Five Tips for Establishing a Daily Practice Habit

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is “practice every day”, here are a few tips I’ve discovered while establishing and maintaining my own (mostly) daily accordion practice habit:


#1: Define “Practice”

What counts as practice? What’s the least thing you could do that would justify checking the box next to “I practiced today”? Does playing a gig or teaching a lesson count?

It’s up to you, but I recommend going as basic and simple as possible. I’m talking absurdly basic. Author Stephen Guise calls these mini habits–habits that are “too small to fail”.

I decided to make the rule that, as long as I played a single scale on the accordion, I could “count” it. On those days when I’m not really motivated and would rather do something (anything!) else, I still force myself to at least play that scale.

And you know what? Nine times out of ten I’ll finish and think “well okay, maybe a quick tune.” Next thing you know, it turns into a full-blown practice-fest! But even when it doesn’t, that measly scale is still better than nothing. As Daniel Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent (which I highly recommend), even short sessions can be useful:

“With deep practice, small daily practice ‘snacks’ are more effective than once-a-week practice binges. The reason has to do with the way our brains grow—incrementally, a little each day, even as we sleep. Daily practice, even for five minutes, nourishes this process, while more occasional practice forces your brain to play catch-up.”

 


#2 Define “Daily”

Look, life happens. You gotta give yourself an out now an then. Put some wiggle room in the rules. (After all, even the Guinness Book of World Records lets you take a bathroom break now and then.)

I went with what I call the “three-hour rule”. If I’m home and awake for at least three hours, then that’s a practice day. If I’m away from home on vacation, or if it’s one of those crazy days where I’m out the door in the morning and not back until very late that night, then practice is “optional, but encouraged.”

You might want to also give yourself a few “whoops!” passes in advance for those times when you might just plain forget. And you should definitely give yourself a break if you’re nursing an injury (better to take a week off now than a year off later). The important thing is to not let accidentally ruining a “perfect” streak discourage you from completing a “nearly perfect, but still extremely helpful” streak.


#3 Keep Track

“I think the soundest management advice I’ve
heard is the old saw: ‘What gets measured gets done.’”

– Tom Peters

I’m a big fan of keeping a practice journal of some type, which not only keeps track of the days you practice but also allows you to record helpful notes about what you practiced, what you need to work on next time, broader goals, etc.

If it’s a paper journal, it has the added benefit of giving you a physical representation of your progress as you make your way through the pages (and, eventually, through more notebooks). You can also put it on your pillow, where it will keep you from going to bed without remembering to practice!


#4 Remove Barriers

The process of starting a practice session should have as little “in the way” as possible. Leave the music stand out with a chair in front of it if you can. Keep your instrument nearby, maybe even out of its case. Have your other tools-of-the-trade (metronome, pencil, tuner, etc.) at the ready.

The fewer steps you have to take to start playing, the more likely it is that you’ll do so.


#5 Be Grateful

How awesome is it that you can play a musical instrument? I don’t care if you’re a rank beginner or if you’re Joshua Bell. The fact that music even exists in the universe is a thing of wonder, and the ability to just conjure it up at will is pretty much a flat-out miracle.

A daily practice commitment is not a burden, even though it might feel like one now and then. It’s a choice to participate in something great, and we makers of music are fortunate to be able to make that choice.

So from this moment on, I want you to remove the phrase “I have to practice” from your vocabulary and replace it with “I get to practice.”

What Accordionists Can Learn From a Ballpark Organist

Why am I posting about a recent interview with Josh Kantor, the organ player for the Boston Red Sox, on an accordion blog?

Well for one, back in my music school days, the Red Sox and I were neighbors. My apartment was right next to Fenway Park, and on game nights you could open the windows to let in the sounds of that historic stadium:  The echo of the announcer, the cheering of the crowd, and yes, the music of that organ. So there’s a personal nostalgia factor here right off the bat (so to speak).

That row of brownstones in the foreground was once home to Chez Jeff. (Source: Melikamp/Wikicommons)

Somewhere in that row of brownstones in the foreground is my old apartment. Wonder if Carlos is still the Super there? (Photo Source: Melikamp, Wikimedia Commons)

Secondly, how can anyone not post about something baseball-related after that amazing World Series that wrapped up last night? (Go Cubbies!)

Third, it’s interesting to note how baseball organists face many of the same challenges we accordionists do as players of perhaps old-fashioned-seeming instruments in a modern world. Kantor’s solution? Honor the old, but mix in plenty of the new:

 I’ve done a lot of study and research about the history of ballpark organ music in Boston and in other cities. [I] have tried to borrow from and preserve the best and most beloved traditions of that, as well as updating it and having it evolve and be this thing that’s relevant in the modern age, whether it’s through playing newer songs or taking requests or whatever the thing is.

Then there’s this quote, which really jumped out at me:

I play pretty much entirely by memory and by ear. There was a time in my life as a child when I was pretty good at reading sheet music, but I just haven’t kept up with it, and those skills have kind of deteriorated. But I have a lot of ear training, so I’m usually able to hear a song and play it back, which is just something that comes from a lot of practice.

Yet more proof that having a “good ear” isn’t something you either have or don’t have. It’s not a magical gift. It’s a skill, like any other, and can be developed and improved by anyone willing to put in the work. (And it’s very useful for the working musician!)

Anyway, the whole interview is a great read. Check it out!

Why We Call Notating Music “Engraving”

Whenever I need to whip up a musical example to use in one of my accordion student’s lessons, or a string arrangement for my wife’s quartet, or the free accordion music I post here now and then, I sit down at the computer and knock it out using notation software. I started out with Finale, then switched to Sibelius, and eventually became a huge fan of MuseScore, which has been my current go-to for the past several years.

MuseScoreScreenshotBut long ago, when I first learned to write notation back at Berklee, none of the above programs existed yet, so we did it by hand, with a pencil or pen, a straight-edge, and a pad of pre-lined notation paper.

I thought that was pretty old-school until I watched the video below. I always knew that notating music was sometimes called “engraving” (The notation options screen in Sibelius is called “engraving rules”, for example), but I never gave much thought as to how it got that name. Behold:

 

 

What Does an Accordion Cost?

If you’re interested in learning the accordion, one of the first questions you’re likely to have is “how much is an accordion anyway?”

Well… it depends.

Accordions come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, ages, conditions, and levels of quality, which leads to a pretty wide ranges of prices. That said, I’ve come up with a handy rule-of-thumb that will get you in the ballpark:

Jeff’s Law of Accordion Prices:  Take what you already know about cars and divide it by ten.

What’s a new car cost these days? Maybe $14,000 to $20,000 for a compact car or entry-level sedan? Something like $30,000 to $50,000 for the next step up? Over $100,000 for something really nice and luxurious?

Just divide those car prices by ten to get roughly-equivalent accordion prices. $1,400 to $2,000 will get you on the road with a decent, brand-new accordion from, say, Hohner’s “Bravo” line (the Hyundai Accents of the accordion world). A step up from that, such as a full-sized Weltmeister, will put you in the $3,000 to $4,000 range. The high-end brands such as Pigini, Borsini, Petosa, Beltuna, etc., will be over $5,000 new, and often even in the five-figures.

Caption

Buying a brand-new accordion priced under $400 would therefore be like buying a Yugo.

Okay, so how about a used accordion? The same ten-to-one ratio applies. Buying a $300-$500 used accordion is similar to buying a $3,000 to $5,000 used car. It’ll get you from point A to point B, but probably not in comfort or style. Still, it might not be a bad choice for a “new driver”, especially if you don’t mind the occasional repair bill.

That $100 squeezebox at the yard sale? Like a $1,000 used car, only mechanics should buy it. Expect major problems that will cost a lot to fix if you can’t do them yourself.

How to Promote the Accordion

It seems that the accordion has been making a “comeback” for the last 30 years, and yet never quite arriving. Whether this latest surge in visibility is the sign of a genuine upswing or just a passing hipster fad remains to be seen. Nonetheless, I feel that accordion players do have a bit of a duty to be ambassadors of the instrument and to do what we can to keep the accordion relevant.

Along those lines, Accordion Americana has a piece on Ten Things You Can Do to Promote the Accordion, which I encourage you to give a quick read. I don’t quite agree with every point (for example, the accordion industry actually did attempt to position the accordion as a “rock-and-roll” instrument back in the ’60s, to little avail), but the overall point is spot-on: “The accordion has to participate in current music to survive.”

Note that this doesn’t mean that we need to merely shoehorn the accordion into existing popular music. I suspect that, if the accordion ever does make a true comeback, it won’t be because of songs like Stereo Love. It will have to be something that incorporates the accordion as a necessary component from the start… perhaps a modernized revival of a traditional accordion-based style (Neo French Musette, anyone?), or maybe even an entirely new style of music entirely.

These are a Few of My Favorites Things

You might have noticed the appearance of a new “links” section on this website. I’ve finally collected in one place a list of the various things I wind up recommending to people from time-to-time.

I’ve included some of my preferred accordion music books, a short list of good accordion retailers and repair shops, CDs that are worth a listen, etc. There’s even the make and model of my favorite instrument of student torture (my metronome) for anyone who is curious. Check it out!

Bright Copper Kettle

With apologies to Julie Andrews, my list does not include any bright copper kettles. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Practice Tips from Itzhak Perlman

Do your musicianship a favor and take three minutes to hear what violin legend Itzak Perlman has to say about practicing:

“I always say ‘practice slowly,’ and the reason that I say ‘practice slowly’ is this: If you learn something slowly, you forget it slowly.”

I’m a big fan of slow practice too, and I’ll probably talk more about it in later posts. In the meantime, give it a shot the next time you hit a troublesome passage. The slower, the better. A metronome can help “rein you in” if you need it.

Learning from Andy Murray

If you don’t follow tennis, you might not know that, this past weekend, Andy Murray became the first British man in 77 years to win the Wimbledon championship.

Tennis Racket and Ball

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

He had tried to pull this off when he made it to the finals the year before. Then, as now, he had the talent. He had the strength. He had put in an enormous amount of work training with one of the best coaches in the sport. Just like this year, nearly the entire country was following the match on television. Crowds packed the pubs and gymnasiums of his hometown of Dunblane to hold viewing parties and cheer him on. Over three-quarters of a century of pent-up British hope sat on Andy Murray’s shoulders… hopes that were dashed when he lost in the fourth set.

So what changed? How was this year different? I suspect the key was Murray’s mental game. He was noticeably more calm and composed this time. Mistakes and annoyances during the match seemed to more easily roll right off of him. He somehow found a way to shrug off the unfathomable pressure.

Playing music is not much different from playing sports in this regard. You can practice the material. You can run your drills, etc. But even then, an untrained mind can sabotage your performance.

It’s worth reading some advice from Murray’s sports psychologist. One tip stands out as applying especially well to musicians:

An essential truth to performing well: You won’t play at your best when you are focused on outcomes. “Focus instead on the specific task at hand [...] When your mind starts tracking/wanting to know how the match is going to turn out, you have stopped PLAYING THE MATCH.”

Similarly, musicians can guard against pressure by focusing on their task at hand when performing. When your mind starts worrying about outcomes–whether you’ll pass the jury, or whether the club owner likes you enough to hire you again, or if anyone will remember that note you flubbed four measures ago–then you have stopped playing music.

Are You a Frog in a Pot?

There’s an oft-repeated story–I’m sure you’ve heard it–about how, if you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump right out. But if you put it in pleasantly warm water and very slowly increase the temperature, it will allow itself to be boiled to death without so much as a “ribbit” of protest.

frog_cropped

“I’m not sure I like the direction this blog post is heading…” [Photo credit: James Lee]


This is most likely not literally true. But that’s okay. We’re more interested in the metaphorical truth of the story:  It’s difficult to notice change when it’s gradual and slow.

As musicians, we especially have to be on alert for this condition because it can hit us in two directions. The first direction is like our poor frog friend–we don’t see things deteriorating until it’s too late. Maybe it’s our playing skills that we let get a bit more rusty each year. Or maybe it’s the business/networking side of things.

But as students of music (and we’re always students, ideally) it can go the other direction too. We often don’t notice ourselves getting better. Improvement happens notoriously slowly in music, and it doesn’t call attention to itself nearly as loudly as our inevitable mistakes and backwards steps.

So what can we do about it?

Here are two ideas. First, record yourself frequently. Not only does this help you improve faster in the first place, it also serves as an audio record of where you used to be. I cringe with embarrassment when I hear stuff I recorded years ago. That’s a good thing, because it tells me that I’m better than I was.

Second, revisit old material from time to time. If you’re an accordionist, dig out that old copy of Palmer-Hughes book 1 and play “Vegetables on Parade” again. Or if you’re a Suzuki-trained violinist, you might run through “The Two Grenadiers” for old times’ sake. You get the idea.

Remember how you used to bang your head against the wall over these? Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Maybe you’re getting better after all.