The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Just say "No"


I was practicing the other day, and in my practice room is a book I’ve been reading about teaching music theory using fun games (Music Mind Games, by Michiko Yurko).  It’s a pretty cool book that I bought about ten years ago and am only just reading now.  As I was doing my warm-ups the other morning, I started to wonder if Yurko has a website.  I actually put my flute down, and was part way out the music room door before something kicked in and I said to myself “No, I am not Googling Michiko Yurko right now, I am practicing the flute.”

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Which reminded me of a topic I want to write about for this blog: using the power of saying “no” to improve your concentration.  (Ironically, then I wanted to make lots of notes for the article, but I had to say to myself “No, I am not writing my blog right now, I’m practicing the flute.”)

I learned this mental trick when I was taking Alexander technique lessons.  Alexander technique is a system of body use and body awareness that aims to solve and prevent physical problems, and to promote optimal body use. In Alexander technique, you inhibit your old physical habits in order to replace them with new, healthier ones.

In the realm of music practice, I like to call this idea “Strategic Inhibition.”  It’s funny to think of inhibition as a positive thing–usually, we get advice on how to loosen up and get over our inhibitions, and few musicians would say that they are hoping to be more inhibited in their playing! When used strategically, however, it can be a useful tool to help you get and stay focused.

Strategic inhibition is pretty straightforward.  If you find yourself getting distracted, you can use the following phrase to bring yourself back to the matter at hand:

No, I am not X-ing right now, I am practicing the Y.

(Where X=the distracting thing you want to do, and Y=your instrument)

It’s kind of like a negative affirmation, and it is surprisingly effective for such a simple tool.  I think it works because of a few key things:

  1. Saying “no” is powerful—that’s why they teach it in self-defense classes.  Here, you’re defending yourself against distractions.
  2. It acknowledges what it is that’s distracting you.  Trying to pretend that the attraction of the Internet didn’t exist would not be as effective.
  3. By using the words “right now,” you give yourself the option to come back to whatever it is later—the Internet will still be there when you finish practicing.
  4. It ends on a positive note, “I am practicing the flute.”

And you can use it as many times in a practice session as you need to—it only takes a few seconds.

So, give it a try.  Harness the paradoxically positive power of “No.”

Let me know how it works for you.

NOTE:  Another form of strategic inhibition is the Post-It Trick.

Photo Credit: Tony the Misfit

posted under Techniques & Tricks
2 Comments to

“Just say "No"”

  1. On October 9th, 2009 at 6:07 am William Says:

    You’re right, “just saying no” is a very, very powerful technique.

    I think you can take it a lot further – you can say no to anything you don’t want, certainly on a physical level, such as: “I’m not tightening my neck” which is, of course, a variant of a standard Alexander Technique direction.

    A great place to learn more about the Alexander Technique is their main site at

  2. On March 10th, 2010 at 5:41 pm Joar Klæboe Henriksen Says:

    Sounds very efficient, indeed. I have one problem when practicing: I come up with ideas that are supposed to make later practice easier, and I have to write them down instantly – I believe that they will go away if I do not write them down at once. Perhaps I should try saying no one day – perhaps I still will remember some of my ideas afterwards.

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