1. Disconnect. Power down your computer–or if you absolutely need the thing for some reason related to your practice and studies, sever it from the internet by disabling wireless.
2. Banish Television. According to Nielsen, the average American watches thirty-four hours of television per week. Thirty-four hours of television! That’s five hours a day. You know how much time world-class violinists spend practicing each week? About twenty-eight hours a week, or four hours per day. I suggest thinking of television in terms of what skills you choose to miss out on in exchange for a 22-minute show.
3. Set a timer. Every day, set a timer for 5-10 minutes. Within that time, work on a particularly mundane task related to your instrument or music theory. This is perfect for memorizing dry material inside and out over a long period of time, in small daily installments.
4. Control the urge to noodle. This one’s for guitarists: lay the guitar down on your lap to avoid the temptation to noodle while you’re supposed to be learning technical things like chord forms, scale fingerings, music theory, or the note names on the fretboard. Thanks, Ted Greene, for this awesome tip. Even just a few minutes with your guitar in your lap can be surprisingly productive, if you repeat it daily.
5. Shut off your cell phone. Practicing music and writing songs is difficult enough; you don’t need the added distraction of incoming texts from National Geographic’s Twitter account. Unless you’re writing about giraffes or the indigenous peoples of New Guinea, but otherwise, your practice time is sacred. Kill your phone.
6. Take Your Song to Lunch. Seal off your office during your break or during lunch so that you can work on some music. If you work a conservative day job, just imagine how cool this’ll make you look around the office: guitar on one knee, tie roguishly thrown over one shoulder — or dumping guitar picks out of your purse.
7. Mind the Big Picture. If you’re out there churning out cover songs night after night, you’re not working on the original contributions that could actually form your legacy. Professional musicians in particular tend to get tangled up in giving lessons, managing their social media accounts, performing, and so on, at the cost of their creative output. Block off some time to push at the edge of your abilities and take creative risks — it’s the only way to avoid stagnancy.
8. Set a Clear Purpose. Before you pick up your instrument, take a moment to decide what you’ll be practicing. Fix it clearly and firmly in your mind–an easy way to do this is to write down what you’re about to do. Then get to it! Stick to your plan and don’t allow yourself to wander.
9. Take Breaks. Each of us has a limited attention span that can be lengthened over time–but meanwhile, when you start to feel fidgety, restless, and distracted, take a ten-minute break and then come back to the task refreshed.
10. Set a timer again for 15, 30, 60, or 90 minutes… however much you can stand. During that time, chip away at the tiny corners of a big, intimidating project. Don’t think about how much or how little progress you make. The goal is not to finish anything in that block of time, or to achieve perfect results—just spend the time focusing on it.
11. Want the Worm? Try waking up just ten minutes earlier to warm-up or practice before breakfast. Even ten minutes is enough to awaken your lyric writing, music composing, or performing instincts. You’d be surprised how even a brief warm-up in the morning can leave you thinking about art all day long. Pat Pattison, Berklee professor (and Gillian Welch’s lyric writing teacher) recommends writing first thing every morning in his excellent book, Writing Better Lyrics. I agree.
12. Redecorate. Try making musical instruments, music books, and recordings focal in your home. This is sometimes a process of cleaning up all the other clutter and sometimes a process of putting your instruments, books, or notebooks where they’re easiest to grab and easiest to use. If you’re trying to kick a television habit, might I suggest putting your remotes in inconvenient places? Make your instrument easier to access than the tempting distractions.
13. Reclaim Your Loose Change. Our lives are pecked away one dime at a time: long checkout lines, waiting rooms, commercial breaks, rambling and unclear public speakers. To counter this, carry a tiny notebook full of little factoids, scales, chords, etc. that you need to memorize. Whenever you’ve got a spare moment—in line at the store, etc.–pull out the notebook. Memorize concepts. Visualize certain scales and chords as though you had your instrument under your fingers.
14. Take yourself to obedience school. Give yourself a treat every time you complete a task or goal. The road to advanced jazz harmony is paved with honey-roasted peanuts.
15. To be Continued. Don’t stand up from any practice session until you’ve jotted down some notes on what you’d like to do and learn next, what you need to work on, any questions you’d like to investigate, etc. Take a moment to reflect, review, and apply what you’d learned. Give yourself a clear place to begin during your next session.
16. Make Yourself Want it. Write inspiring quotes from musicians you admire on your walls. Post them above the shower. Listen to favorite recordings and see yourself on stage performing them in front of lovestruck groupies. Play air guitar (even if you play real guitar). Imagine how amazing it will feel to be able to fluidly and easily execute the level of technique and artistry that you desire. Make yourself want it.
17. Consolidate and Review. Put everything you need for practice and creative work together in one place. Songwriters: pick up every scribbled idea and loose line, gather them all together in one box, and glue or copy them into a specific notebook or computer file. You can’t build on an idea if you’ve forgotten it exists, and if you suddenly get an idea for developing one of those little seedlings, you’ll want to be able to find the original before the spark burns out. I also did something similar with my recording setup: gathering all the cables and equipment together on one table significantly boosted my recording time. Make it as easy as possible to make music.
18. Earbuds. Fill up your iPod or similar device with inspiring music, interviews of musicians, and music podcasts to listen to while you shop, mow the lawn, shower… etc. I’ve done some of my best listening while raking leaves up here in Maine.
19. Ditch Eeyore. Hang out with other creative types and positive people.
20. Envision groupies. I hope you don’t think I’m rude for bringing this up twice now, but I’ve seen it inspire lots of my guitar students. Imagine how cool you’ll look rocking out in front of all those cute boys or girls. If you’re a more subtle, sensitive performer, imagine the starry-eyed admirers who’ll ask you to write your number in their copy of Anne Sexton’s complete works (that’s never happened to me either, but hey, we can dream).
21. Geek Out with New Tools and Toys. Buy a new piece of gear or a book about your chosen craft. Even just tuning up the piano or slapping a new set of strings on the ol’ guitar can be enough to pick you up.
22. Slow Down. It’s ultimately faster to slow down and develop accuracy and knowledge before speed. There’s always the temptation to hurry on to advanced things, but don’t rush–make sure you understand each new concept or can play each new musical phrase cleanly and in tempo before moving on. In the long run, this streamlines your entire course of study.
23. Don’t Hide Behind Your Day Job. Yes, work’s tough. But it’s even tougher when you don’t look out for yourself. Practice whether you’re tired or not. Write lyrics whether you want to or not. Think long-term.
24. Use Ben Franklin’s method for tracking adherence to desired habits.
25. Find a practice buddy. Hang out frequently with musicians and other creative types—we tend to absorb the traits of the people we spend time around. Share what you learn with one another, offer each other critiques, and the whole group will be better for it.
26. Create a Points System. 5 points for a new chord form! 10 points for a new scale! 5 points for an idea for a song title! 10 points for a verse written! Set yourself a particular number of points that you must fulfill every day. Having a menu of choices will help you sustain some momentum while giving you freedom to pick and choose what you feel like doing on any given day. This is great for inspiring healthy competition against your own high scores.
27. Reverse Psychology. Set a strict time limit on practicing (see #26, immediately above). You are not allowed to rack up any more any more than 30 points’ worth of music every day. Nope, not even 31. No more than 30 allowed. If you’re weird and contrary like me, you’ll soon start bargaining with yourself: “Well, that song idea isn’t that great. Really it was just worth 3 points, not 5…humph.” Or you could take suggestion #3—setting a timer—and tell yourself that you have only that much time to spend on music today, not a second more.
28. Quit Hitting Yourself. Fellow music teachers have given me funny looks for this one, but I stand by it: do not guilt yourself if you skip a session, and do not make yourself do double duty next time—instead, just consciously choose not to practice today. Look your piano right in the… keys (or look your guitar right in the soundhole) and choose to do something else instead. And if you do have to fulfill obligations or do something fun instead, feel good about it. If you torture yourself about lack of self-discipline, you’ll come to associate music-making with guilt and feelings of inadequacy. What good will that do? This goes for my students as well: when you don’t practice between lessons, I’ll always be able to teach you something cool or interesting regardless. Guilt will do you no good–just troubleshoot instead and plan ways to “trick” yourself into practicing (there are a good number of suggestions for doing that in this post.)
29. Integrate Tiny Practice Windows Into Your Existing Schedule. Chip away at a few things while dinner’s cooking every night. Leave time for songwriting right after every workout. Sit down in your pajamas with your instrument every night right before bed. If you embed a practice habit into an existing habit, you may find that practice is easier to maintain.
30. Keep Out. Post a skull and crossbones symbol on the door to a quiet room, lock the door, and make sure everybody else who lives in your home understands exactly what you mean when you hang that sign. Warning: Cranky Musician Inside.
31. Books, Videos, Lectures, and CDs. Fill up your shelves with media related to your art. Bookmark or subscribe to helpful websites (cough cough).
32. Rig the Game. Here’s a particularly evil, self-flagellating, and ridiculously elaborate tip: to enhance your points system (see #26 above), give your favorite tasks odd numbers of points that won’t quite add up neatly in the daily sum. When you’ve set yourself a goal of fifty points per day, and on Wednesday night you end up with 47, the desire for a nice even number might compel you to do something extra that puts you well over your daily benchmark. Yeah, ok, I’m reaching here, aren’t I? Bear with me. The article’s almost over.
33. Set Shorter-Term Goals and Deadlines. Focus on a small win: brainstorm ten song ideas. Rough out an early draft of a song. Once that’s done, enjoy the rush — and write yourself a reminder to make another small win tomorrow.
One Last Thing
One more tip: music is a long-term game, so be kind to yourself. It’s tempting to run intense marathon practice sessions, but this is an endurance race, not a sprint. Start with manageable amounts of practice every day and work your way up slowly as your attention span lengthens.
Think tortoise, not hare.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article, will you sign up to receive email updates via the sign-up box below? Because I’ve got lots more to say about songwriting, and I’d love to have you as a reader.
Clock photo by Dave Stokes