How To Turn Practicing Into A Habit – By Scott Bradlee

I’ve said it before – I was a terrible piano student when I was kid.  I wasn’t the best musician in my class, and I didn’t start studying music early in life, either.

It’s easy to attribute success to having “natural talent,” but that’s not really the case nine times out of ten.  Not that I don’t believe that such a thing exists –  I do, I just think it’s a bit overrated. If you want to get good enough at something to stand out from your peers, there are no shortcuts.  Whether it’s music, sports, public speaking, you name it…one way or another, you’re going to need to spend a lot of time practicing, so you might as well make peace with the idea.

(Sarah Reich performs an amazing tap dance medley.)

I find that the secret is to make practicing part of your day in such an unconscious way that you hardly have to think about it; it’s simply a habit.  Habits get a bad rap; we tend to think of things like biting our nails or smoking when we talk about them.  But really, a habit is defined (according my lazy Google search-based research) as “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”  Brushing your teeth is a habit (for most of us).  So is showing up to work on time.  Those are good habits.  Turning practice time into a habit, then, makes it an automatic part of your day and therefore more likely to get done consistently.

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(There’s a lot of good information on how habits are formed in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, which is probably where I stole this diagram from.)

Psychologically, I think the best way to think about practicing is just as a “thing you do” that defies logical explanation.  There shouldn’t be a goal or an endgame in mind; if you’re a trumpet player, you practice because you’re a trumpet player.  Accept that unquestionably, and be prepared to defend that idea.  Having the correct image of yourself is really key here; you have to think of yourself as the thing you want to be even before other people think of you that way.  You might have only taken one trumpet lesson and sound horrible, but you still must think of yourself as a “trumpet player” in order for the habit to stick.  “Fake it till you make it” is actually a valid strategy for most things in life. You are whatever you do repeatedly.  One day, you’ll wake up and realize you actually became the thing you were “pretending” to be all this time (and you might even get paid to do it).

For me, the bulk of my musical skill was developed from ages 12-15.  I lived and breathed jazz during those years, to the exclusion of everything else.  I didn’t have many friends, other than a couple other trouble makers that helped me pull pranks on my teachers to create a disruption in class (which was my other hobby…I grew up in a small town and had too much free time).  When school got out, I would go home and go right to the piano with a tape recorder, listening to old recordings and trying to mimic the sounds of the greats.  If someone asked me WHY I did it, I wouldn’t be able to answer.  It wasn’t my job, and I didn’t have a goal for it.  It was just a thing I did.

 

(My ragtime mashup of the “Tetris” theme and Avicii; piano course available here.)

Here’s the thing: if I had set goals for myself back then, I would have quickly gotten discouraged and quit.  Focusing on a goal instead of just incremental improvement usually leads to failure, because goals are overwhelming at first. By not having a goal, it took the pressure off and removed the possibility of failure.  I still practiced carefully and saw myself improving as a result, but it was a low stress environment and kind of fun.  It was just a thing I did.

If you can trick yourself into making practice something that you look forward to as a regular part of your day, there’s no limit to how far you can go.  We’re designed to look for patterns and learn things; there’s no way not to improve at something you practice carefully.  Even better- once you get over the initial hurdle of everything seeming really difficult, the improvements come faster, which in turn makes it even more enjoyable.

(Maiya Sykes turning Notorious B.I.G. into an Ella Fitzgerald-style vocalese.)

Looking at it now, most of the things that I do in my professional life today started out as habits.

I learned how to arrange pop music in older styles as a way to get a reaction from an audience.  I maxed out a credit card buying a bunch of mics and a computer in my early twenties so that I could learn to record my own music.  After my first video went viral, I delved into social media and marketing to better understand how I could distribute my music.  After forming Postmodern Jukebox, I learned how to identify and showcase amazing talent, put together a cast, and build a show.  When PMJ began touring worldwide, I learned how to think globally and turned my attention to building a movement that lasts.  Along the way, I became an arranger, a composer, an engineer, a producer, a talent scout, an entrepreneur, and a creative director.  I was never “qualified” to do any of those things.  But I did them, and pretty soon they, too, became things I did out of habit.  They’re just things I do.

There are 24 hours in each day.  Most of those hours aren’t really ours; they get used up by sleep, meals, work, family, etc.  But some of them are wide open.  Try picking up a habit or two, and see where it takes you.

 

(not the ‘habits’ I’m referring to, but still had to share this video featuring the amazing Haley Reinhart.)

-Scott

@scottbradlee


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  • Salomon Simon

    I love the voice of Haley and Christina Gatti. Scott you’re a genius!

  • Omar Coso

    And you also write short essays . Probably without noticing if you are qualified to do it. You just felt the need, the will, the chance to do it, to share your thoughts about how to build a learning process along time in life and you just did it nicely. I share your comments and feel represented by the concepts you convey in these lines. Cheers!

  • Solveig Westermoen

    Thanks for reminding me of the power of habits. Going to practice a bit now 😉

    • Rose31200

      Concerning habits. I found this tool that has help me improve my practices called MyTractice (www.mytractice,com) worth checking out.

  • Rose31200

    Great tap dance moves and Jazz. Men to I love it.

  • Brad Wylie

    one of my habits is enjoying your arrangements!

  • Isaac Melles

    We’ll said, Scott.

    Great words I will share with my 13yr old daughter.

  • Terry Lursen

    I have to tell you, Scott, that you guys have become not only a musical sensation, but an inspiration as well. I’m a little older than the most of you all and had given up on singing. I had a friend that got me back into it and within a year, I’ve noticed quite a difference vocally. My wife, who hardly ever had complimented me, told me yesterday…’Terry, you really sounded good today, what you did sounded great!’ My response, “I’ve been practicing more and more and listening to the PMJ girls, Morgan and Haley.’ “Oh,” she said. “Yes,” I said, “…their range, musicality, phrasing, dexterity have taught me to loosen up and it’s made my music more fun.” Thanks for the inspiration, for the musical excellence and for making music and life more fun.

  • “It was just a thing I did.” THISTHISTHIS

    In the past, I used panic goals to motivate my practice: I’d practice like crazy for an upcoming show, or to learn a skill that I felt like a fraud for not having. Then I’d do nothing for days (or months…) I turned around my practice when I started doing it not to chase a goal, but just because that’s what dancers do.

    These days, I start and end every session by looking myself in the eye in the mirror and saying “I’m here to practice, because I’m a dancer, and that’s what dancers do.” (It also took a LOT of observation and tweaking to build the habit, and then to protect that habit from all the distractions of daily life. But letting go of the carrot & stick and doing the work for its own sake was the most important part.)

  • Dona

    Practice certainly makes perfect, and turing it into routine is a great idea. I have/am trying this theory out right no. I love to sing and play guitar, and now my children are more independent I can do something for me. My free time is used for singing and now guitar lessons. I take every opportunity to play “out loud” and to listen to as many styles of music that i can. I am so looking forward to seeing your concert in Luxembourg! More inspirational music. X

  • Charles Miller – Cooper

    We have a Piano right in the middle of the house available for anyone to play anytime, at 48 and 2 years into learning to play I am still trying to form a habit, my 7 year old is getting there and will just go to it whenever she feels inclined (at least once a day) my 16 year old is well on the way to music being a habit and looking forward to seeing you again on tour. I find at my age, little and often is good and also learning things that I wish I could play 30 years ago.
    Hoping you do your improv mash up in Brighton this year as I have some good ones to call out.!!

  • This might be the best advice I’ve ever heard.
    I’ve been telling myself I’ll learn piano for over fifteen years; bought a keyboard and everything. I’m still not above a beginner’s level because every time I think about carving out time to practice, I think of all the other things I need to do, but hearing you talk about making it a habit that’s ‘just a thing I do’ suddenly shifts my focus on it. It’s not something I should carve time out for. It’s something I should just do. This could change my entire mindset toward piano practice!
    Reading this, I also realized I have been pushing myself toward an end goal -to play [current favorite song like a boss]- and the tedium of practice that *isn’t* playing [current favorite song] is boring and frustrating and I give up too often. But I love this idea not to set any end goals, just to practice, because I’m a piano player, and practicing is what I do. ^_^
    Thanks for sharing, Scott!