Staying Excited About Learning By Being Flexible

It’s easy to get into a slump when trying to learn something or improve skill at something. I use a variety of tricks to stay excited and productive when that happens. I’ll use, as an example, a few details about my daily recorder practice, as it has unfolded this week so far. (In the future I’ll discuss how I apply similar tricks to other activities as well.)

The main key is flexibility. Here is how flexibility made this week pretty good for me, through combining each of these themes:

Monday: feedback

On Monday, I was in a competitive mood, wanting to continue to work on being able to play some exercises faster, and start new exercises, using the musician’s best friend. I spent all my time on technical exercises for soprano and alto recorders, monitoring how far I was able to kick up the metronome from the previous day or days.

Feedback makes learning exciting because it always feels good to know that one has progressed, and to uncover areas of weakness to continue improving in the future.

Tuesday: novelty

On Tuesday, I was still in the mood to get faster, and did so again with the metronome. But I started feeling bored. So I sight read brand new exercises for soprano and alto, not caring how slow or botched up my play was going to be. There’s no shame in screwing things up the first time. After all, failing only means that there is a new opportunity for success in the future!

Wednesday: resting

On Wednesday, I was feeling tired. So guess what? I made it a no metronome practice. No taskmaster watching over me. No endless scales and intervals. Instead, I got out a bunch of light music and just played through it for fun. For that purpose, I use this nice site of transcriptions for recorder. My focus was on being relaxed, playing my alto with nice tone and phrasing, and plain enjoyment. No speed contests.

I deserve a rest day now and then!

Thursday: trust

On Thursday, I started my day feeling rather crappy. I hadn’t slept well because of the news the previous night of Steve Jobs’ death. I really did not feel like practicing at all.

But I knew that I should, so I did a short practice in which I took out my soprano, played over some easy pieces, trying to enjoy them, and starting to sight read a piece for alto. I tried the metronome but it was telling me I wasn’t doing so well, so I put it away.

I didn’t make any breakthroughs, but I put in the time, and trusted that I would get over my energy slump. It is vital to trust that one will get over periods of low energy and low performance.

Friday: variety

On Friday, I was very eager to return to my brand new bass recorder. I had temporarily put it aside for a while out of frustration with getting used to holding the instrument, feeling and blowing into it differently, reading bass clef, and remembering to use some mandatory different fingerings (versus alto).

Sure enough, as I returned to the bass, I was much better than I had been the last time I had practiced it. (Yes, my friend the metronome was back!)

For me, there are two big benefits of incorporating variety into learning. One is that boredom is terrible and reduces learning, and so it is worth switching context and moving off one of my instruments to another if I start feeling bored with one. The second is that learning takes time to consolidate in the brain: I felt saturated with the bass recorder earlier in the week and realized that I needed to wait to be ready to do more with the instrument. So actually, the tools of resting and variety go together quite well, enabling a kind of “concurrency” of learning.

I admit there is always the risk of falling into ineffective multitasking, but I try to avoid that by not context-switching too quickly. For example, I did a lot of work on soprano and alto before switching to bass this week, and once on bass stayed on bass for the whole day’s session.


By varying my practice, based on how I feel, but within certain boundaries that I set for myself, I feel that I am improving my playing of recorders pretty effectively.

Questions for you

What other techniques do you use to stay motivated and effective in your learning?

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