We are constantly being reminded of the importance of having “goals” in our lives in order to achieve certain things, from getting fit to winning a half-marathon or setting up a business. We believe that having goals motivates us to put in the training, go to the gym three times a week or practice regularly and efficiently. As musicians we are reminded of the benefits of “goal-oriented practice”, which is intended to enable us to achieve certain goals (passing a diploma, succeeding in an audition or competition).

There’s nothing wrong in having goals – they can provide a useful focus – but they can also create disappointment and unhappiness, especially if one does not always fulfil one’s goal. In addition, goals can be curiously anti-motivational. If all your endeavour is focussed on a single goal, what else is there to work for when that goal has been reached? This approach can create a “yo-yo effect” where you might go back and forth from working on a goal to not working on one, which makes it difficult to build upon your progress long-term.

If you are continually working towards a goal you are in effect saying “I am not good enough yet, but I will be when I reach the goal”. The problem with this attitude is that we tend to postpone happiness and fulfilment until we reach the goal. Thus, it puts a huge burden on us to succeed, which can create unnecessary stress. Instead, we should be kind to ourselves and enjoy the daily process: keep to a realistic daily practise schedule rather than stressing about that big, potentially life-changing goal.

In order to attain, or even aspire to a goal, we need to have a system, but how often do we actually consider the system by which we reach the goals?  For the sportsperson, for example, that system is training. Similarly, for the musician, the system is practising (and this includes not just time spent playing one’s instrument but also time spent studying the music away from it, including mental practice, memory work, reading, listening, thinking etc).

If we release ourselves from the need for immediate results, a systems-oriented approach will allow us to build progress day by day. This is similar to the “marginal gain learning” system, and it enables us to make long-term progress, which is far more valuable than short-term results.

There is nothing wrong with having goals. Goals are good for planning progress, but systems enable us to make progress. And when we know we are making noticeable progress, we feel motivated to continue.

The following systems are helpful in achieving sustained and long-term progress in one’s musical study:

  • Background research, reading, listening and study of the music away from the instrument
  • A detailed understanding of the structure and overall narrative of the piece
  • Regular critical self-evaluation and feedback
  • Really close and considered attention to the details of the score (dynamics, phrasing, articulation etc)
  • Trusting one’s own musical knowledge and judgement rather than received ideas about what the music should sound like

These are all skills which can be developed and finessed and which are not lost the moment one fails to achieve one’s goal. Rather, one continues to build on them, creating small but significant positive gains which go to create a significant whole.

6338027_84787dca81_bInspiration 

I’d love to say I was one of those people who could sit down and practise for hours on end. Sometimes simply getting behind the piano can seem like a lot of effort. Life has an amazing way of getting in the way!

So how do you keep inspired to keep practising and keep your bum on the piano stool? Here are a few tips to help you keep the music flowing.

  1. Go live! Nothing beats live music to give you the drive to practise more. A good performance is electrifying. You don’t have to spend a fortune travelling to the large concert halls all the time – why not check out what’s happening in your local area? Remember that a perfect performance is very rare, but it’s the essence of joy that you get from a live performance that you want to recreate when you play.
  2. Listen. If you’re working on the same piece for a long time (perhaps for an exam) try to find different recordings of it and see if you can spot the difference between performances. Altering the tempo, phrasing or interpretation by the smallest amount can turn a piece from a trudge into a joy.
  3. Try something new. I do have a slight music buying problem, but when I’m lacking the drive to focus on one piece I can guarantee a look through a new book will keep me glued to the piano.  Again, it doesn’t need to cost the earth, why not check your local charity shops? This is also a great sight-reading exercise that doesn’t feel like work.
  4. Play what you love. There’s no point tearing your hair out with pieces that you absolutely hate. I do give students pieces that I would describe as being ‘good for them’, and it is always great to challenge yourself, but if you can’t find something interesting or rewarding about the piece, or if you find you’re avoiding the piano completely because you hate it, then stop.
  5. Get a great teacher. No matter what level of playing you’re at, we could all do with a guiding hand from time to time. A good teacher is worth their weight in gold and a great teacher can make the world of difference. Tutors get you thinking about pieces in a different way and often offer suggestions for difficult pieces that you might not have thought about.
  6. Turn off your phone. Will something interesting happen in the next 30 minutes? Probably not. Will someone post a picture of their lunch? Probably.
  7. Go outside. A breath of fresh air is perfect for refreshing the mind and a change of scenery can be great to let your thoughts flow around any difficult music problems
  8. Put the music away. For me, inspiration to play often comes through noodling and trying out new things on the piano. Let your hands go for it and see what happens.

Rachael Forsyth

Born and raised in York, Rachael now works as a full time composer, music teacher and performer based in Hertford. Over the years she has written a broad range of pieces in a broad range of styles for ensembles of all shapes and sizes. As a tutor she loves to write works that are educational and challenging yet build up on the foundations of musical knowledge that most possess. Her works always encapsulate emotive figures and many piece contain visual elements during the performance as well.

The highlight of her career so far has been premièring a new work for solo saxophone on a tour around Italy and discussing her work as a female composer. Rachael’s style could be described as a fusion of musical genres. She brings together her musical passions for classical, jazz, ska and folk to create new music that is widely accessible as well as hauntingly beautiful.

Website: www.rachaelforsyth.co.uk

Twitter: @rachaelcomposes