Beyond Goals: Why bother practicing piano?
It’s all well and good to be setting goals and making plans, like we talked about in the previous two videos. But what’s the point of it all? Why bother practicing piano?
In this video, we’re going to go on a journey. I’m going to share some stories from my life, and we’re going to talk about how to find what really motivates you to sit down at the piano every day.
Grab yourself some coffee or tea and make yourself comfortable, because this isn’t going to be a short video. I want to challenge you today. We’re going to get a little deep.
I don’t want this to be a one-sided conversation, either. Yes, I have the mike by default of being on video, but I want to know your side of things too. I highly encourage you to leave a comment with your own thoughts and experiences, and share this video with anyone who might be interested.
When plans fail
Sometimes, a little push of self-discipline and planning is allv I need to get on track. I already had the passion in place, the drive and enthusiasm, I just needed a specific goal – then I’m good to go.
And sometimes, all the best planning just ends up in the garbage. I’m unmotivated, so I plan, and then after a few days I’m unmotivated again and my goals are forgotten forever.
Then I’ll think that it’s a discipline issue. I’ll think things like,
“I’m just not working hard enough.”
“Sometimes I can be so lazy.”
“Maybe I need to set tougher goals.”
“Maybe I need to set easier goals.”
“I just don’t have enough time in my day.”
And the list goes on. The problem is, I’m asking all the wrong questions. If the nudges and pushes aren’t working, if the motivation is off on Mars, if piano practice is constantly getting put to the bottom of my priorities, then what?
Should I quit, since it feels like an uphill battle? Or should I persevere, and sweat my way up that hill?
To answer that, I want to talk about my story a little. I’ve actually done both. I’ve quit practicing piano for long stretches, and I’ve also forced myself to the grind even when I wasn’t “feeling it”. And I don’t think either one is the right answer.
This story is a little sprawling, but I promise it’ll all come back to the original question, which is, “Why bother practicing piano at all?”
Grade 9 exam
I decided to do my Grade 9 and Grade 10 RCM exams in adulthood. When I went for my Grade 9, I was living in Toronto and was disillusioned with life. I was working a job I didn’t like that didn’t pay well, and we were barely making ends meet. Eventually I had enough and quit. I was tired of life being such a drag.
That was one of the best decisions I ever made, even though I was jobless and moneyless. Things were rough for a while. But it was the push I needed to go be the captain of my own ship.
After quitting, I immediately went to work. I put up posters in my neighborhood for piano lessons, I attacked Craigslist and Kijiji, and got in with some of the other teachers in Toronto. In about six months, I went from 0 to a full schedule. I went from feeling like I had no control over my life and my schedule, to being completely in charge of it.
This wasn’t the first time I taught piano – I had done it for years previous as a full-time job. But I was an employee then, and didn’t want to be an employee forever.
So anyway, I’m teaching in Toronto. Toronto, like basically every big city, is a place where everyone is really good at things. Piano teachers there didn’t just have university degrees – They had Masters degrees, and ARCT credentials with the RCM, and probably performed with Cher or something.
So here I am, this twenty-something person with no degree at all, and just a grade 8 RCM certificate, trying to swim in the same pool as all these high-powered professionals. The only thing I had going for me was that I had experience teaching.
So that was the push to get my Grade 9. I did it quickly and easily. I had a blast with the history and harmony tests, and I got an 80-something mark on my playing exam, which was fantastic. After that, I did a pedagogy exam through the RCM, and it also went well.
Then it was time for Grade 10, and that’s where the problems began.
Grade 10 exam
See, at this point, I had a full teaching schedule. Despite my lack of ever having performed with Cher, people were hiring me, and keeping me around, too. I didn’t have fancy credentials, but I was working hard and trying my best. I still felt like a small fish compared to all the others, but hey, I was a successful small fish! And because of this success, I lost my motivation to keep going with my Grade 10 certificate.
Say you were going to college, and halfway through your degree, you were offered your dream job. But you were going to college in order to get that dream job. But now you’re half done – where’s the motivation to finish your degree? Why bother? You already have your dream job!
That’s where I was at. It’s not like I didn’t want to learn anymore, but doing exams had lost their main motivational fuel. I could never do another exam again and still probably be able to make a living doing the same thing forever.
But I started grade 10 anyway, because I had chosen that path, and wanted to stick to my guns.
Time passed, life changed. We moved to a small town in the prairies, nearer to our families and nearer to jobs (in Michael’s case, anyway). I started my own piano studio, which was an exciting step up to driving from people’s houses like I did in Toronto. And, like in Toronto, I had a full-ish schedule in about 6 months. I was doing well.
And I kept plugging away at that Grade 10. And it was going badly.
The harmony and history exams went great. It was the actual playing of the piano that was the problem. I hauled myself to the bench every day, often for 3 hours, and worked. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t the kind of hard work that also ends up being inspiring. It was just hard work. I dreaded it, but I “had to” do it.
My songs didn’t come together nicely. I had to push and push and push just to get them sounding adequate (at best). My grade 9 wasn’t like that at all – it was hard work, sure, but it didn’t feel so hard.
Throw into the mix all the mental commentary, stuff like, “Grade 10 is too hard for you and you suck at piano,” and “Why aren’t you better? What are you doing wrong? Work harder!”.
But I stuck with it, did my exam, got a pretty uninspiring mark (I did a whole video on my grade 10 exam), and then…quit. It was a relief to be done with it, after all the months of struggle.
I was still playing – I was a piano teacher, after all – but not for myself. I just played piano to the extent that it helped my students.
Hard questions, revisited
So let’s circle back around to that question from earlier:
Should I quit, since practicing feels like an uphill battle? Or should I persevere, and sweat my way up that hill?
I’ve done both, as per the story above, and here are my thoughts.
Clearly the grit-your-teeth-and-get-through-it approach is a poor one. It just leads to exhaustion and burn-out, and there’s no fun in it. It’s unsustainable.
And quitting isn’t much better. If you have no love for music or piano, fine, quitting might make sense. But I had been playing piano since I was six. I played in bands. I taught piano. It was a huge part of my life, so I obviously didn’t hate music. Quitting didn’t really make me feel any better. Sure, I wasn’t doing all that work, but it also created a gap in my life. It was like having a row with my best friend and not speaking to each other anymore.
So that brings us to the whole point of the video. Why bother practicing at all?
You could have amazing plans to practice that look objectively great, but looking deeper, what’s going to motivate you to go after those plans in the first place?
All of the greatest cars in the world won’t run if you don’t have a fuel source.
Why are you bothering to play piano? What is your fuel source?
why bother practicing piano
When I was working toward my grade 9, the thought of being my own boss and being in the same league as the other people in my field was a huge motivator. That was great fuel.
Doing my grade 10 just because I had a vague sense of feeling like I “should”, and that I needed to “finish what I started”, was terrible fuel.
The thing is, most people who learn how to play piano don’t have extrinsic motivators. Being my own boss was an extrinsic motivator, but most people play piano because of intrinsic reasons. “It makes me feel good”, or “it’s relaxing” or “It’s a way to express myself and my creativity”.
Well playing piano does all those things for me, but I still quit. And many times in my life I’ve set some piano goals, only to fail miserably at them – even though I enjoy playing.
Let’s use exercise as an example. Exercising is hard work, but it does feel good. Afterward, you’re all amped up and accomplished-feeling. And there are a ton of great reasons to exercise, too. We all know it’s good for us and our long-term health, both physical and mental.
But that’s not enough, is it? Sure, I know that exercise will make me feel great, but if I’m bingeing on Netflix on the couch, that feels pretty great too – and is way less work.
No, there needs to be a purpose behind it. Why exercise? To be healthy. Why be healthy? To live a long time. Why live a long time? So I can binge-watch more Netflix? Hmmm.
This is the direction your thoughts need to go. What’s the purpose behind your goal? Is there one?
Getting better is not the goal
Let’s go back to piano. Why practice piano? Well, because that’s how you get better at piano. But why bother getting better at piano?
So I can show off to my friends? So I can learn a really tough piece and declare, “I’ve made it as a musician!”?
I think the question “why bother getting better at piano” is a dead end. I mean, you probably don’t exercise just to get better at exercise, right?
Say Lord Voldemort wasn’t in a murdery mood, but he still wanted to curse you. He made it so you never improved at piano ever again. Whatever skill level you’re at, you’re stuck there forever. Would you still play?
I assume, for most of us, the answer would be yes. We aren’t playing piano just to get better, though that is often a happy consequence. You’re not really just playing so you can master that tough piece, are you?
A deeper goal
So let’s start again. Why bother practicing piano? Because it centers me and makes me feel good. Why does it center me and make me feel good?
I can’t tell you why you play piano, but I can tell you why I do. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, because I’ve been so fixated on goal setting and planning for the school year.
Here’s what I’ve come up with.
I play piano because it’s an act of service to my spirit.
It’s the same idea behind meditation, or prayer if you’re religious. It’s a way of creating a channel between you, and whatever your belief system says is on the other side – be it your higher self, God, the Source, the Flying Spaghetti monster, or whatever.
If that sounds really woo-woo to you, give me a chance to explain.
A good practice session leads to the experience of “flow”. Flow is a scientific concept (there are books and TED talks about it). It’s where time becomes meaningless, and you’re absorbed in one singular task. Another expression for flow is “being in the zone”. It’s a simultaneous feeling of calm, as well as energy and interest.
Experiencing flow is one of the greatest treats of all. There’s a deep satisfaction in losing yourself in a task, while also being really alert and aware within that task. And it’s not only creative activities that lead to flow – you can experience flow while you’re sweeping a floor, or having a great conversation, or anything.
From a rational perspective, playing music challenges many parts of your brain and requires very focused effort. That intense focus can lead to the experience of flow.
But flow isn’t just about working on a challenging and engaging task. It’s also about stepping through a door from the ordinary to the extraordinary. We’ve all experienced this magic in music – the feeling that there’s something beyond our everyday lives that we are accessing through music.
This is why I practice piano. It makes me feel like I’m a better human than I would be otherwise. It’s a way to connect with my best self, and that deep mysterious pool beyond myself. And this feeling, which is special and sacred, continues with me through my daily life, elevating it, and giving it more meaning.
I mean, not every practice session is going to feel like this profound experience. Anyone who has spent any time meditating, for example, will know that not every session leads to this deep communion with the divine. Not every jog around town leaves you pumped up and ready to accomplish everything.
It’s not necessarily the individual, daily experiences that change your life. It’s the practice. It’s the continued effort.
So that’s why I practice piano.
Why do you?