Get In the Zone

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
Get in the Zone

The Importance of “The Zone”

The traditional approach to practice (spend more time until you get better) has been blown out of the water by ideas of practicing deliberately, receiving continuous feedback, and maintaining focused concentration.

This state of focused concentration is commonly called “being in The Zone” and is officially known as “Flow” (a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi).

In the Zone, experiencing Flow, you lose all sense of time and become completely engaged with the task at hand.

There’s no doubt that The Zone helps musicians. Achieving a state of Flow speeds up the mastery process. It also helps you memorize more easily.

An additional bonus – and this is super important – is that Flow eliminates all the distracting thoughts you may be having when you practice.

You know those thoughts. They’re the non-musical worries that take your mind away from what you’re actually trying to accomplish musically.

Being in the Zone and achieving Flow sounds great and all, but this leads us to a big question:

“How can I get into The Zone in the first place?”

Timers: Tools for Achieving Flow

Today’s practice tip is about timers. Timers are not exciting, so bear with me as I explain how they can be a quick solution for getting in the Zone and achieving Flow.

I know you probably don’t associate timers with helping you make big leaps in your musical abilities or getting you in the Zone.

I also know that timers have gotten a bad reputation with musicians. You may have visions of parents putting a timer on top of a piano and telling their child to keep practicing until the timer goes off. You know, like it’s a punishment.

This technique is a sure way to take the joy out of playing music. However, timers can also be used in positive ways to help your focus and concentration.

Using a Timer to Give Yourself Dedicated Practice Time

One technique is to decide how long you want to practice and to set your timer when you start practicing. Unlike the parent scenario above, you are making your own decision to practice music. It’s not being forced on you, and this is a crucial difference.

Setting a timer for the full length of your practice session does wonders if you are very busy, easily distracted, addicted to checking email/texts, or just have trouble getting motivated. You can promise yourself that you won’t answer the phone, read a text message, or even look at a clock until the timer goes off. Your time, your energy, and your thoughts will be filled only with music!

Freeing your brain from non-music responsibilities puts you in the Zone. You allow yourself to dedicate a block of time to the music that is so important to you without feeling guilty about avoiding anything else in your life. This is an extremely powerful feeling!

Using a Timer to Get in the Zone Instantly

Even better than timing your entire practice session, you can use your timer to help develop the high level of focus needed to have major breakthroughs in your playing.

Here’s how this technique works:

Pick one item to work on. This could be a single scale or exercise, a very specific song section you’re learning, or something difficult you’ve been avoiding. The main thing is to choose just one item.

Then, set your timer for a very short time increment: 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes max. Your goal is simple: Work on that single item – and only that single item – while the timer is running.

Don’t worry about time. Don’t think about your overall progress. Don’t imagine your eventual performance of the whole song. Just focus all your energies on the task at hand. When the timer goes off, stop what you’re doing and go onto something else.

You can use this technique multiple times during a single practice session. Each time be sure to focus on just one item.

This use of a timer is actually profound. It has a paradoxical effect, allowing you to completely forget about how long something is taking you to practice. It will free you from the usual constraints of time and focus your brain on important details. And, it can get you in the Zone faster than any other technique.

Other Ways to Get in the Zone

These two timer techniques for getting in the Zone are surprising and simple. Give them a try, and please leave me a comment below to tell me how these strategies are working for you.

Do you have other strategies for getting in the Zone and experiencing Flow? If so, let me know. I’d love to hear from you.

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

Posted in Achieving Goals, Motivation, Music, Music Practice Tips | 1 Comment

Using Your Phone

Your Smartphone as Mastery Tool

Why Do We Call These Things “Phones” Anyway?

It’s funny that we continue to call smartphones “smartphones.” The original idea of a phone was a tool to make voice calls to someone else so you could hold a conversation without being in the same room with the other person.

These tools we carry in our pockets aren’t just smarter versions of phones. They’re more like digital Swiss army knives – with more functions than we can even count.

Using Your “Phone” to Master Skills

I like to think of my smartphone as a digital mastery tool. It helps me learn new skills and teach skills to others. It aids my memory. Sometimes (maybe less than 5% of the time) it allows me to make phone calls, but that’s getting less and less important.

Here’s how I used my smartphone yesterday:

  • Tuner: Used a tuner app to tune a couple guitars and a bass. I use ClearTune, which I recommend. It’s available for Android and for iPhone.
  • Metronome: Used a metronome app for my own practicing, to determine the tempo for a song, and to help musicians I was coaching during their lessons. I use Metronome Beats, which is surprisingly only available for Android.
  • Texts: Sent and received a dozen text messages. I guess that’s kind of like using a “phone.”
  • Reference Recording: While coaching a musician, pulled up YouTube so we could listen to a recording of a song this musician wants to learn. We figured out the tempo, key, and song form so this musician can really start understanding the song when they listen at home, in the car, and wherever else they can hear it.
  • Shooting Video: During another music coaching session, my student shot video of me playing a short section of a song on piano so he can see the exact fingering he should use and hear exactly how that section goes. He’ll now have a video to use at home when he practices. Shooting video during lessons and coaching sessions is one of the most important game changers of having a smartphone with you at all times.
  • Learn a Language: For ten minutes I used a language app to help me learn French. True to the advice I give everyone else, I’m spending 10 minutes a day learning some French skills. I may not become fluent, and I certainly will never be a simultaneous translator at the UN, but I’m making steady, satisfying progress learning a new skill.

Oh, yeah, I also made one (!) phone call yesterday.

How are you using your smartphone to master skills and learn new ones? Let me know!

Posted in Achieving Goals, Music, Music Practice Tips, Tools for Musicians | Leave a comment

Three Types of Deadlines

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
Three Types of Deadlines

Deadlines Change Your Thoughts and Actions

It’s one thing to say – in the abstract – that you’re going to learn a new piece of music or a song. It’s entirely different to say you’re going to learn this music in one week.

Did you find yourself feeling a bit anxious when you read that “one week” deadline just now?

Deadlines have profound effects on us. They change our thoughts. They alter our behavior. And, they focus our practicing like nothing else!

Without a deadline, you can fall victim to Parkinson’s Law:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Translation? It could take you forever to master the music.

So, let’s look at three ways of setting deadlines and how each style of deadline has a different effect on you.

The Three Types of Deadlines

1st Type of Deadline:
Outside Your Control / Accountable to Others

The most effective type of deadline has someone else setting the date and holds you accountable to others. For musicians, this usually means a performance or an audition.

You’ll see your performance or audition date on your calendar, and your thoughts and actions will immediately change. You know you have to be ready by that date. You also know that you’ll be accountable to other people: the musicians you perform with, the audition panel, the audience, and anyone else in your life connected to this upcoming event.

This type of deadline is highly motivational. Some people fear making a fool of themselves in public. Others take pride in showing the world their accomplishments. Either way, playing publicly is an amazing motivation tool.

Don’t have an upcoming performance on the calendar? Schedule one and watch your motivation instantly increase!

2nd Type of Deadline:
Inside Your Control / Accountable to Others

A second highly effective deadline for musicians is playing for someone else. You will generally get to choose this date, which gives you a greater feeling of control than the 1st deadline type above, but you will still have other people to hold you accountable!

Here are a few suggestions for setting up this type of deadline:

  • Have an informal performance for a small group of friends or family.
  • Schedule a specific date on which you and another musician will play for each other and critique each other.
  • If you’re taking lessons, set a date with your teacher when you will do a complete runthrough of the music you’re learning – as if you’re on stage. No starting and stopping – no matter what.

My suggestions for this second type of deadline have one thing in common: You’re making a commitment to other people. This level of commitment will make you want to be ready in time.

3rd Type of Deadline:
Inside Your Control / Accountable to Yourself

One last type of deadline makes you accountable only to yourself and is the hardest deadline to meet. You will have total say on the date you choose, and no one else will be putting any pressure on you to meet your deadline.

Here’s how this deadline strategy works: Select a date when you will hold a mock performance. You won’t actually be on a real stage in front of a real audience, but you’ll prepare as if you’re playing in front of an audience.

You’ll do a full runthrough of whatever song or piece your working on. No starting and stopping allowed! Video this mock performance and watch the video when you’re done.

I recommend that you do this at least once a month.

No Deadlines Can Mean No Progress

Without deadlines, you might or might not learn any new material. After all, there will be no consequences if you don’t, and no rewards if you do.

You can choose which of these types of deadlines sounds most interesting to you and fits you the best. My recommendation is that you try all three over time so you can find what works best for you.

The first two types of deadline offer you varying degrees of extrinsic motivation – that is, outside forces that are affecting your thoughts, actions, and reactions to the task ahead. For many people, extrinsic motivation is the most effective.

The last type of deadline relies exclusively on intrinsic motivation to get any benefit from the activity. You’ll be the only person responsible for making the deadline.

What to Do With This Information

Please do these 3 things to get the most out of using deadlines for your benefit:

1. Create a deadline for sometime in the next 4 days when you will play through something you’re practicing, record the runthrough (audio or video), and listen back to the recording.

2. Schedule another deadline – within the next 2 weeks – when you will play that same music for someone else and listen to their comments.

3. Leave a comment here and let me know how these two deadline strategies worked for you.

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

Posted in Achieving Goals, Motivation, Music, Music Performance Tips, Music Practice Tips, Performance Preparation | 6 Comments

How to Overcome Any Musical Challenge

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
How to Overcome Any Musical Challenge

It’s Not About Working Harder and Harder

Many musicians hunker down and work harder and harder – and get more and more frustrated – whenever they face a musical difficulty. This week’s Practice Tip focuses on some creative ways to overcome these challenges – without driving yourself crazy.

8 Strategies to End Your Musical Frustration

1. Don’t blame the challenge on yourself.
Be objective. It’s just a problem and it must have a solution. Don’t let the fact that you’re facing a challenge get you down.

2. Don’t let a particular challenge define you.
Instead, define yourself as the musician you WANT to be. Picture that future version of yourself, and you’re already on the road to becoming that person. This is a very effective use of Visualization. Never underestimate the value of Visualization to help you overcome a musical challenge.

3. Don’t exaggerate the importance of the challenge.
Many musicians say “I always have difficulties with…” It’s probably not true that you ALWAYS have this difficulty. It clearly bothers you when it comes up, and you might be making it more important than it really is.

4. Look outside where you think the problem is.
Musical solutions are often found by focusing on the opposite of what the problem is. Here are two examples:

Example 1: If the problem is that you can’t play something fast enough, make sure you really, truly have total, absolute control of the notes at a slow tempo. Controlling the music at a slow tempo is the only way to eventually control it at a fast tempo.

Example 2: If the problem is that you can’t play the rhythm correctly, first make sure you can play all the pitches correctly. Sometimes it’s the struggle with finding the notes that messes up the rhythm.

5. Describe the challenge VERY clearly.
Saying, “I’m playing out of tune” is not specific enough. If you say, “I keep missing that one C#,” then you can more easily find the technical answer to overcome the issue.

6. Know what the music should sound like.
Define what the music would sound like if the challenge were already eliminated. Say something like, “If I played this the way I wanted it to sound, I would breeze through that C# as I move into the next phrase.” That gives a very different perspective on where you’re going and allows you to start moving beyond the challenge itself.

7. See what other musicians are doing.
Watch videos of other musicians who are not having the challenge with this song. See what they do. Maybe there’s a technique you haven’t thought of that other people are already using. You can use it too.

8. Be objective.
Stay open-minded, positive, calm, and objective. And make sure you are open to any and all possibilities of what may be causing your issue. This will always help you deal with musical challenges. Objective descriptions of problems and solutions are crucial to your success.

Any one of these eight strategies will be helpful for you. Taken together, they’ll create a very powerful force in helping you overcome any musical challenge without getting frustrated.

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

Posted in Achieving Goals, Motivation, Music Practice Tips | 2 Comments

Half Year Goals 2017

Goals for the Second Half of the Year


Today is July 1. Half of the year is gone.

How did the first half of the year go for you? Hopefully, at the beginning of the year, you set annual goals, six-month goals, and three-month goals. If you did, it’s time to check where you are today against where you wanted to be halfway through the year.

Whether you did or did not set goals at the beginning of the year, it’s time to look ahead to the second half of the year and plan what you want to accomplish by December 31st.

Start by picturing yourself on December 31st looking back at the second half of the year. What do you want to feel good about having accomplished?

Whatever this thing is, write it down now. Once you’ve got your goal in writing, it will be easier to come up with a plan to accomplish it.

This simple task of writing down your end-of-the-year, six-month goal is a huge step forward since it forces you to think about what you really want. And, it gives you incentive to create a plan to accomplish it.

In future blog posts, I’ll talk about a few different strategies and systems for creating these plans and for developing meaningful goals.

Here’s to a fantastic second half of the year!

Posted in Achieving Goals, Motivation, Ten Minute Virtuoso, Visualization | Leave a comment

How to Use Short Bursts of Time

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
How to Use Short Bursts of Time

Our Busy Lives

Many musicians feel that they won’t accomplish their goals without spending extraordinary amounts of uninterrupted practice time.

But, let’s look at reality for most people:

If you’ll only practice when you have a few hours in a row available, chances are you’ll skip practicing altogether.

This is because most of us are lucky to have 30-60 minutes at a time for our practicing.

So, we must get our practicing done in shorter increments. Maybe that means two or three 30-minute practice sessions a day. Multiple, short practice sessions are a very effective strategy for accomplishing your musical goals.

Very, Very Short Practice Sessions

Let’s take it one step further:

Do you ever find yourself with some time to kill? Maybe just a few minutes? You might be waiting to leave your house. You could be taking a quick break from work. Maybe you’re waiting for a call or a text to come in.

These very short increments of time can be turned into short bursts of practicing. It’s amazing how much you can get done in one 5-minute increment. Really! Embracing the concept that you can accomplish something meaningful and permanent in just a few minutes can totally change your outlook on your musical life. I highly recommend that you give it a shot.

3 Effective Strategies for Micro-Practice Sessions

Here are three suggestions for getting the most out of very, very short bursts of highly focused practicing:

1. Be Specific
Work on something very specific – a short section, one measure, just a couple notes, or even something you’ve been avoiding because it scares you. Like putting a microscope on your music, you’ll filter out the rest of the world and focus only on this one, single item. It’s not so bad to work on it for 1 to 5 minutes. Then, you get to walk away.

2. Be Spontaneous
What if you spent a couple minutes playing whatever you feel like? No planning. No goals. No guilt. Just goof off for 5 minutes and experience the sheer joy of playing music. That joy is likely to be enough to motivate you to do some focused practicing later in the day.

3. See Success
You can spend just a couple of minutes visualizing yourself playing flawlessly. When you do this visualization, focus on one specific part of your music you need to understand a little better. You can make the fix mentally so you’ll be ready to practice it the next time you’re in your practice room actually working through the music.

What a difference a few minutes can make! You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, and you’ll probably be inspired to play your instrument later in the day.

Science Supports Short, Focused Practicing

Plus, there’s scientific evidence that supports doing very short practice sessions. See why these sessions may be the most effective way you can improve your playing.

Very short, micro-practice sessions are definitely a complement to your other playing. Sneak in 5 minutes of playing your instrument wherever and whenever you can.

And remember: Even when you’re doing longer practice sessions, you’ll want to break them up into short segments so you’re totally focused and feeling fresh for every item on your practice list!

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

Posted in Achieving Goals, Motivation, Music, Music Practice Tips, Ten Minute Virtuoso, Visualization | Leave a comment

Two Scientific Reasons Why You Should Rethink Your Use of Practice Time

Two Scientific Reasons Why You Should Rethink Your Use of Practice Time

How Do You Think About Practice Time?

Like most other musicians, I spent most of my life thinking that how much practicing I did directly impacted how much forward progress I made as a musician. I only wanted to practice when I had at least 2 hours of uninterrupted time for playing. I was a slave to this concept.

This was fine when I was a music major in college, devoting every waking hour to learning to play, surrounded by hundreds of other musicians who were just as devoted, taking weekly lessons and playing constantly. And, the idea of practicing for hours a day is drilled into you in music school.

But, several changes in my life have forced me to rethink my devotion to long practice sessions. And, as it turns out, scientific evidence just might support the notion that short practice sessions are better for us anyway.

Changes in Life = Changes in Thinking

My Life Got Busier: I no longer had 2 hours in a row to practice. I could probably get in 2 hours total during a day, but there were too many demands on my time to have long, uninterrupted hours available for practicing. I suspect your life is like this too.

Being Busy Made Me Frustrated: Since I was a slave to the concept of long practice sessions, and since I was unable to carve out the time for these long practice sessions in my life, I got really frustrated. And, I stopped practicing. Not completely, but enough to feel that I was neglecting my instrument and stopping myself from improving the way I wanted to improve. Being frustrated is not a good state of mind for having productive practice sessions.

A Book Woke Me Up: I read a remarkable book, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, several years ago. This book gives readers a series of exercises to complete. These exercises reveal truths about your life – or more directly, they reveal what truths you create as you interpret your artistic life. My own frustration with my use of time kept coming up over and over again. That’s when I had a very big breakthrough: I didn’t have to be a slave to this notion that only hours of practicing counted as “real” practicing.

I could play music for 30 minutes. 15 minutes. Even 5 minutes. I could make progress and make good use of my time in any circumstance. No matter how little time I felt I had, it was still worthwhile – even necessary – to spend that little bit of time improving my playing.

What a revelation this was!

Scientific Evidence for Shorter Practice Sessions

And, as it turns out, the scientific evidence seems to be showing that shorter practice sessions are more effective anyway.

The latest scientific research into skill acquisition and long-term memory enhancement is showing that we humans do best with short, highly focused (evenly emotionally charged) tasks that force us to master very specific skills.

Emotion Creates Long-term Memory: Larry Cahill, professor of Neurobiology and Behavior at University of California, Irvine, has discovered in his research on memory that strong emotional reactions are the key to permanently implanting long-term memories. If we think of learning our instruments as a long series of specific muscle memories, and if we look at memorizing songs as a long series of mental memories, then this research seems to say that our playing needs to be emotionally charged. One way to do this is to develop a level of focus so intense that the work you do while playing your instrument feels like the most important work you could possibly be doing.

Intensity Enhances Learning: Psychologist and pianist Margret Elson, in her book Passionate Practice, uses the term “intensity” for this level of focus. She puts it this way: “Repetition or intensity can each generate learning. What if we harnessed both repetition and intensity to the learning process? We would be in a much better position to learn efficiently and permanently…”

Efficient and permanent. Sounds good to me.

So, the question is: How long can you actually sustain this intense concentration and emotion that will truly help you push the musical information into your long-term memory? I don’t know about you, but there’s no way I can do that for hours at a time.

I think we can only do this for minutes at a time, which is the basis of my Ten Minute Virtuoso method.

Posted in Achieving Goals, Motivation, Music, Music Lessons, Music Practice Tips, Ten Minute Virtuoso | Leave a comment

Three Essential Metronome Strategies

David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week
3 Essential Metronome Strategies

Metronomes Are Must-Have Tools

Metronomes are great tools for helping musicians play evenly, learn rhythms, and take control of counting.

And, you can use a metronome to help you achieve target goals for tempos or to discover sections that need more focused practicing.

Another crucial use of metronomes is to train your muscles to play without making mistakes. By setting the click at an excruciatingly slow speed, you can catch potential mistakes before they even happen and play accurately!

Many musicians need to be more creative with their metronomes. Using a metronome to do more than simply click quarter notes can keep your practicing fresh and help you learn faster than ever!

3 Essential Metronome Strategies

3 Essential Metronome Strategies

These three metronome tricks will instantly improve your practicing:

STRATEGY #1: Subdivide
Modern metronomes can subdivide accurately for you, and it’s great to hear eighth notes, sixteenth notes, or triplets when you need them. Be sure to use these settings on your metronome, not only for learning songs but also for taking complete control of the exact locations of subdivisions in beats.

Your goal is to accurately play any subdivision at any time. For instance, you’ll have a lot more confidence if you know you can accurately play the “ee of 3” or the “uh of 4” in a sixteenth note subdivision.

STRATEGY #2: Use Silence
You can also have your metronome click less frequently than quarter notes, forcing you to fill in the other beats mentally. Here are a few options:

  • For music in four, set the metronome to click only on beats 1 and 3.
  • Another idea for music in four is to set clicks only on beats 2 and 4 (the backbeats in pop music).
  • For music in three, have the metronome click only the downbeat. You’ll need to count and feel the other beats.
  • Also for music in three: (1) have the click only on beat 2, (2) have the click only on beat 3, or (3) have clicks on beats 2 and 3 only.
  • Silence specific beats or subdivisions so you’re only hearing some of the clicks in a bar. There are even metronome apps that have a “random” setting to do this for you. Not only is this a lot of fun, but it also forces you to count more diligently than ever before!

STRATEGY #3: The Disappearing Click
A wonderful metronome technique is the “Disappearing Click.” If you’re playing something in four with a lot of eighth notes, for example, start by setting the metronome to click 8th notes. Next, set a click of quarter notes. Then, give yourself a click only on beats 1 and 3. Finally, set the metronome to click only on the downbeat.

This strategy works best when you’re looping a single pattern over and over. If you have a one-bar pattern, you’ll get the chance to play it many times while you’ll have to keep your thinking clear.

You’ll continue to count 8th notes to play accurately, but your reference will slowly disappear! I can tell you from personal experience and from seeing other musicians attempt this strategy: This is a true game-changer for your ability to control time.

Be Creative and Have Fun!

All three of the strategies above help you learn to control time better. By mixing and matching the strategies, you also get to the point where you are not dependent on the metronome for playing evenly.

Whether you’re using my strategies or developing ones on your own, have fun using your metronome. Come up with creative ways to use this valuable tool, and you’ll change the way you think about your music.

And, though I’ve been saying “metronome” in this Practice Tip, I’m clearly not talking about old mechanical metronomes with a weighted pendulum arm rocking back and forth. I’m not even talking about older electronic metronomes that can only click the beat.

What I’m really talking about are the most current, advanced digital tools and apps available for musicians today. Some of these tools allow you to custom program any click pattern you need, including mixed meters.

New music technologies are being developed constantly, and I encourage you to try them. These powerful applications make learning and mastery faster than ever before in human history. If you’re not already using advanced technology in your music life, give it a try!

To Your Musical Success!
David Motto

Posted in Music, Music Lessons, Music Practice Tips, Tools for Musicians | 2 Comments

Ten Minutes a Day Really Works

Though many musicians, performing artists, and other creatives like the idea of being obsessed with their goals and spending hours at a time on their creations, the truth is that few people have a lot of time each day to work on their art.

What’s more, it’s important to be highly focused when you are working on something creative. That focus comes most easily in short bursts of highly productive, inspired work.

The idea of doing small bits every day is the basis of my Ten Minute Virtuoso method for learning new skills, enhancing current skills, and gaining new knowledge. This idea is spreading like wildfire in lessons, apps, coaching, and anywhere else that people need to make a bunch of progress quickly.

Here are two apps I’ve used recently for learning a foreign language that both take advantage of this idea that a small amount of work every day is the best way to get going and keep going.:

Duolingo includes this advice with its app instructions:

5 - 10 minutes a day to build a habit

Babbel has something similar and explicitly acknowledges that people learning something new still have their normal life to lead:

15 minutes a day gets the job done

Are you ready to work EVERY day, even if just for a few minutes, to achieve your goals? I’ll bet you are!

Posted in Achieving Goals, Motivation, Ten Minute Virtuoso | Leave a comment

Quick Practice Tip – Drive

Drive & Determination

Drive. Determination. Grit. Perseverance. Persistence. Vision. These are more important than skills and knowledge when you start learning something new. Just keep going and you’ll acquire the skills and knowledge along the way.

Posted in Music | Leave a comment