. Be that to yourself. Note your accomplishments and remember that failure is a part of any learning process, and needs to be taken with a light-hearted, adventurous attitude.
Why are you learning piano?
Everyone’s answer to this question is different, but think about yours. Why are you bothering to practice? What’s your intent?
It could be for the intrinsic personal benefits – learning piano is great for the mind, body and soul. Or maybe you’ve always loved singing, and want to learn how to play piano while you sing. Maybe you want to be able to have jam sessions with your musical friends, or join a band. Whatever your main goals are, keep them in mind. You can even write it out and put it somewhere you’ll see it often, like a practice notebook or a cork board by your piano.
When you get caught up in day-to-day life, it’s easy to prioritize other things over practicing piano. And if you don’t have a clear reason for practicing in the first place, then it’s even easier. Get clear on your goals and keep them in your head.
Look at Your Progress
Sometimes when I’m feeling glum about not being able to master a tough Bach song (or whatever it may be), I can get in this negative mind-trap where I think about all these amazing piano masters who can play the song so much better than I can, and how I’ll never be at their level. Comparing yourself to others can be really destructive. It’s one thing to listen to Liszt’s Etudes by Lang Lang and enjoy them, but it’s another thing entirely to berate myself for not being able to play at his level.
So instead of looking forward at how far you have to go, I think sometimes it’s nice to take a peek back at how far you’ve come.
In my studio, I like doing this with my students in June. We take stock of how many pieces they’ve learned, and other various milestones from the year like finishing books, memorizing a dozen songs and so forth. It can also be fun to go back and play a song you learned a year ago that was tough at the time, but is much simpler now.
Credit your accomplishments. Even if you feel like your progress is slow, if you look back 3 months, 6 month, a year, you’ll probably see impressive progress.
Build Daily Routines
Going back to the exercising example, sometimes staying motivated at the piano is simply building it into a habit. If I don’t exercise at least every weekday, I lose steam and fall of the bandwagon completely. It’s an all-or-nothing thing for me. I can’t just do it a few times a week, I need to do it every day.
Beyond that, I need to exercise at the same general time each day (late morning). I do the same thing with piano. If you aren’t practicing daily at more or less the same time each day, you’re working against yourself. Building specific habits make it much easier to maintain a steady stream of motivation. Without habits, getting yourself to do something challenging (like play piano) can feel like swimming upstream, and on days when you’re not feeling too strong, you’ll probably abandon it entirely.
But habits allow you to run on auto-pilot. If it’s a built-in part of your day, you don’t need a lot of momentum to practice. You just do it.
Say you bought yourself a new piano book, and you’ve been working through it for a few months. But you completely hate the music – maybe it’s way too tough, maybe you’re just not feeling it. But since you bought the book, you want to get your money’s worth and force yourself through the material.
I know there’s value in the whole “finish what you start” thing, but sometimes it’s not worth it. If working through a certain book or piece is killing your motivation, abandon it and start anew.
When I’m teaching piano, my students don’t master every song. They master their favorites. Sometimes we’ll stumble across some music they truly dislike, and working on the piece feels like hitting your head on a wall (for student and teacher). These songs generally don’t become very good. The student generally has to work on them twice as long, and they don’t enjoy the process nearly as much.
Why force yourself to learn music you hate? Yes, there is a such thing as musical broccoli – music that is maybe hard for some to swallow at first, but makes you feel great once you digest it. I’m not saying avoid all challenges and learn Beyonce all day, and abandoning Bach forever. I’m saying that it’s not worth it to cling to songs you hate. Put them away. Pick up something new. Have fun at the piano.
Take a Break
If all else has failed in your quest to stay motivated at the piano, you can always try stepping away from it entirely for a time. It’s okay. You’re not going to unlearn everything.
Whether it’s a week or a month, you’ll know when it’s time to get back on the piano because – you guessed it – your motivation will start returning. You’ll hear a neat song and be reminded that it’s actually pretty fun to make music. Stepping away from the piano for a while helps re-cultivate that love of music, because you’re not forcing yourself to do it. You’re allowing yourself an opportunity to rediscover it.
Hope you found this video and blog post useful today! If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to the PianoTV YouTube channel, as well as this blog, to stay up to date.