The Musician's Progress Activator

practicing Apr 24, 2017

I can do it. Ten more times. Get it right this time. Try it again. Last time. NOOOO!

Practicing is hard. Making progress is hard. Not seeing your progress is frustrating.

You’re an adult. You understand that the results from practice reveal themselves over time. But there is a point where we start to wonder how much time. No matter how grownup we are, it’s that classic kid question, “Are we there yet?”

On one hand, there are times when low stress, regular practice routines are just what we need to keep in shape, to stay connected to our instrument and to enjoy making music.

However, when you are ready to pick up the pace and make some strides forward, you have to commit to hours of grueling practice, gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, right? Wrong. Really wrong.

Progress is a result of the right kind of practice and the right practice goal. I have created a simple three-question system that will show you how to focus your efforts so you can get there faster. This system has worked for me and for my students, and it will work for you too. I call it the “Progress Activator.”

The Progress Activator
The Three Questions
Question 1: What’s under the mattress?

Remember the story of the princess and pea? Her problem wasn’t a lumpy mattress. It was a single pea under the mattress that made her so uncomfortable.

Many times we will define our problems in a “lumpy mattress” way, a general way. To fix a problem, or to take a piece of music to the next level, you need to laser-focus on the precise issue to fix or the exact task to achieve. Find the pea.

Question 2: What is the status quo?

Progress depends on breaking out of your routine, abandoning the status quo. But before you can make these changes, you need to be clear about what the status quo is.  In other words, define what hasn’t been working.

If you’re having difficulty, how have you been trying to fix the problem? If you want to move ahead, what will you have to do differently to attain the next level?

Question 3: What are three alternative strategies?

This is an opportunity for you to get creative with your practicing.  The 1980’s television series hero MacGyver became the epitome of truly amazing resourcefulness. Give MacGyver a piece of string, a belt buckle and some chewing gum and he could save the world. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration even for MacGyver, but that’s what you need to do now. You need to “MacGyver” three alternative practice strategies.

What could you do to escape the status quo and remove the pea under the mattress?

Enough with the imagery. Let’s look at an example of the Progress Activator in action.

Problem 1: Two measure stumbling block

What's under the mattress?

What is my precise stumbling block? In right hand or left hand? A Fingering? Rhythm? A coordination? Tempo? After some investigating, I decide that the real issue is putting the hands together.

What is the status quo?

My core practice method has been repetition, with a lot of hands separately work.

What are three alternative strategies?

I could try practicing it in rhythms, or adding in the other hand beat by beat, or practicing in in chunks.

Problem 2: Get a piece up to tempo

What's under the mattress?

What is my goal tempo and what is my current tempo? Which sections can I play at tempo now? What will be a challenge about playing this piece at tempo? I decide that I just feel stuck at a tempo that is too slow.

What is the status quo?

I have been mostly inching the metronome up a notch or two at a time, which hasn't been working.

What are three alternative strategies?

I could try pyramiding slow, medium and fast tempos, or playing hands separately at tempo, or playing along with a recording.

How can you use the Progress Activator system this week?


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