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Thread: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regimen

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    Post The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regimen

    I come to you today as a young person, probably one of the younger individuals that frequent this forum, who has played stringed instruments off and on the majority of my life. I've spent the majority of my time playing guitar, with my interest in mandolin developing in high school as my music tastes teetered from the typical teenage interests of rock and metal towards a more nuanced appreciation of folk and country.

    This all came to a head when I spotted a Rogue brand mandolin at a swap meet which I was scammed into overpaying for. I, probably embarrassingly, toted it around with me very frequently in school, playing beginner fiddle tunes I had learned online from our friend Baron Collins-Hill.

    Thus emerges my problem. Its a pattern I've recognized with every instrument I've played, the burning desire to be able to play the music that bounces around in my head, but the complete inability to not only perform it, but the inability to put in the work required to achieve that level of musical understanding and prowess.

    I don't know if I have an attention disability, nor have I ever been the type of person to fall back on such a thing as an excuse, but the combination of digital distractions, mental exhaustion from working, and knowing some basic songs always drives me to a rapid plateau in my playing.

    Allow me to run you through a typical "practice" session of mine, so that you may understand more clearly:

    - I get the desire to play so I pick up and tune my mandolin (I'm now the owner of a 2019 Weber Bitterroot, the Rogue has long since left my possession)

    - I warm up by playing through some familiar tunes, often classic fiddle tunes played to a sickening familiarity, instead of with focused musical intent.

    - One of many possible distractions happens, be it a buzz from my cellphone, or a notification from my computer, or whatever else might pop up at the time.

    - I pull myself back to the mandolin after a few minutes, only to find myself repeating those same familiar tunes and chord progressions over and over, rarely with any variation.

    - Repeat these final two steps ad nauseum

    Its been a few months since I've made a dedicated effort to improve my playing, and I dont have much of anything to show for it because I can't break these habits. From a distance, I recognize them as bad habits, and I have a lifelong desire to become a competent musician and thrive in musical circles, but in the moments that matter, all I can do is plunk out a sorry and lifeless Irish Washerwoman.

    I know it is within me to become a great musician, I just need to overcome these seemingly vast hurdles to begin improving.

    Thank you for bearing with my life story thus far, I'd absolutely love to work with any of you fine folks to shelf this chapter of my life as a musician and move on towards a brighter one. I'm believe I am familiar with the steps I need to take, but the motivation to do anything but wallow once you're down in the mud can be monumental indeed. Even simply making this post feels like a big step in the right direction for me.

    I know I need to develop a practice regimen, and I know I need to stick to it. Do you have any advice on how to build this regimen, and any techniques I can apply to follow it closely without becoming distracted?

    and I know I need to play with other people in person. 99% of my playing has been done alone, by myself. The few times I have played with other musicians I have felt something new that drove me towards experimenting with new things and break that mold that I find myself stuck in. Any tips on how to find other players or a local community would be vastly appreciated as well.

    Finally I know I need to be mindful while I play. Almost always I play by going through the motions, instead of thinking about what I'm doing, and my tone and technique suffer greatly from it. Advice on things to be mindful of, or pay attention to are absolutely welcome.

    Even things that I haven't mentioned specifically, but that I might need to hear, please make your voice known. And if you have any questions, please ask.

    Thank you, In advance

  2. #2
    Registered User danielpatrick's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Hey there!

    I can relate to your dilemma! Here are two quick suggestions:

    Put your phone and computer in focus mode, or sleep mode, or whatever you need to do to not look at them. Even if it’s for only 20 minutes….you have to be willing to not allow yourself to be distracted. Many professional musicians , writers, comedians do this every day. You mention you are a pretty young person so if people whose jobs rely on emails, texts and phone calls for booking or management or advertising offers can turn their phones and computers off for a while to focus, I’m thinking you should be able to as well.

    The other suggestion would be find a teacher that is a player you admire. So many great players are available virtually right now! Now, I don’t know your budget so maybe that isn’t possible but if it is I suggest doing it. The main reason is I find people work harder when they have a “deadline” If you are taking lessons from someone you look up to, it may make you buckle down and focus on being prepared for your next lesson.

    Most importantly…..have fun!

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    Oval holes are cool David Lewis's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Take it one step at a time. Learn a song. Then develop it. Pick one instrument to start.

    Have fun!
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    And perhaps I put too much emphasis on my age, I'm 25 and work full time.

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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim


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    Registered User Simon DS's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    1 Join our Newbie Social group. Post your version of Irish Washerwoman. Smile and congratulate yourself every morning for a week.
    2 Do it again.
    3 Give up whatever’s making you feel lethargic. (More than ten things).

    Welcome to the MandolinCafe!

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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Spend the first 10/20 minutes doing something to improve your playing- exercises or a new tune, then enjoy yourself with the familiar stuff.
    Put a podcast or speech radio on in the background so your not just sitting in a quiet empty room. I find this especially useful in the long periods of repeating phrases and tunes.

    I couldn’t focus in my 20’s either. I just played the same old chords on guitar.
    You may find that the music you enjoy playing isn’t necessarily the music you love listening to. I love playing Irish/trad music, can’t casually listen to it; love hip hop, doesn’t sound great on a mando though.
    Try other styles.

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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    "I pull myself back to the mandolin after a few minutes, only to find myself repeating those same familiar tunes and chord progressions over and over, rarely with any variation.

    - Repeat these final two steps ad nauseum"


    there is actually nothing wrong with this IMHO

    I would only try to play those same tunes and progressions with a metronome both slower and faster
    find those same tunes or tunes with chop chord progressions and try to play along with "different" versions
    for traditional bluegrass, there are plenty on you tube or sound cloud or this very site.
    Listen to different mandolin players including non professional- again you tube probably the best resource

    take an online class - there are many that are not very demanding time or dollar wise, I am taking some Peghead courses ( and I've been playing mandolin for decades) they are short - only about 15-20 minutes each individual lesson, and reasonably priced.
    Dave Benedict's you tube channel has frequent free - online jam and chat sessions
    he can't hear you jam along but you get to jam with him and the chat is very active with Dave responding directly
    of course the best thing of all would be to find others to play music with
    I don't think there is any better way to grow musically then to play with other folks, and try to it somewhat organized with actual fiddle tunes or songs instead of free form.
    Other than that I still find myself playing the same tunes, licks and chord progressions over and over add nauseum, cause I like to.

    I bet that Bitterroot is a sweet mandolin!
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    Registered User Tavy's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    This is a problem we all have to some degree, there's a video somewhere by a banjo playing neuroscientist (no really) who reckons that 20 minutes is the optimal practice time because after that you loose focus. However, there is a difference between practice and playing - what you're doing is more like playing - going over stuff you already know. Practice is that hard really focused period where you really concentrate on something that you can't actually do yet!

    So I would say to pick something that's just out of your reach and try and learn that, keep seeking out different things too that can stretch you. Playing in a band that plays music just slightly outside of your comfort zone is great practice, as is attending local jam sessions - don't worry if you're not good enough to join in yet - consider it motivation! There's also a whole world of music out there, currently I'm exploring Ukrainian folk tunes, mixed in with a bit of Gypsy Jazz, it's not really my thing normally and it's taking ages to get to grips with the feel of things, but it's great practice, and because it's all new to me, great motivation too.

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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Can you read music in standard notation? If not, it’s a bit of a slog to figure it out, but it will change your life, and it’s not something that ever gets rusty. Get yourself a copy of Cole’s 1000 fiddle tunes or Ryan’s mammoth collection (same book with two different names). It will be a lifelong companion with material for now, material for later (wait until you decide you like B flat hornpipes!) and I promise you will not get bored and it will revolutionize your playing and horizons.

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    Registered User Mando Esq's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Been there.

    Still am there on some days.

    And that’s ok.

    Everyone goes through ups and downs in interest in all things. You’re human and you don’t need to beat yourself up too badly for it.

    I have a few go-to short term strategies that I use to break out of an apathetic rut, all of which you can do from the comfort and convenience of your living room:

    1) Develop and jam to the songs that you already know. Mandolessons has a lot of “simple to complex” and “play along jam” videos for many of the songs that he also does lessons for (and that you already likely know.) I like to take a song that I know and pick out one or two of the demonstrated melodic variations to add in, then play along to the jam video, alternating between the chords and the melody, seeing if I can stay on time and incorporate the new twists into my playing. Or, just use the jam along video as a backing track and improvise in the same key. Playing with others is unquestionably the best, but I have found this to be just about the next best thing.

    2) “Follow” a player regularly. Mandolessons (my go-to, but there are certainly others) does a weekly live stream on Saturdays. I can’t usually watch it live, but I try to catch up on it each week. It’s an hour long and contains lots of good tips, tricks, and answers to playing questions. Each week ends with a new song to play along with. It’s a good motivator to learn a new song each week, especially if you feel like you have no good guide on “which song should I learn next?” For instance, he played an off-the-cuff Coleman’s March one time. I had never heard the song before and I’m not sure I would have ever “discovered” it on my own, but now it’s one of my favorites.

    3) Compose a tune. Try writing your own fiddle tune! It doesn’t have to be good. Pick a key, noodle around until you find an interesting hook, then flesh out that melodic line and work up an A and a B part that have a similar melodic texture.

    4) Record yourself. There is no way to force yourself to focus on proper technique, execution, and timing than to record yourself playing a tune. Now, recording setups and microphones etc are a complete musical and technical world unto themselves, and you can easily go down an expensive rabbit hole. But even a simple setup (like a Focusrite bundle) and a simple program (I like Audacity) will take you really far. If you play other instruments, work on arranging a layering a tune. It’s a great way to take a “boring old tune” and attack it from a new angle.

    Good luck!
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Two suggestions:

    1. Record a tune you think you know and listen back to it. Spend 5 or 10 minutes working on just the parts which the recording showed weren't played well. Do this as part of most practice sessions.

    2. Set yourself a new song to learn, and spend 10 mins of each practice session on it until you know the song. Now you can add that to the record/improve list under (1).

    Both of these are concrete things to work on, with end goals, not just playing whatever you feel like.

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    Registered User Sue Rieter's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Short attention span is endemic in society today. There are all kinds of reasons. When I was in my 20's I could easily go into a zone, concentrate, and tune everything else out for hours at a time. Not any more. So many things pulling at us and our brains in so many directions.

    Two ideas from a fellow novice:

    Figure out what time of day your sharpness and concentration are best, and allocate some time then. Maybe not after work and dinner when you're already tired and your brain is full.

    Take up some sort of meditation/mindfulness exercise

    The book referred to above is great: The Laws of Brainjo: The Art & Science of Molding a Musical Mind by Josh Turknett (a neuroscientist and banjo player. Another good book is Zen Guitar mentioned in my signature.

    I like to think that just the act of working on music is doing positive things for my brain function.
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    Timothy Tim Logan's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    The Peter Martin general practice tip videos offer solid, practical practice advice which, for me, has proven very valuable:
    https://www.petemartin.info/practice-tips.html
    Last edited by Tim Logan; Sep-18-2022 at 9:12am.

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    working musician Jim Bevan's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Quote Originally Posted by Falconerguy View Post
    Allow me to run you through a typical "practice" session of mine, so that you may understand more clearly:

    - I get the desire to play so I pick up and tune my mandolin...
    There's your problem right there.

    A oft-quoted maxim applies: "The difference between amateurs and professionals: Amateurs wait for inspiration – professionals just get to work."

    You wouldn't be able to hold down a job if you only went to work when you "got the desire" to do so. Even this title thread betrays the underlying problem: "The Dilemma of Motivation..."

    There's another maxim of sorts, a creed popular among NYC actors and artists: To succeed in your career (ya, at least in a competitive place like NYC), you've got to work at it eight hours a day, even if you're also waiting tables eight hours a day. For a musician, that doesn't necessarily mean eight hours of practising – activities such as promotion and networking certainly count – but you do not have time to waste waiting until you "get the desire."

    Sorry for the tough love.
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    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    With regard to motivation, my #1 suggestion is to find others to play with. It's a great motivation to practice, when you know you need to get a handle on tunes you'll be playing with other amateur musicians.

    You're playing fiddle tunes, right? See if there is a nearby OldTime jam. Those groups are usually very welcoming to newcomers and beginners. OldTime music is often a gateway drug to other styles like Irish trad or Bluegrass. Playing with an established group means you'll have a reason to learn and practice tunes they're playing.

    If you can't find a local OldTime jam, check out the bulletin boards at local music stores, Craigslist and other sites to see if there are people in your area to jam with.

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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Here's what jumped off the screen for me:

    Quote Originally Posted by Falconerguy View Post
    Allow me to run you through a typical "practice" session of mine, so that you may understand more clearly:

    - I get the desire to play so I pick up and tune my mandolin
    You can't only pick up the mandolin when you get the desire and expect to ever get anywhere with it. It has to be a regular thing, an integrated part of your life.

    In my house 7:30 PM is Mandolin Time. Wife and I have finished dinner together, done the dishes, sat together on the couch, chit chatted, watched a little TV together. At 7:30 I go to my room and play mandolin for an hour or so.

    First 20 minutes - Scales, chords, arpeggios

    Second 20 minuets - Run through every fiddle tune I know

    Last 20 minutes - Play along with a Homespun Bluegrass Jam video, mostly comping but the occasional lick or attempt at a solo.
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    Registered User Mandobart's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    In my experience, discipline/focus is a decision (as is a lack of these). You are deciding to answer your phone or attend to your computer rather than practice. If you want to become the "great musician within you" you have to decide to put in the effort to do it. Some ideas and analogies I have for putting that decision into action:

    1. Get back to playing with other people. This is the single best way to improve as a musician. Most of us just aren't self-motivated enough to stay on track alone. We will let ourselves down often, but we'll usually avoid letting others down. Get involved in your local music scene by asking around at music stores, social media, Google folklife or old time fiddlers. There's likely something going on reasonably close to you.

    2. Is there anything you do that you're able to focus on without giving in to distractions? If you're playing a video game do you stop to answer your phone? If not, why not? Maybe there's something you can apply to your music.

    3. Move your practice/playing location away from your source of distraction, or, eliminate the distraction. What terrible thing would happen if you turned off your phone, computer, TV for 30 minutes or so while you focus on music? You can do it, you just have to decide to do it.

    I was lucky perhaps to be born 6 decades ago. As a teenager in the 70's I didn't have a computer, internet, video games or even cable TV. I would sit in my room for hours as I taught myself to play Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Grateful Dead, etc. tunes on guitar.

    I also played violin in orchestra and electric bass in jazz band in school. I felt I had to learn my parts fluidly to not let down the rest of musicians. In a way my learning guitar was a distraction from my "real" musical pursuits so I rewarded myself with some guitar after practicing violin and bass.

    49 years later I've yet to find a "great musician" hiding inside, but I have become very competent at learning by ear, playing in a band or playing solo. I still practice - I think I'm still improving.

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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    I'm far from an expert in anything, but a few suggestions that have helped me and that many have (will) mention:
    *Have a routine - Set a consistent time and place to practice. Keep your instrument at the ready. The fewer barriers to picking it up the better.
    *Have a goal - "By Saturday, I'm going to be able to play XXXXX Reel complete, without looking at the music at 100 bpm". You may not get there by that Saturday, but
    you worked towards doing it.
    *Have a teacher - Live would be best to start, but as others have mentioned there are many online, interactive teachers online. I've been doing Sierra Hulls Artistworks
    series and just being able to watch her instruct on the simplest of things is an inspiration. I can send her a video and a few weeks later she sends a personal critique.
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Everyone learns differently, but here's some steps I go through.

    1: Determine what I want to be able to do.

    I wanted to play chord-melody style on mandola.

    2: Figure out the intermediate steps.

    To choose just one skill set, I had to know my chords, in all kinds of voicings and positions.

    3: Learn to do them.

    I started with songs I knew well, rock, folk, whatever. I got chord charts. I made chord charts of my own. I played hard-driving songs and delicate songs, singing while I did so. I even worked on guitaristic techniques like suspending chords (all over the Rush 2112 album), voice leading (keeping the distinct "voices"/parts within small intervals) and bass runs like in "Kodachrome" by Paul Simon, and rhythm comping like Gypsy Jazz or Freddie Green with Basie.

    I would work each new piece slowly, until the changes, runs and such were perfect. Then I would speed them up over time, until I could do them faster than required.

    If I was unsteady or made mistakes, I knew I had to go back to a speed when it was perfect. Otherwise, you're just practicing and perfecting how to make a mistake.

    All that is just one section of how I pursued my goal.

    My practice sessions have warm-ups, then new/developing skill work, then review of previous acquired skills. Every day doesn't have to cover everything, but you should get around to things periodically. Practice might only be 15-20 minutes long, but the important thing is to block out that time and do it daily, and around the same time. Commit to it. If I have more time, I might start planning 30 minutes.

    Only by learning and working new things can you learn them.

    I am fortunate in knowing how to develop my own plan. Having a good teacher takes some of that burden of developing a road map off your shoulders.

    And of course, I also play for pleasure, no drills, just letting it rip.

    Just some thoughts. Whatever you decide to do, good luck!
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    The single biggest change I think one can make is switching dedicated practice time from late in the day to early in the morning, and doing it at least 3 times a week. I did it every day switching between guitars, mandolins and technique.

    By getting up early (5 am) you have an hour to wake up with shower/coffee/whatever then an hour or so of dedicated and disciplined practice. You're finished by 7 am when everyone else is just getting up so you avoid a lot of cell phone distractions. Put invasive tech in another room if you can to avoid intrusions anyway.

    Reality is that by the end of the day most people are pretty beat and not at their best. Early morning you have the benefit of being fresh and at your best.
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    Registered User Charlie Bernstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    1: People who love woodshedding improve. Those who don't don't. It's a simple as that.

    2: There must be a reason why you don't turn off your phone and computer, but you havent said what it is. If listening for messages is more fun than woodshedding, see point 1 above.

    3. You're diagnosing yourself with a learning disability. But if you wrote the original post yourself, you have a properly-functioning brain. There's a great new book that goes deeply into why you (and all the rest of us) have trouble focusing. It's called Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention.

    Get it. Read it. Then go lock yourself in the woodshed!
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    Registered User Sue Rieter's Avatar
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Thanks, Charlie. I have a copy of this book on order
    "To be obsessed with the destination is to remove the focus from where you are." Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar

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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Folks may knock it, but scheduling a daily time for a broadly structured practice regimen is quite effective. Following Evan Marshall’s outline, divide your time in blocks of:
    Warmup 10%
    Technical 30%
    New repetoire 30%
    Old repetoire 30%.

    The most important part of this is developing the daily habit of practicing. Find a time that can be consistent for practice. Write down what the technical is, arpeggios, finger exercises, etc, so over time you cover the main bases. Chose one new piece to work on. Play some of your repetoire, perhaps with your own improvisations. Make it fun and challenging.

    You won’t master it quickly. Be patient.
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    Default Re: The Dilemma of Motivation, Attention Span, and Practice Regim

    Great advice from folks. I think, however, there is one thing to add.

    I think it kind of gets in the way to think of practicing as an activity whose purpose is the improvement of a different activity, that of playing.

    Whereas, it is possible, though I don't admit it often, to enjoy practicing as an activity. Sometimes I have no tune I particularly want to play, but I want to enjoy playing the mandolin. So I dive into etudes and exercises, arpeggios, and scales, for the fun of making sounds with the mandolin.

    In other words, it might help if one can, to some extent, enjoy practicing for its own sake, not necessarily just to "get better". If one could think of practicing as one of the things we do on a mandolin, instead of merely a necessary preparation for what we do on a mandolin.

    Weird I know, but consider that a professional musician of any calibre spends much much more time practicing than performing. Huge great gobs of time preparing for a relatively infrequent and momentary activity of performing.

    It's a zen kind of thing. Practicing is, ummm... our practice. Its what we do. It is how we "chop wood and carry water".
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    funny....

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