The Secret to Having Discipline (also known as fake it ’till ya make it)

Growing up in the world of classical music, my life revolved around that word: Discipline.  The fact that I needed it, whether or not I had it, my peers who obviously did have it, those sad, talented kids who just didn’t have it (“what a shame!”….) Every day of my life was measured in how many hours I had managed to get myself to practice.  Did I manage 3? Or an epic, I-can-totally-hang-with-the-cool-crowd 5? Or did I sit on the couch and watch bad re-runs on TV while eating countless bowls of cheerios?  In high school, I was surrounded by an incredible group of like-minded, talented friends.  they were fiercely loyal, but also fiercely competitive.  Any practicing my lazy-ass self ever did during that time in my life was purely to keep up with them.  In college, I discovered that I had cultivated a bit of street cred for my ability to get up super early (I mean, 6 am–IN COLLEGE!  I deserved a medal!) and get my practicing done.  But even that was a matter of pride, rather than discipline.  Once people started talking about the fact that I did it, I couldn’t very well STOP doing it, right?  After college I went to the New World Symphony in Miami Beach for 3 years, and discovered other reasons to practice that had nothing to do with discipline.  Ex. A) wanting to stay on the same work schedule as my ÜBER disciplined boyfriend. Ex B) knowing that if I practiced BEFORE our 10am rehearsal, the Music Director (my boss) would sit and chat with me while I had my coffee outside the hall.



And so, it wasn’t until I moved back to Boston and shared my first grown-up apartment with a non-musician friend that I learned of the true nature of discipline.  My new roomie, Sandy, had a 9-5 job.  She woke up early, made the coffee, and was heading out the door just as I was waking up.  My “job” was, essentially, to practice.  I would have rehearsals and gigs with various pick up groups, I would get called to sub in with the various nearby orchestras, and I had a little bit of teaching to do each week, but those things, for the most part, took up the hours between 4 and 11pm.  So 9am-4pm?  Wide open.  7 hours to practice.  7 hours when no one was watching.  No one was in the practice room next door, no one was walking down the hall, impressed that I was up and at it so early, No one was talking about it, or even asking me about it. That was when I first realized that if I went through the entire day without so much as opening my cello case, no one would know, and worse still, if they knew, THEY WOULDN’T CARE.  And so, I learned, True Discipline is having the ability to do something when the only person who knows about it is YOU.

baby and piano

This is true for the runner, trying to get those weekly miles in, for the person headed on their dream vacation to Paris in 6 months, vowing to be fluent in French by the time they leave, or for the person trying to eat healthier food-when their co-workers clearly WANT them to have a piece of birthday cake.  The concept of discipline is universal, as are its pitfalls.  Whether you are a young music student, a seasoned concert hall veteran, or are just trying to stick to your New Year’s Resolutions, here are a few thoughts on finding your own discipline.

  • Find someone else to hold you accountable. Go ahead and join a running group, or an online diet community page, or post practice snippets online.  #100daysofpractice was started by a visual artist and is being used for pretty much everything now: artists, musicians, yogi’s, and athletes.
  • Make it a habit. They say that to make something a habit, you need 3 things.  The Cue: the thing that signals that it is time to do the action, the Action itself, and the Reward.  For me, the clock turning 9:00am is my signal to practice.  I might not start right at 9am, but that 9:00 tells me to finish up what I am doing and head into my studio.  Once I’m in my studio, it’s a piece of cake.  Just as once you are AT THE GYM, it’s not difficult to start working out, the practicing itself is not hard. It’s getting myself to do it. My reward is that when I finish at 12, I get to eat lunch (I’m usually starving by then) and leisurely read blogs, Instagram, fb etc.  Whatever I want, and totally 100% guilt-free.
  • Use a motto. Mine as of late, has been “Discipline is doing it anyway”.  It takes care of pretty much any excuse.  “I’m tired”, “I’m sick”, “I have too much other work to do today”.  That motto laughs in the face of those excuses, and then I feel like a really cool Olympic athlete for sucking it up and “doing it anyway”.
  • Listen to your own rhythm. There are days when I’m mentally exhausted, or feeling on the edge of burn-out, or “just not feelin’ it”.  Assuming I enlisted the tactics of #3 above, I do allow myself a slower pace.  Instead of trying to do something that takes a ton of mental engagement, like reworking phrasings, or sorting out tricky rhythmic passages or finding fingerings for complicated chords, I might just play everything slowly and work on posture, sound production and intonation.  Likewise, maybe that is the day I do a gentle jog while listening to a podcast, rather than doing speed work on my run.  Don’t force it if it’s not there.
  • Reward yourself sometimes. Let’s face it.  It doesn’t REALLY matter if you run that marathon, and it doesn’t really matter if I practice every day, and it doesn’t matter if someone else writes every day or paints every day, or bakes every day.  We are doing these things because they matter to US.  And because we have some bigger picture goal that we are working towards.  So, because it might take years before you hit that BIG GOAL, go ahead and give yourself some interim rewards.  At one point this year, I was workin’ HARD, and I went to a little boutique I like here in Bermuda, and I bought myself this necklace.  It reminds me of how good it feels to know I’m doing what I set out to do, and it encourages me to continue–even if no one else cares whether I do it or not.

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