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Streaking: A Daily Musical Habit

Sometime in 2008, I read Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. The main premise of the book is it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. This was the year I started playing banjo, and I was struggling to keep up with practice.

My New Year's resolution for 2009 was to rededicate myself to the banjo by learning clawhammer. I also started tracking my playing time to stay accountable and measure my progress toward that 10,000-goal.

When I started playing the fiddle, I began tracking that too.

And before we go any further, yes, I know Gladwell's theory has been debunked, but it still seems like a pretty good goal to get me somewhere in the neighborhood of competent on the banjo and fiddle.

Each year, I set a goal for the amount of hours of playing time I want to log. My spreadsheet helps me stay on track. This year, I'm aiming for 230 hours combined. At the end of January, I hit a snag.

A mix of family and work obligations forced me to miss several days in a row of playing time. This also happened to coincide with the final episode of Tom Collins' Banjo Blitz YouTube series. In the video, he recapped the main lessons from his yearlong project, and No. 1 was "Play Every Day."

That sort of became a mantra for me. I wanted to be able to say at the very least that I picked up my banjo and fiddle to play each and every day. For the banjo, I clicked back to the beginning of Banjo Blitz and started watching it over again. In the introduction, Collins explained how the short videos were designed to help viewers find time to practice every day, even it was for just five minutes. Something he reiterated to me when I decided to interview him earlier this year.

This idea that as little as five minutes of practice would benefit my playing was revolutionary in my brain. Even after 10 years of playing the banjo, I learned something new. I used to think if I didn't have at least a half hour to practice, then it wasn't worth it. Now, I feel free to find enough time to work on a drill or play a couple tunes and call it a day. Sometimes five minutes turns into 10 or 15 or more.

Lo and behold, I started stringing together a few days in a row, then it was a couple of weeks. As of this writing, I'm closing in on a monthlong streak on both instruments. Today will mark 30 days straight of fiddle and 27 days on the banjo.

I knew I had something good going on Sunday. My siblings and our respective families spent a long day setting up and hosting a 50th anniversary party for my parents, my family got home around 9:30 that night. I sat down on the couch with my wife after putting my son to bed and felt drained. I wanted to play my instruments, but I didn't have the energy. I was ready for bed.

Then something happened. As I sat there for about 20 minutes, the urge to play kept growing. I was so close to 30 days in a row. I didn't want to break the chain. I dragged myself up, grabbed my banjo and fiddle and headed to the attic.

In the past, I had trouble finding time on the weekends to play music, and I would often go a week or more between playing the banjo. Being freed from thinking I need to log at least a half hour to "count" as practice has helped me find more consistency in my playing time and avoid the feeling of knocking off the rust.

Building a daily musical habit has stoked my enthusiasm for playing banjo and fiddle. My playing feels more crisp, and I've noticed a trend that every bad day of playing seems to be followed by a day where I feel great. This truly feels like a breakthrough.

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