In this opinion piece, bassoonist Brittany McCorriston discusses the importance of finding a consistent practice space, some of the barriers students face, and how teachers can help.
As a student, I can come up with probably a hundred different reasons for why I don’t practice like I should. When I became a private teacher, the tradition continued with students finding new and creative ways to explain their lack of practice.
We can sometimes associate students not practicing to being lazy or unmotivated. Seeing each new reason for not practicing as just another student who may have other priorities or doesn’t care about music. Sometimes, even taking it personally.
But what if we considered an alternative narrative.
What if, instead of looking at the motivation to practice as a product of a person’s personality, we consider the possibility that this motivation is in fact impacted by their environment.
Reflect for a moment.
When you go to practice, what is going on in the physical space around you?
Some questions to ask are:
- Do you always practice in the same room?
- What is in the room with you?
- Does it ever change?
We all can come up with reasons as to why we are motivated or unmotivated to complete a task. Think of our level of motivation as a sliding scale, where furthest right is completing a task and furthest left is not even attempting. If we start at neutral, we may slide one way or another depending on the task and the steps involved with completing it.
We all have a list of things we know we should be doing for ourselves but don’t. You know, those tiny things that would probably improve our quality of life in the long-term, but we’re also resistant to change. Things like flossing regularly, getting enough sleep, or taking notes in class.
When I think about what stops me from doing these things, what moves me further left on our scale. The majority of the time it comes down to one thing, convenience. Sure, eating at regular intervals is a great idea in theory, putting it into practice is a whole other story.
When we think about the convenience factor of a single practice session we might consider things like, how long it takes to set-up the instrument, or for a reed to be soaked. When I think about the convenience factor across multiple practice sessions, we can think of it more like, how easy is it to pick up on the material we left off on and how much skill have we retained from the last time we played.
The more skill we feel we have retained, and the more progress we make towards our overall goal of gaining proficiency will move us up on our motivation scale. However there are two things in our environment that will move us backwards.
- If our physical environment is negatively affecting proper technique
- When it takes too much time and effort to correct things in our environment
This is where the idea of having a consistent practice space comes into play.
A lot of teachers are quick to talk about the importance of consistency when practicing. Making sure that we always have a tuner, we have a warm-up routine, we practice with a metronome. However, when was the last time you thought about the room you were practicing in?
It may not seem like a big thing at first, who cares if my feet can’t touch the floor, or I can’t get the right height of my music stand, how and what I practice matters more right?
Well, let’s look a closer look.
Case Study: Alex
Alex plays oboe in their high-school band. Alex tries to practice at home, however they share a room with their sibling, and they are not allowed to practice when someone is watching TV or working in the home office.
Alex loves playing the oboe, they are motivated to get better at the instrument. Because it’s often difficult at home to practice, they take initiative and try to practice at school instead. However, when practicing at school they face a whole new set of challenges.
They can only practice at certain times, because a teacher needs to unlock the room. There’s limited space, so other students are practicing at the same time in close proximity. So close that their tuner doesn’t pick up sound properly, and they can barely hear the metronome. There’s also a 50/50 chance that the room they’re in doesn’t have a proper chair or sturdy music stand.
They face barriers both leading up to playing their instrument and while playing due to factors in their environment they can’t control. Over time, this causes Alex to start sliding back on the motivation scale. Alex has the initiative, however due to their age many things are still out of their control. So what if we looked at someone a bit older?
Case Study: Philip
Philip is in his first year at university studying bassoon performance. Philip lives on-campus, but his building has a no-practicing policy. The closest practice rooms are a 10min walk away, spread out in different buildings, and are on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Each time Philip wants to practice he must plan ahead. He has a jam-packed day so he brings everything he needs to practice, attend classes, eat lunch, and later attend rehearsal.
Once he completes the hike to the practice rooms, the scavenger hunt begins….
Remember, all the rooms are first-come-first-serve and there are 3-4 buildings that have various amounts of practice rooms in them. Philip had class in the morning, it’s mid-afternoon so every room is full. The hunt is on as he moves between the buildings, waits outside of various rooms hoping that someone will leave and he can claim a spot. In his process he’ll come across students camped outside of rooms patiently waiting, rooms with paper pasted over the windows (one can only guess what’s going on in there), students who practice with the lights turned off (to this day I still don’t understand why this is a thing), and rooms filled with personal items of which their owners have temporarily phase shifted into an invisible dimension.
*Tip for anyone who’s experienced this, most classes don’t end on the hour but at the :50 minute mark. If it’s midday and everywhere is full, you are more likely to find a spot between :40-:10 as people will be packing up and moving to their next class.
Once he gets into a room he will face similar barriers that Alex experienced, with additional unknowns around the quality of music stand and seating available. NOTE: Seating for bassoonists in particular, can significantly impact execution of proper form and technique.
One situation unique to Philip also is that since he’s in post-secondary, it is likely that he is learning how to make and adjust reeds. If he is scraping or breaking in new reeds, the room may not be fully equipped to do this. If there’s only a music stand and chair, there’s very limited space for tools, it’s also likely there will be inadequate lighting, and he may or may not have brought all the tools he needed (tip cutter, fresh sandpaper, dial indicator).
Between both of these examples it’s also important to note that each time the person goes to practice, their environment will not remain consistent. Overtime, the small challenges each student has to overcome begin to accumulate together and begins to negatively affect their motivation to practice.
Case Study: The Outside World
If you haven’t been able to relate personally to the first two examples, let’s try a third…
Let’s say you want to write yourself a note to pick up milk on the way home from work. To write this note you’re going to need to spend time searching for a pen and a piece of paper.
As you’re writing, the pen dies.
What now? Do you shake the pen and try again, or spend time looking for a new one. When you can’t find anything else you decide to etch the message into the paper without ink. Now that you finally have this message, how easy is it to read? Given that the message is half written, how likely are you to be able to recall what your message is trying to convey after a long 8 hour shift?
In this example the person tried to make do with whatever means they could. As musicians, when we don’t have the right equipment, we’ll often sacrifice proper playing technique for the sake of practicing.
When the person goes back to read the message, they’ll be focused on what the message says. It might take a little longer to decipher but it does come across. When we look at practice sessions as cumulative, the learning of a musical passage is the same as deciphering the message. There is progress towards a goal however, we can’t fully ignore the bad writing technique and extra time it took to get this message across.
We do not have the mental capacity to be selective in what experiences we choose to carry with us. This is where having a consistent and well set-up practice space is key because without such, the quality of our practice is impacted.
And what about motivation?
Well let’s say that a couple days later you’re running out of eggs. Once again you write yourself a note. You’ve learned from your last mistake. You’re going to try and change the circumstances to the best of your ability and grab a pencil. The writing experience with a pencil always changes as the graphite gets worn away. When the pencil breaks you can sharpen it, but eventually it becomes too short to use.
Now what do you do, is it worth it to start over and find another one? If you don’t write the note at all can you go another day without eggs?
Just like how Alex took initiative and tried practicing at school, here we tried a different writing device. Both examples got us a little closer to our goals, but we experienced a brand new set of problems along the way. A pencil will get dull, there’s no way to change that, just how many students are not in control of their living environment. Post secondary students often face frequent changes to their living arrangements, they may move at the end of semesters, they may spend the holidays at home, do an internship in another city, change roommates, and class schedules.
We all have a different tolerance for adapting to change. For many, whether we’re aware of it or not, constant change impacts our drive and motivation. And soon enough we begin to assume our inability to meet standards (set by ourselves or others) is from our own ability rather than the environment.
We go from wanting to practice because we love what we do, to only practicing for rehearsals, to only practicing the night before concerts, before we even realize what’s really happening.
Our voice of reason turns to emotion. “The only chair in the room had arm rests so I couldn’t sit properly and the music stand was broken and couldn’t adjust to my height.” to, “Maybe I’m not cut out for this.”
It’s a dangerous slippery slope that can be made worse by our internal judgements and the perceived judgements of others. This process all too often occurs in our subconscious minds. But awareness is power and not everything needs to be completely out of our control.
If you’re a student, who struggles with finding motivation to practice or worry that you aren’t making progress on your instrument, know that you are not alone and remind yourself that you are worthy of getting joy from playing an instrument. Be curious about your practicing environment. Is it consistent, why, or why not? If it isn’t, do what you can to make it more consistent but also know that some things will be out of your control.
*For me personally, this meant knowing which rooms had the space and equipment I needed to be successful and waking up early in the morning to be the first one there. However this may not be possible for you and that’s okay!
If you’re a teacher, who has students that aren’t practicing or aren’t progressing towards their goals, be curious and ask questions not just about how they are practicing, but also their environment. Understand that having a stable living situation, dedicated practice space, and consistent schedule, are luxuries not all students have. Take time with your students to explain not just how to practice but also what they need physically to do it effectively. If needed, brainstorm ways for them to achieve this.
If you work at a post-secondary institution, get acquainted with student practice spaces on your campus. Go at a non-busy time so as not to take it away from other students, and bring your repertoire. As you practice, observe the space. Does all the equipment work, is the room large enough, did you remember to bring everything you need? What if you walked down the hall or to the other building, would it be the same? If the situation isn’t ideal for you, ask yourself if it would be any less ideal for someone who may still be trying to get a handle on the mechanics of their instrument. If you find rooms that are more ideal, take note of them and share that information with your students, especially incoming freshmen.
Of course having a consistent practice space isn’t the key to becoming the principal oboist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra or the sole reason you can’t get that high D in the Rite of Spring, but it can certainly help you get there.
Use this article as an opportunity to observe and become curious about your surroundings. Not everything is always in our control. Sometimes we can seek the aid of others to help make change, while other times we must accept something as it is. Remember to have grace with yourself and adjust goals accordingly.
Use the following flow charts to evaluate your practice space.
If you’re someone who has a frequently changing practice space, use these charts to get an idea of what might be missing and possible solutions.
If you’re a teacher (especially post-secondary) use these charts to evaluate your own space and then a couple at your institution. How many extra levels in the chart did you need to go down compared to your regular space? What power do you have as a teacher (if any) to help accommodate students?