You can enjoy the process of learning music. You should, in fact!
Believing that enjoyment and achievement are mutually exclusive is holding you back from your true musical potential.
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If you’re like a lot of people you’ve inherited this idea from society that if we’re having fun then we’re not learning or achieving. That learning and being productive aren’t enjoyable, they’re hard work – and so if you’re enjoying yourself you must not be working hard enough.
This concept is outdated – and has been shown to be simply wrong. Scientists have found that the highest achievers in sports, science, music and more all aim for what’s called a “flow” state, where they’re operating at their peak – and they describe it as being a deeply enjoyable state to be in, where things are neither too frustrating or too easy, not too boring nor too overwhelming. It’s a pleasure.
If you’ve been struggling and striving in your musical life, and separating out “playing for fun” from “practicing hard” – I can identify. I grew up learning music in school, alongside lessons on maths, english, science, and so on. It gave me the sense that music was a thing to be studied and give the correct answers for in an exam. A big focus on instrument technique – zero emphasis on creativity and expression.
As a result, I always felt a bit guilty when I played just for fun! Does that sound familiar?
To me the two worlds were entirely separate. There was “learning” which was hard and boring, and there was “enjoying” where it felt a bit self-indulgent and like I should be getting on with some good hard studying instead.
It took me years to unlearn this nonsense. I’m hoping I can help you to escape that trap too.
Music is an art.
There is real value in a practical, careful, almost-scientific learning process. But if you stop and think about it: it’s insane to divorce that completely from enjoying, expressing, creating.
That worldview leads to music-playing robots, not musicians.
So enjoying and creating should never be seen as separate from learning.
But here’s the kicker: Making your music learning enjoyable can actually *accelerate* your progress!
It’s not a distraction, it’s a catalyst.
Let me explain why.
Have you ever felt your mind wander during a practice session? Minutes can pass on autopilot – and although it looks like practice, you’re actually not improving at all when this happens. Redesigning practice to be enjoyable keeps your brain alert and engaged throughout practice, meaning every minute is well spent.
When we asked world-famous author of the Pattern Play books Forrest Kinney about tapping into musicality here’s what he said:
“What I try to help others to do is just to play like a child. To forget all these adult concerns and get to that essence
and then the paradox is, when we do that, over time, we find that without any intention to be good, suddenly, we’re really sounding quite good.
That’s the paradox. Without trying to be impressive, we become impressive.
The core of it is, the connection with the sound, the responsiveness of the sound and the enjoyment of the sound just for the sake of making music.”
It also helps with motivation. That can be another big stumbling point for musicians, trying to keep consistent with practice or trying to stay enthusiastic about learning the things that take weeks or even months to master. When you make music practice enjoyable, that motivation is vastly easier to keep up, and you can actually find yourself looking forward to music practice – instead of dreading it.
Here’s how Brent Vaartstra from Learn Jazz Standards put it:
“If there’s one thing that’s going to help you get over those hurdles is by feeling energized by what you are learning.
That means that sometimes, it’s not learning the things that everybody is telling you to do. You don’t have to learn that scale or learn that particular piece.
Sometimes, those things while they’re all important, those things aren’t the things that are going to get you out of bed.
At the end of the day, we’re all playing the music because we love it, because it gives us joy and we have to remember that.”
So how can you make music learning enjoyable? Well, I can share a few specific examples – but if you take one thing away from this it should be the overall point: *allow* yourself to enjoy practice. Don’t see it as an arduous duty, a slog you have to get through so that one day you can enjoy music. Learning music *is* music, and you don’t need to wait to enjoy it. Let yourself be creative, explore, experiment, and play for the enjoyment of it.
Here are a few specific ideas for making music practice more enjoyable. Let’s take two activities which can often end up feeling dull and repetitive and sap your enthusiasm – and see how we can make them enjoyable *and* more effective practice at the same time.
First up: Scales! Essential for instrument technique but incredibly tedious if you always play them strictly and simply. Instead, here are two things to try:
1. Replace that metronome with a drum beat. Having a clear beat is great for improving your timing playing up and down the scale – and a metronome is the simplest, purest beat you can have. But it’s certainly not the only beat!
Look up some backing tracks on YouTube, find one in the key of the scale you’re playing, and let that be your beat instead. Even if you’re just playing up and down the same scale as before, it’s going to *feel* a lot more musical. And with a variety of backing tracks it can feel different each practice session and keep things interesting.
2. Practice other aspects of technique while practicing scales. You’re probably drilling scales to help you learn fingering and memorise the key signature and sequence of notes in each scale. But playing through that sequence of notes can be done in an infinite number of ways.
What are you doing with dynamics? Articulation? Can you swing the beat? What about moving through the notes in different patterns rather than strictly all-the-way-up followed by all-the-way-down? There are tons of ways to play the same notes in a variety of musical ways. Let your scales become music, not just notes.
Make it a game, a challenge to yourself to play it differently every time. As long as all the while you’re making sure you get the notes and fingering right, you’re still practicing scales throughout, but it’s going to be a whole lot more interesting and enjoyable this way.
Let’s move on to a second example: Memorising repertoire.
When we have a piece to memorise we tend to do it in a very dry, literal way. We study one bar or a short phrase, play it through, then try again without the sheet music or tab. Then proceed, bit-by-bit, and any time we can’t remember how it goes we return to the sheet music and remind ourselves.
Not very fun or interesting.
What about allowing yourself some creativity? What if when you forgot how it goes, instead of jumping back to “check the answer” you forced yourself to try to make it up? Stick with the notes in the key, and try improvising something. You might get it closer to the score than you expected – and if not you might come up with an alternative that you quite like!
Of course the goal is still to memorise the music as written, but exploring creatively in this way helps develop the connection between your instrument, your ears, and the notation. This is huge for musical memory, because you start to understand the way the music’s put together rather than relying on rote memorisation.
There’s a whole big, interesting topic to explore here, but for now just set yourself that challenge: if you forget it, you have to make it up instead. You’ll be amazed at how this transforms the previously-dull exercise of memorising a piece…
So those are a couple of ideas, just to illustrate the point: even the most mundane of music practice activities can be made interesting and enjoyable!
It just requires you to allow yourself to enjoy the process and add some fun and creativity in there. And hopefully you’re feeling more comfortable doing that now that you know this isn’t a distraction or a cop-out. In fact it can provide the fastest route to improvement as well.
Sometimes even if you want to it can be hard to think of fresh ways to make music practice more musical and enjoyable – so grab our free cheatsheet which provides you with over a dozen clever ideas to spice up your practice in a way that will enhance your results too. Just click the link or visit the shownotes at musicalitypodcast.com.