Increase Your Productivity: Declutter Your Practice Space and Your Mind

Piano Career - Increase Your Productivity. Declutter Your Practice SpaceWe need space in order to be creative. Piano practice is not an exception.

Clutter is a source of constant stress. It dominates our minds and brings on our ‘radar’ thousands of different things simultaneously. Such pressure inevitably kills our creativity, our enthusiasm and our positive attitude, making us feel overwhelmed, exhausted and even depressed.

In our fast and challenging modern times, productivity – no matter if we talk about building a company or learning an Etude by Chopin – is about focus and the ability to get rid of distractions.

Sit at your piano (in case you have a piano or at least a weighted hammer keyboard at home) and look around you. What do you see?

All the things you see - no matter if you want it or not – are reflected in the quality of your practice.

When I was little, I used to practice in a room full of books – a real old-fashioned library full of great books that my father collected during his entire life. The bookshelves were everywhere – even on the wall above my piano.

As a result, for several years my practice consisted of 2 things: playing piano and looking at countless book covers in the process. Was it a good thing? Maybe – this way I had access to many inspiring books on various subjects: arts, philosophy, history, science and so on. As a kid, I didn’t understand all these things (I was only 7-10 years old back then), but the books surely encouraged my passion for reading and supported my innate curiosity.

At the same time, the fact that I was seeing all these books in front of me inevitably slowed down my practice rhythm!

Even valuable books can be considered clutter in certain circumstances. All the things that surround you while you practice create an invisible (yet dominating) pressure, directly affecting your mental and emotional state, your ability to focus and, as a result – your productivity.

During your piano practice, you can be affected by 3 types of clutter:

1. The things you place on your piano.

2. The things you can see in the practice room.

3. The things you have on your mind.

Generally, I would put the mental clutter on the first spot on such a list. However, learning to declutter our mind is not so easy. Start small – by doing simple things you can control! The changes made in your immediate environment will be inevitably reflected by your mental state as well.

Let’s face it: even if you manage to achieve a good focus during your practice, all the objects cluttering your room are still present in your peripheral vision, being unconsciously ‘recorded’ by your mind, slowing down your ‘RAM’ and therefore – your productivity.

What happens in such circumstances? Instead of spending 2-3 enjoyable hours at the piano, you may be forced to practice 5-6 hours per day. At the end of your practice, instead of feeling energized by your progress, you feel frustrated by your questionable results.

The solution is to declutter your practice space. Even if your piano is situated in your bedroom or in the living room (or even in your sibling’s room), it’s in your power to keep the area clean, organized and to transform it into an open space full of air, light and unlimited possibilities.

During many years of interacting with musicians, painters, actors, writers etc., I noticed one thing: many of them have the tendency to fill their living space with different objects which – in their opinion – are related to their art or are being used as a ‘source of inspiration’. Among these objects of questionable value I could name just a few: musical posters, statuettes and figurines of all styles and sizes, many paintings (again, of various sizes and questionable artistic value), postcards, family pictures, etc. and so on.

All this ‘art’ – which often is nothing but kitsch – is just another form of clutter! Instead of inspiring you, it simply stresses you, depleting the air, the inspiration and the free flow of creative energy from your room and your mind.

Ask yourself one question – why do you keep all this stuff around? Because it reminds you of your past? Because you think you may need it one day? Because you’re scared of throwing away your memories?

Learn to let go and enjoy the freedom it brings.

Yes, having a good memory is wonderful. However, let’s not forget about the healing powers of oblivion. Forgetting is the natural way of our mind to declutter itself. By letting go of physical clutter, we can forget about it and we can let go of all the memories that it triggers, this way creating mental and emotional space for growth and creativity. By getting rid of 100 unimportant things, we create space for 1 or 2 things that are truly meaningful, having the power of changing our life!

If you think about your mind in computer terms – what’s the point in having 500 or more GB on your hard drive if you have a very weak RAM? What’s the point in having so many reminders around you (pictures, postcards, figurines etc.) if they don’t allow you to live in the present moment, if they affect your productivity, your state of mind and ultimately – your happiness?

Get rid of all these things! Instead of 10 cheap kitsch paintings, it’s better to invest in one great painting of real value. If you can’t afford it, simply let your wall (and yourself) breathe freely! Or, instead of 20 or 30 different figurines and statuettes, it’s better to have a plant or – again – one sculpture of real value that can truly inspire you.

Postcards (if you insist on keeping them – which is not advisable) belong in an album, and so do family pictures (or, even better, in a folder in your computer). Print only one or two pictures if you truly want to. Then, instead of hanging pictures on your walls, it’s better to pick up the phone and connect with your loved ones more often. Or even better – pay them a visit! Real life is priceless – avoid substituting it with pictures, postcards and other related memorabilia.

In decluttering your practice space, do not allow yourself to feel discouraged by the apparent ‘impossibility’ of the task. Take it one step at a time:

1. Start by decluttering your piano (yes, the surface of your instrument). A lot of people like to keep stuff on their pianos. They manage to put various objects not only on common vertical pianos – I’ve seen even cluttered grand pianos!

Keep on your piano only a few scores – the pieces you’re currently working on. That’s it!

All the other scores belong elsewhere – in a drawer or on a bookshelf (hopefully not in the immediate vicinity of your practice space). Figurines, pictures and other forms of ‘art’ (which I already mentioned) should be mercilessly removed from your piano!

When you practice, you should have in front of you only your score. If you plan to work on a Fugue by Bach for 2 hours, that’s the only thing you should see before you!

The wall behind your piano should be clean and empty of any distractions as well. If you want to place a good painting on the wall – do it, but make sure that the painting is not depressing, violent or extremely colorful. After all, you should focus on your practice, not on other forms of art!

You can also place a vase with fresh flowers on the piano – nature is always calming and inspiring. However, considering the fact that you can accidentally spill the water from the vase and inflict irreversible damage on the piano mechanism – I advise you against it!

2. Declutter your practice room. Nowadays, you can find online many wonderful decluttering tips. I will not repeat them here. Instead, I will direct you towards one of my favorite websites – Zen Habits. I strongly advise you to read Leo Babauta’s article Zen Mind: How to Declutter (and other articles as well – they will surely help you to find simplicity and happiness in the dizzying kaleidoscope called ‘modern life’).

3. Declutter your mind. Before sitting at the piano, think about what you want to achieve today. For example, you can warm up for 15-20 minutes (a few scales or some difficult fragments from a piece you’re currently learning). Then, you’ll probably want to work for 30-45 minutes (or even an hour) on a certain piece. Then, depending on your goal, you may want to switch to another piece.

During your practice, these are the only things you should focus on! In rest, allow yourself to be free from all the thoughts and emotions that usually disturb you.

Turn off your phone and your computer (or at least hide all your gadgets in another room). Make sure that you’re not hungry or thirsty. Breathe deeply, relax your mind and your body and check your state of mind – it should be calm, confident and positive.

Your practice time is yours alone – it’s a ‘time out’ that you deserve! When you practice, nothing can affect you!

Here is a trick that I use all the time: when I practice, I imagine that time has frozen and all the worries of my daily life have been postponed.

Everything – no matter how urgent it is – will simply HAVE TO WAIT until you finish your practice!

Decluttering your mind and focusing on the essential becomes easier if you compensate your daily practice routine with other activities. Breathing exercises, meditation, physical workouts, spending time outdoors and a healthy diet will also contribute to your ability to stay calm, motivated, strong and positive.

With a little practice, you’ll be able to apply the same decluttering principles to all the areas of your life. You’ll declutter your entire home (not only your practice room). You’ll learn how to focus on the task at hand (no matter if you’re cooking dinner, vacuum cleaning, taking a walk, going out with your friends or studying for an upcoming math exam). You’ll start to ENJOY the stuff you’re doing (including your piano practice) because your mind will be savoring the present moment, not worrying about the future or regretting the past.

This will not only increase your productivity – it will make you look at your life from a new perspective. By creating open space around you, you’ll be able to fill it with everything you want and you’ll discover new sources of happiness everywhere around you.

You cannot pour fresh water into a full glass. Make room for your present and future achievements!

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6 Responses to “Increase Your Productivity: Declutter Your Practice Space and Your Mind”

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  1. Alice says:

    Good article! Googled piano teacher clutter and this is what came up. “Forgetting is the natural way of our mind to decutter itself.” Really? never thought about it that way. I keep things so that I don’t forget–but then am overwhelmed with stuff and can’t find what I wanted not to forget anyway–
    “What’s the point in having so many reminders around you (pictures, postcards, figurines etc.) if they don’t allow you to live in the present moment, if they affect your productivity, your state of mind and ultimately – your happiness?”
    Clutter becomes a weight I don’t want to carry. Nothing was so refresshing as creating a really organized piano corner last fall. Time to redo it and clutter is accumulating!
    “Real life is priceless – avoid substituting it with pictures, postcards and other related memorabilia.”
    Good point. Do I really want to spend my energy managing all the photos, books, music, etc that I accumulate in order to help me remember things rather than spend time with people, or making music, or enjoying life?
    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Ilinca says:

    Hi Alice!

    Thank you for your comment!

    Good luck with decluttering your piano corner again! :) I’m glad that you found my ideas helpful – I believe that a minimalist practice space and a clear mind can do wonders! And, of course, there can be no substitutes for the joy that REAL life brings us!

    Ilinca

  3. Alexandra says:

    Hi Ilinca, (again)
    Clutter around the piano! I never really considered it. Recently, the matter of concentration while playing has come up. My teacher has me studying Bach’s inventions (I am in love with them!). I am enjoying analyzing and learning successfully the notes, fingering, polyphonic voicing, etc., but somehow I keep making mistakes,and always at different points. I realized that my problem is not practicing enough (i love to play and practice is never a chore for me), but rather concentration!! I hear myself saying in my mind, “ok, watch out now..”, “you are playing well, your teacher will be very happy, but are you gonna make a mistake soon…?” (and then i do!), or “wow, no mistakes yet…” (and then the last measure i get distracted and blunder the finish!!! so exasperating! I am managing to practice more efficiently, with patience, concentration when memorizing, etc. It is the actual presentation of the piece, especially in front of my teacher and others, and when I am alone attempting to play through a piece without mistakes, when my mind sabbotages me.
    Clutter. I suppose my mind is cluttered with thoughts, insecurities, distractions (I should start dinner soon and the dishes need to be washed…)
    For now, as you suggest, I will remove unnecessary scores and objects (I cannot part, though, with my bust of Beethoven with his stern “concentrating” expression overseeing my efforts).
    Ilinca, thank you so much for your articles. I appreciate the support and passion you share with your webpages. Do you have any comments on improving concentration and how to avoid “stupid” mistakes (not difficult passages in a piece , rather random bloops and blunders)? I really want to overcome this weakness in my presentation, so that I can truly enjoy sharing the music I love with others who want to hear it. Thank you!

  4. Ilinca says:

    Hi Alexandra!

    Thank you for your comment! It’s very nice to ‘see’ you again! :)

    If you have a cluttered practice space (and a mind cluttered with thoughts, worries and insecurities), your concentration (and thus your productivity) will surely be affected. A gradual ‘decluttering’ will certainly help you to concentrate better! By the way, keeping Beethoven’s bust is a good idea – as long as there’s nothing else on your piano besides Beethoven and several scores.

    However, insecurities (your thoughts about making a mistake you quoted above) are more than clutter. Even if we don’t see it happening, our thoughts and our beliefs shape who we are, defining our personality and creating invisible yet powerful psychological obstacles. When you wait for a mistake to happen, it will certainly happen. We become what we think about – this is one of the most powerful laws of existence!

    The truth is that we ALL struggle with such insecurities. They are normal and they DO affect our concentration. The good news is that we are much stronger than we think and that everything is possible – it’s just that most of the time we don’t know it yet! :) Learning to believe in ourselves, to be confident in our skills is not easy – it’s a gradual process, just like learning to play a Invention by Bach. Just never give up!

    When you sit at the piano to practice these wonderful pieces (I LOVE them as well!), tell yourself that this time you’ll be able to play flowingly, without stumbling on small mistakes. Maybe it won’t happen the first time you try it, but if you’re persistent and you believe in yourself, the success is simply inevitable!

    I have two more advices on this subject:

    Playing without ‘stupid mistakes’ (as you call them) is not only a matter of concentration – it’s also about mental and physical RELAXATION. When we’re afraid of something (for example, you’re afraid that you’ll make a mistake) we get tensed. When we’re tensed, our mind and our muscles tend to play tricks on us – it’s like we lose control over our own thoughts and muscles. Treat your fear with total indifference – throw it into the garbage! LOL Practice and don’t think about mistakes – simply enjoy your work! Relaxation and freedom are the foundation of a correct (and fulfilling) piano practice. I also wrote some relaxation tips in my article How to Get Rid of Cold Hands.

    And the second advice – you’re probably already doing it, but I will mention it anyway: don’t play the piece from the beginning until the end many times (and also avoid mechanical playing!). You can play it once or twice to verify the ‘weak points’. Then concentrate on small fragments and ‘polish’ them until they get perfect from all points of view – good posture, relaxed arms, correct notes, flowing phrasing, rhythm, dynamics, accents and so on. Then move to another fragment. Then connect these two fragments. Then move on etc. Then play the piece again and notice the difference! If you ‘polish’ this way a certain phrase or fragment (it can be as small as 2-4 bars!) and you practice with awareness – then you considerably increase your confidence, your relaxation and your chances of playing without mistakes.

    However, if you’re already doing it, then the obstacle is purely psychological. Another helpful practice (besides what I mentioned above) is to play before a small audience more often. You can also read my advice to Pauline from April 18, 2011, under the article How to Cope with Exams.

    Thank you for your interesting questions and your support!

    You also gave me a few wonderful ideas for my next articles: to write more about Bach, about concentration and about the art of relaxation. Actually, these subjects could be successfully combined, because it’s impossible to play Bach without a feeling of relaxed, serene concentration, close to the state we get into when we meditate.

    Good luck with your practice and the decluttering process! It will certainly help!

    Ilinca

  5. Alexandra says:

    Thank you , Ilinca, for your wonderful reply.
    You are so right; concentration and relaxation are related! I never realized that. Concentration has never been a problem for me in other areas of my life (tasks, studies, conversation, etc.), but when it comes to piano, I love it so much, that as soon as I sit at the piano to play or practice, I instantly become so excited and impatient to play better and to conquer the difficult passages as soon as possible, so that I can learn the next pieces waiting quietly—previously in the clutter of scores on my piano, but since moved to the book rack down below out of sight to avoid distraction!—and I have to make a concerted effort to calm myself down (and to relax my muscles), and stick to my goal for the day or for my particular focus at that session.

    Also, you have reminded me of the beauty and benefits of meditation (I used to meditate twice a day for about 15 years, but it has been years now since I stopped doing it; don’t remember why exactly… But I can remember the serenity and the calm…)
    Thank you for your encouragement to consider mediation again as, at least, a tool for developing mental control and relaxation for piano playing. I love it!

    Your articles are so helpful and encouraging. Please don’t stop writing. I (and certainly others) are looking forward to your future output (especially on Bach/relaxation/concentration)!
    Thanks, Ilinca!

  6. Ilinca says:

    Hi Alexandra!

    I’m really impressed to find out that you practiced meditation for so many years! Meditation is probably the best way of ‘decluttering’ our mind and learning to focus – in a relaxed way :) – on one thing at a time. So your idea of resuming your meditation is certainly a very good one!

    You mentioned the excitement you feel when learning a new piece. I feel the same way when I start to learn a piece that I really like – I feel that I want to skip all the practice steps and just be able to play it as it should really sound LOL. However, since this is not possible (it’s possible only if you’re really advanced and the piece you’re learning is very easy!), we should do the following: keep our passion and our enthusiasm, but BREATHE and get rid of all mental and physical tension.

    For me, physical workouts (besides meditation) are a great way of achieving such a state.

    Thanks again for your appreciation! Now I plan to make time and post new articles more often. For this, I just created a page – Ask Me a Piano Question – where you can ask me anything you want about your practice and all the related problems :). I will base my future posts on these questions!

    Have a wonderful day and an inspired practice!
    Ilinca

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