Rachel Weisz was quiet for a moment, taking in what I just said. After a pause, she breathed deeply and said, “Wow. That’s intense.”
As piano students at Juilliard, a friend and I had been asked to help Ms. Weisz prepare her for a role in the film Complete Unknown, in which she plays a former piano prodigy. What I had just said to her was this: “If you don’t practice one day, you don’t get that time back. It’s gone forever.” My friend Kristen added, “Every day, you’ll have a choice between practicing and everything else – going out, hanging out with friends. And sometimes it’s tough making the sacrifices so that you get your practicing done.”
Talking about our lives as musicians to an outsider, especially an outsider as gracious, thoughtful, and kind as Rachel (seriously folks, she’s the real deal – what a great person and artist), made me realize how hard it can be to sustain a daily habit. I used to be an outsider myself – I came to Juilliard to escape a corporate law job where I often worked all night and all weekend and all holidays. But those long hours were never of my own choosing. By contrast, students at Juilliard seemed hell-bent on practicing all the damn time, locking themselves in tiny windowless rooms all day. That level of daily dedication was overwhelming to me, and I thought I knew what it meant to work a lot!!
I was curious to learn how these young artists stayed so dedicated to their daily practice. After all, we’ve all experienced plenty of reasons not to stay on track! Maybe our schedules or plans change, or work or personal life gets out of hand, or our physical or mental energy levels just aren’t there. And then we feel discouraged or start to think of the habit as a chore, further ensuring that we won’t get to it.
I’ve totally been there. But you know what? This happens to EVERYONE, including musicians. It turns out that practicing every day for hours is just as hard as keeping up any other regular commitment, whether that’s learning a new skill, working out, cultivating a professional network, or anything else that will build your mind, body, and spirit.
How, then, do musicians do it? In my musical training, I’ve learned three very doable strategies to keep up my daily commitments, even when the going gets tough.
1. Reconnect with your motivations
This strategy is great when you just don’t have it in you to tackle your habit. Instead, why not use the time to connect to your key motivations for your goal? Think back to the WHY of your Quest, including the people, places and things that inspired you: is it to have more time for your family? To feel good about your body and have more energy? To pay down debt so that you finally feel financially free? Any activity that gets you reconnected to these motivations will likely fire you back up about getting there.
In my world, if I just don’t feel like sitting down at the piano bench, I’ll do something else to remind me how awesome it is to be a musician – I’ll sit down and listen to some recordings of the most electrifying playing I can find (unrelated to my repertoire!), or I’ll marvel at other forms of expression, such as dance or drama or literature, to remind myself how important art is to humanity. If your day is so frazzled that you can’t even get a clear picture of your key motivations, it might be helpful to meditate to recover a calm, connected, and clear state of mind. Doing any of these things is time just as well spent.
2. Remember that TODAY’S work is paying it forward to your TOMORROW self
Anyone who has done weight training knows this – your muscles won’t necessarily feel any different as you’re doing your reps, but they sure might the next day. Many habits which build cumulatively over the long-term are just like this – as you put in the work today, you’re building your tomorrow self. Learning a language, losing weight, starting a new business – these are all investments in your future self, and the tasks of today might not be the most fun. But once you see how the work you did yesterday paid off, it’s a little easier to keep yourself on task.
As a pianist, there’s a lot of nitty-gritty work at all stages of my preparation, whether it’s learning a slew of notes in a difficult contemporary score, refining tiny passages that just don’t sound the way I want yet, or practicing performing in front of as many people as possible to get every last kink out of a piece. On days when playing doesn’t necessarily feel the most “fun” but I really put my attention to the task at hand, I know that I’ll probably see the improvement tomorrow. It’s amazing – when I validate and celebrate yesterday’s hard work, it makes today’s easier to do.
I keep a tiny notebook as a practice log where I record eureka moments and any newfound principles I’ve picked up. Seeing my daily work as an incremental step towards my goals, rather than a chore, absolutely keeps me motivated. So, on days when you just can’t get to an hour-long habit session, why not take just 10 minutes to reflect on all the progress you have made?
3. Go crazy with intermediate goals
Many times a worthwhile goal can be too big and thus paralyzing, or too distant to spur action. Well-spaced intermediate milestones are great for keeping up your motivation. When a big performance is coming up, you’d better bet that I’ll be scheduling mini-performances all along the way, even if it’s playing for one person in a practice room or recording a piece on my phone to email to someone. This gives my daily practice more direction than just the end goal. As you may have noticed, these intermediate goals work best when you call on people to keep you accountable, whether it’s signing up for a 5k with a buddy before a longer race or promising a trusted friend a draft of the first few chapters of your book. Luckily, DIEMlife is set up so that you can keep track of all of these milestones. When in doubt, add more intermediate goals! They give you the chance to both reflect and celebrate how far you’ve already come.
Ultimately, it’s important to be proud of yourself for taking the long road, for tackling a Quest that requires such commitment. It’s not easy, but it surely doesn’t require superhuman powers. You can do it! And when you reach your goal, your tomorrow self will thank you.
Pianist Juliana Han is an adjunct professor at the Juilliard School and the co-founder of the Piedmont Chamber Music Festival. She chose a life in music in her thirties after prior careers in corporate law and business consulting. These days, she lives to share a passion for learning with others, including through her blog Jules of All Trades.