By Tom Robotham

Last December in this space I wrote an essay about my renewed interest in studying French with an app called Duolingo. I’d fallen in love with the language while taking it for two years in college and have always wished I were fluent. Alas, I was never able to muster to the discipline to put in the hard work.

Duolingo changed all that. Its effectiveness lies in its design. At the outset, you specify how much time you want to spend on it each day—then it tailors your lessons to meet your specifications. At the end of each lesson, it plays a triumphant phrase of music and congratulates you on reaching your daily goal. Better still, it tells you how many days in a row you’ve been at it. I’m happy to say that as of this writing I haven’t missed a day in more than 10 months. I’m still far from fluent, of course, and I doubt I’ll ever get there. But the app helped me take my focus off of that overwhelming goal and concentrate instead on simply completing each day’s lesson. 

At some point in this process, I began to wish there were a similar app for practicing music. I play both piano and guitar, but I’m not highly skilled in either for the same reason that I’m not fluent in French: I’ve never managed to sustain my practice for long periods of time. I’ve gone through many spurts—periods of several months—in which I’ve played every day and made some progress. But invariably, each of those spurts has come to an end, and over the course of my life there have also been long periods during which I’ve rarely touched my instruments. 

In mid-April, I decided to give it another shot. Thanks to my experience with Duolingo, I realized that my tendency to get discouraged and give up lay in the fact that my focus was all wrong: I’d always had the big goal of proficiency in mind, rather than the modest goal of establishing the simple habit of completing a daily practice session. 

With that in mind, I made a commitment to start by practicing just 15 minutes a day and hold myself accountable by setting a timer. Moreover, I began not by trying to tackle some difficult piece by Bach or Beethoven, but simply by playing the C Major scale 10 times in a row—with two hands, over four octaves—just to awaken my muscle memory, reclaim my finger dexterity and, hopefully, increase my velocity over time. 

Muscle memory is a wondrous thing. When you’re first learning to play two-handed scales across several octaves it’s easy to get tangled up because you’re trying, consciously, to adhere to the correct finger pattern. After a while, though, muscle memory takes over and you don’t think about it: your hands just fly up and down the keyboard in unison. 

I’d first experienced what this feels like at the age of 5, when my mother—who was a piano teacher—began giving me lessons. But over the years, through long periods of neglect, I’d allowed my muscle memory to grow dormant. The good news is that it never dies. A few days into my new practice ritual, I was playing scales again with ease.

After loosening up with scales, I generally play an exercise from Charles-Louis Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist. Then I move on to one piece or another, chosen from a body of relatively simple works that I once played well: The first movement to Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, for example, or one of Bach’s Two-part Inventions. 

The first movement to the ‘Moonlight’ may sound a bit cliché, due to the fact that it’s such a staple of early intermediate piano lessons. But I never tire of it, and at the moment it remains challenging for me—principally because I have small hands, and there are several points at which your right hand has to span more than an octave. When I began playing it again recently, I felt as if my hands had shrunk. But after a couple of weeks, I could feel my reach expanding again. 

Bach’s Two-Part Inventions pose very different challenges. They don’t require a large hand span, but they do require a lot of finger dexterity and the ability to play two different melodic lines at the same time, one with your right hand and one with your left. It’s easy to mess up, especially if you’re trying too hard not to. Indeed, when I reflect on the challenges of playing Bach, I’m reminded of a Zen story about a spider who encounters a centipede: 

“My, my,” the spider says. “You have a lot of legs. How do you move them all at once without stumbling over yourself?” 

“Well, I don’t really know,” the centipede responds. “I’ve never thought about it.”

He starts thinking about it—and from that day on, the centipede is never able to walk again. 

Fortunately, there are ways of restoring coordination of the left and right hands: first and foremost, by practicing each hand alone, until the part becomes second nature, then by letting go of self-consciousness and simply putting your faith in your muscle memory. 

After practicing one classical piece or another, I generally move on to popular music. I always end my brief sessions with Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” an arrangement of which I learned years ago. Sometimes before that, though, I’ll just play chords and experiment with different inversions. I try to approach this without putting any pressure on myself, but instead, as a child would, driven purely by curiosity about the logic and possibilities of the keyboard.

When I’m done for the day, I sit down at my laptop and jot down notes about how long I practiced, what I worked on and how it felt. Coming back to that log each day and seeing documentation of how many days in a row I’ve practiced is a huge motivator. 

After 3 weeks of this, I extended my sessions to 20 minutes each. The curious thing is that this extension didn’t require any exercise of will power; it just happened naturally. Having established the 15-minute-a-day habit, I wanted more—and I have no doubt that my sessions will grow still longer. 

All the while, my lovely acoustic guitar had been resting nearby on its stand, whispering, what about me? 

I felt bad. And so, in early May, with my piano habit relatively well established, I added the guitar in the mix, starting with that same modest 15-minute session. My hope is that in time I’ll get into the habit of practicing each instrument for an hour each day. I realize that being able to devote two hours a day to anything other than work and family responsibilities is a luxury many do not have. Due to the nature of my work and stage of life, it’s definitely feasible for me. But I’ve come to realize that the lengths of practice sessions are not nearly as important as the establishment of habit. Indeed, the mistake I’ve made in the past is thinking that anything less than an hour a day is worthless. 

The more I think about the value of starting with modest daily commitments instead of focusing on big goals, the more I’m inclined to try to apply the principle to other areas of my life: exercise, for example, and house cleaning. 

I’ve been far too sedentary for the past year, and I can feel the negative effects of my sloth—especially now that I’m approaching the age of 65. And yet I know that if I try to take up a full-blown exercise routine—joining the YMCA, or some such thing—I’d likely give up after a couple of months. Better to start small, with a daily walk, then record my distance in a log. 

Same with keeping a clean and organized living space. I’m so bad at it that half the time my place looks like it’s been burglarized. To make matters worse, I tend to keep everything. If I still subscribed to printed daily newspapers, I’m quite sure my apartment would rival that of the Collyer Brothers. I’m much happier when my place is clean and orderly, but the prospect of tackling the mess often overwhelms me. It seems to me that another modest daily commitment might help, accompanied by another log to track my accomplishments.  

Yeah, I know—you’d think that someone my age would have learned these lessons a long time ago. What can I say? Bad habits like smoking and drinking too much have always come easily to me. Good ones, not so much. Thanks to Duolingo, though, I now have a whole different outlook on the matter.