Everyone Gets Into a Slump
Having worked weekly with 15 – 30 musicians 45 weeks out of the year for over 20 years, I observe that almost everyone (including me) gets themselves into a slump. They just can’t get themselves to the piano or to the practice room. The honeymoon has worn off, and now they’re faced with deciding whether or not to continue the work. They still enjoy playing with other musicians, but working alone to “keep up the chops” has lost its luster. Now it’s just work.
I read in a book long ago about how every artist has a “ritual of preparation” that involves performing a few preparatory tasks that may or may not have anything to do with the work at hand.
It was helpful to determine what my rituals were so that when I found myself in a slump, I could return to the ritual and adjust a few things about the practice time to get me back in the woodshed. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to sing or play guitar anymore. It was just that I was having difficulty keeping it a priority on a regular basis.
Understanding my own ritual of preparation is an extremely helpful step.
The Most Difficult Season
I had rituals for myself as a child, as a teenager, and as a college student majoring in music, but the hardest season to develop a ritual and enforce a practice time to date was when I had three small children. But I did it!
This ritual involved the following steps:
- scheduling a few moments for myself every day (this tended to be in the mid-afternoons)
- reading the riot act to all three children
- completely clearing off the dining room table that was next to the piano
- completely tidying up my practice station (see the section called “Set Up a Dedicated Practice Area” in my post “Seven Ways to Motivate Your Children to Practice”.
- getting out my guitar along with its accompanying accessories
- turning on my computer and firing up iTunes
- turning on the drum machine
- sharpening pencils
- sharpening at least two pencils if they were even the slightest bit dull
- setting out:
- my binder full of charts
- sharp pencils
- lots of blank paper and staff paper
- grabbing a cold Dr. Pepper in the can from the fridge
It’s kind of a lot of stuff!
Over the Years I Made It Harder
Because the ritual was more fun and satisfying on a short term level than the actual practice session, I started adding things to the list. Well, certainly all my e-mail needed to be answered, my desk needed to be completely cleaned off, and the sheets on my bed needed to be laundered and put back on.
That’s when I knew I needed to find some new reasons to get back to the woodshed.
Streamline the Ritual
Now that I have my own fully-equipped 1800 square foot studio, you’d think it would be way easier. NOT! There are just many, many more things I put in front of the daily grind of practicing. I practically live inside my practice station now!
So now I combine my ritual of preparation for daily practice with my ritual of preparation for teaching because they are very similar.
- Sharpen all the pencils in the room (I mean, who could actually sing without having a sharp pencil handy, really?)
- Make sure my station and the student station has:
- a metronome
- two sharp pencils
- an iPad
- three kinds of paper: staff, blank, and lined
- a music stand
- microphone rig for singers (new plastic wrap on mic)
- Make sure my station has two main binders with my charts, student charts, and core curriculum
- Turn on the PA
- Do a complete vocal warm up
- Pour myself some kind of happy beverage depending on the time of day:
- Morning – gotta be coffee even though it’s not the greatest habit for a singer
- Afternoon – tea
- Evening – wine or a gin and tonic
The ritual can be much shorter because I’m working in it every day, but it can also be way longer for the same reason. If I don’t stay tidy along the way, tidying can take forever. And if I get stuck in tidying, then I know I need to deal with the work at hand and make it more motivating for me to get back to it.
Other Ways to Keep Motivation High
Other things that help me want to get to the practice session outside of the ritual of preparation:
- having at least one fresh feeling song to be working on at any given time
- having a new chart handy
- setting up rehearsals and recording sessions with other musicians
- finding ways to perform on a regular basis, no matter how small
Just Do the First Thing on Your List
Who knows why, but, for some reason, if I can just tear myself away from whatever I’m doing at the appointed time and make myself go sharpen the pencils, I can do the rest of it.
Figure Out What Your Bare Minimum Ritual Is
If you’ve never thought of your preparations as a ritual, it might be helpful to do so. It honors the whole process. If I do nothing else, I gotta sharpen pencils and get that happy beverage, and then I can sit down even if everything is a mess.
What Are Your Rituals?
Leave comments below to let us know what sort of habits are keeping you in a creative head space.
4 thoughts on “Rituals of Preparation”
Sandy has invited readers to comment about their own rituals, some set of activities you perform according to a set sequence – in my case before practicing piano. I’m a great believer in rituals. In fact, I’m almost obsessive about mine! I believe it comes from having ADHD. So here is my bare minimum ritual for practicing piano. It revolves around a weekly and daily tracking sheet I set up every week right after my lesson on Friday afternoon. I’d be lost without it and even though it ADDS a little extra work to practice, I also find it a great motivator. It gives me a simple routine to start practice very similar to the setting up and setting out steps Sandy outlined in her ritual.
After each weekly lesson, the first thing I do when I get home is set up my weekly tracking sheet for practices during the coming week. The sheet has columns with headings for each task Sandy has assigned in my planning sheet at the end of my weekly lesson, but I also add columns for other things I either want to accomplish that week or know that I need to do on a daily basis (e.g. Hanon, scales, and chords). And it includes one very special and important column – “repertoire”. That’s my great motivator. Wait. I’ll explain in a minute.
The sheet has a row for each day of the week. So, at the end of each week I have a grid record of exactly what I did in practice for every day. Before I start practicing, I look at my tracking sheet and write in my start time. I look over the columns (tasks) as if it was a road map for the day and figure out where the speed traps are and where there’s open road. I don’t practice tasks in the same order each day, but my routine is to generally to get through the speed traps first BEFORE I get to drive those open roads which, in my case are repertoire songs [there’s a column in the sheet for repertoire and each day I write in a code for any song I practiced]. Frankly, I don’t need much external motivation to practice repertoire songs. I mean, who does? We all want to play or sing songs, right? Especially that one fresh feeling song we’re working on at any given time. But I know I need to maintain my car before I can drive it. Once reviewed, I take my sheet and one of those freshly sharpened pencils we all need [because, like Sandy suggested, who can play piano without a freshly sharpened pencil?] over to my piano and set them down on a table next to the piano. I check off each task if and when it’s done. I actually check off the number of times I do some tasks. Man, when you see all those check marks it makes you feel great. Of course, a blank row in the sheet means a day you didn’t practice at all and that can leave you feeling guilty. (Well, OK, it leaves ME feeling guilty!) It’s not like I race through the speed traps to get to the open road, but I really look forward to completing the stuff I don’t want to do (like sight singing or melodic dictation!) so that I can practice repertoire songs.
At the end of each practice session, I write down the time I’ve spent practicing and that can also be a great motivator (um, or source of guilt as the case might be). Call me crazy, but I keep all my weekly tracking sheets so that I can always check when or how much I’ve practiced something. I guess that’s another ritual!
Thank you for this lengthy reply, Brian! Love the idea of speed traps. Keep up the good work!
Wonderful article. For myself, I am also working on end-of-practice ritual. I need to incorporate time for reviewing (and writing down) how the practice session went. Practice isn’t over until I have logged what I practiced, made notes about what went well and (more often) what didn’t. And I need to take the few minutes to get my practice space neat before officially declaring practice over. Nothing is more disheartening than going into practice only to be faced with disorganized piles of notes and music.
Hi Chuck! Thanks for the kind words and for the notes on your end-of-practice ritual. I hadn’t ever thought of that!