The Habit of Musical Excellence

I’ve recently become obsessed with habits. How do we develop them? How do we break them? Why are some so much harder than others? Why does it seem that the habits that help us most are the hardest to hardwire?

So much of music-making revolves around habits: forming them and recognizing them. Developing productive habits, both in the practice room and on stage, is the basis for most musical instruction, but what about identifying habits that are already formed? So many of our habits go unexamined, and this is where we call on my favorite habit: intentional reflective practice.

We are constantly reflecting on our experiences in daily life, but it is often in a passive process of reflection that, while at times uninhibited and highly creative, lacks the organization to make progress. Intentional reflection requires us to channel our full attention on a specific experience or idea, identify its key elements, and use it to develop strategies for intended growth. And the best part is that intentional reflection is free of judgment. It isn’t about right or wrong, but about what it is or is not. 

Our unintentional habits have an impact on all levels of music-making, but here are the four major ones: practicing, performance, skill building, and personal disposition. I will explore each of these areas in detail in later posts. Let’s start by focusing on personal disposition, since our habits are most heavily influenced by our personal tendencies. 

When we talk about disposition, we are really referring to the characteristic ways a person interacts with their environment. These are combinations of distinctive and inherent qualities that make a person unique. As musicians, we want to cultivate this individuality into a distinguishing artistic identity. 

Consider the following question: 

How do you relax and recharge?

  1. Socially, by spending time with friends and/or in public places

  2. Independently, by spending time alone and/or at home

This question ––  common in many personality tests ––  is exploring the habits that relate to energy: what drains us of energy and what renews it. As one of many questions in a standard personality test devised to categorize people, it has two distinct, binary answers with no specific context. Do you conclude a busy day by reading a book or having dinner with friends? Which answer describes your habits when you celebrate? When you have a day off? The truth is, few people can claim that one answer defines their habits 100% of the time. The real value of reflecting on habits is in the specificity. 

So, how does this relate to music-making exactly? Let’s continue with the question of energy.

Are you a “social” person who thrives in a collaborative or ensemble musical environment? How does that impact your habits in the practice room? What habits could you develop to bring  social elements into your isolated practice?  

Do you crave the isolation of a practice room for focused creative work in a controlled environment? How does that impact your habits as a collaborative musician? What habits could you develop to bring that independent focus into the ensemble environment?

Both of these environments are fundamental to music-making, and musicians transition between them constantly. However, it is easy to feel like we are at the mercy of our environment or circumstances. Reflecting on these habits and tendencies allows us to bring the best of ourselves to every musical opportunity. 

Don’t get me wrong. Reflecting on personal disposition can be challenging. It requires a certain amount of objectivity and honesty with ourselves. We’ve been bombarded with information on how we should behave, respond, and manage our time. It can be frustrating and humbling to admit that we know better yet we don’t act accordingly. But we can’t improve upon what we don’t acknowledge. The better we understand ourselves, the better equipped we are to keep growing as musicians. One strategy at a time, we can all make musical excellence a habit.


By Janene Nelson