So where did all the discovery, exploration, and fun go?
Teachers and parents walk a fine line when asking students to practice daily. Of course you can't learn to play an instrument without regular and committed practice, but finding an equal mix of work and fun in the practice room can be a noble goal to work toward.
For this reason, I recommend for musicians of all ages at least some unstructured time at their instrument every week. By unstructured, I mean working without a clear goal, trying out new pieces (remember the posts on sight reading?), figuring out your favorite song by ear, playing old pieces just for the fun of it, and improvising.
Younger students are the best at utilizing this type of activity without inhibitions. Mildred Portney Chase writes in Improvisation: Music From The Inside Out:
The two-year old child who goes to the piano for the first time will begin improvising because that is the only thing he can do. He has not yet been taught, therefore he has no preconceived standards or expectations to inhibit his explorations. The two-year-old child at the piano acts most intuitively, his mind not distracted from its natural ways. The older person is more involved in mental processes since even without training through formal lessons he will have acquired many impressions and developed many skills. Out of these, we build our own unique vocabularies.
And this is how composers are born!
Having time to fool around at the piano or other instrument can give us a sense of comfort and ease when we play. The fact that we "play" and instrument and not "work" it is no coincidence. The act of playing an instrument is very close indeed to a child's sense of play. Having no agenda for at least part of your time spent practicing can open up a world of possibilities and re-energize the working parts of the practice session.
Next: Record Yourself