I was at one point in my life a pretty good trombone player. Had I wanted to, I probably could have gone to college for music but I decided against it for various reasons. Mostly, I was afraid having to make a living as a musician would kill the joy I found in playing music. I still played regularly in college, through Scranton’s Performance Music department, which is shockingly large for a school that doesn’t have a music major.
I got to a pretty high level of playing, unsurprisingly, by practicing a ton. Of course as a child I had the usual distaste for required practice for school, but in high school I started taking private lessons at the urging of my band director. Something changed: I discovered I could be good at the instrument and practice became something I wanted to do. I could hear and feel the improvements in my playing. Because I was auditioning for festivals regularly, I always had something challenging to work on. Work on fundamentals was always present, but what I needed for the pieces I was learning at the time drove a lot of the specific skills I practiced. Because I had a lot to work on, it was easy to be diligent and this continued into college. For the first year I was still practicing at least an hour every day, often going to the music building between classes. During the first winter term I was there for hours at a time on days I didn’t have class.
Unfortunately, as college continued I wasn’t playing as much outside my current skill level. Because I didn’t need to practice as much to learn the pieces I needed to play my motivation to practice plummeted. I was still playing regularly because I was in several ensembles, but the time I dedicated to to individual practice dwindled. My skill plateaued. After I graduated, it got even worse. Between graduate classes and work the weekly rehearsal for a local ensemble was the only time I had to play. I eventually left that group, thinking I’d find another one easily when I moved, but the pandemic made that impossible. I didn’t play in an ensemble for over 3 years and played very little at home the entire time.
I’m writing this during an orchestra rehearsal and my playing tonight has been absolutely dreadful. Playing a piece written in alto clef, I kept switching to tenor clef in the middle of phrases. I’m just not used to reading alto clef so I kept making mistakes. The would be a trivial problem to fix with 20 minutes in a practice room, but I just haven’t made the time. I had tied my motivation for practice to a need to get better for specific pieces I needed to play. That evaporated when I wasn’t regularly challenging myself to meet external goals. For years now I’ve had almost no motivation to practice and when I do, I don’t have the patience I used to. Long tones, slurs, and scale exercises that I know would help feel too boring to do regularly. Where I used to practice for well over an hour at a time, now getting to 30 minutes is a miracle.
It’s been a slow and frustrating, but entirely traceable decline in my playing over the last 8 years or so. I want to reverse it, which will require finding a different source of motivation to practice. Maybe I shouldn’t rely on motivation and instead rely on discipline and force myself to stick to it. Maybe in pushing through the boredom I’ll rediscover the joy in the experience of improving my playing that lead me to the level of skill I enjoyed years ago.