Ask a Musician: Making the Best Use of Limited Practice Time
Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, we ask freelancers to talk about skills specific to their field, whether it be design, programming, or music. Today Marion Harrington shares how she breaks up her practice routine to stay a freelancing musician!
How many roles do you assume in an average day? Here are few of mine: spouse, musician, pet sitter, writer, runner, editor, cook, internet entrepreneur…the list goes on.
Looking back to my years as a music student, at the time I didn’t realize quite what a privilege it was to be able to spend all of my waking hours breathing, thinking and making music. Finding time to practice was never an issue.
After graduating, it’s a different story. Each passing year inevitably brings with it a new series of responsibilities both musical and non-musical.
The game then bizarrely changes from striving to be the scholar ranked #1 for the most practice hours logged in a 24 hours period to bragging about how little tooting of your flute or blowing your horn is required for your playing to remain at a professional level!
In the real world, finding time to practice can be challenging as this very necessary activity does not generate income in itself. If you’re to maximize your income streams as well as juggle all your other commitments, you have to learn how to make every available practice minute yield results – a skill which is often not taught during training.
It’s not how much time you have available that matters but what you do with what you have that holds the key to efficient practice on a very tight schedule.
What is Practice?
It’s not making yourself a cup of coffee, fiddling with reeds, researching repertoire, or doodling around inventing variations on the American National Anthem for the heck of it.
Neither is it mindless mechanical repetition in the hope that eventually, given enough repeats, your brain will somehow automatically “get it”.
Wikipedia offers an excellent definition which I paraphrase here: practice is the act of rehearsing a behavior over and over, or engaging in an activity again and again, for the purpose of improvement or mastery.
In order for practice to be efficient, every note, phrase, exercise and repetition should have reason and purpose. For that to happen, it’s useful to design a base structure from which to work.
Suggested Schedule for 1-3 Hours
However many hours you have to devote to your practice in any one day – keen amateur or professional, it’s important that all essential elements are included. It’s rather like aiming for a balanced diet!
Warm-up (5-20 minutes)
Musicians have much to learn from athletics. I wouldn’t dream of going out on a 5 mile run without preparing my body first. Beginning a practice session – which can be physically taxing –is no different.
Gently accustom your body to playing your instrument or using your voice. You might think chromatic scales played or sung at velocity are impressive but your body is likely to show what it thinks of this strategy with future chronic tension and pulled muscles.
Scales and arpeggios (10-40 minutes)
I challenge you to find me a musician who adores practicing these pillars of a fluent technique!
This section of your practice may be as boring as hell and often avoided by students but you’ll thank me one day as you breeze effortlessly through sight reading and rattle off virtuoso passages with a flourish.
However, don’t think that you have to play every single scale, arpeggio and variation every day. The answer is to macro and micro-cycle monthly and weekly.
Choose a single articulation or bowing, dynamics, rhythm and speed and speed each month, then opt for one key signature a week to include all variations – major, minors, thirds, fourths, etc.
Study or Etude (15-30 minutes)
These little gems of musical tongue twisters are designed to help you perfect an aspect of your technique.
Pay attention to what part of your technique they are trying to develop. Whether it is cleaner articulation or breath control, dynamic contrast or rapidity, your motivation will be enhanced by approaching them in the same way as you would repertoire so don’t forget interpretation and expression!
Repertoire (30-90 minutes)
This is the reward for all your discipline on the technical stuff. If you’re anything like me, of course you would prefer to spend all your time on pieces. Just remember that without the technical work, the time you spend on learning the notes in the right order is greatly exaggerated.
I’ll talk more about the detail of practicing repertoire in a future post.
- Don’t forget to factor in 15 minutes breaks every hour. The idea is to do something completely different. For maximum efficiency, I recommend you use these small snatches of time to run odd jobs such as making a phone call, send an email or check into Twitter.
- Allow time to set up and set down your instrument if appropriate and settle yourself into your practice space.
- Depending on what instrument you play, don’t make the mistake of over-practice. The result is often a stale performance and you’ll most certainly eventually pay in bodily aches and pains.
- Fewer hours of consistent steady practice is far more efficient than infrequent lengthy marathons and major panic a few weeks before an event.
Build In Flexibility
I prefer to work my practice “back-to-back” and ideally in the morning. This means that I only have one set-up and set-down. That said, I’m all too aware that real life isn’t like that and let’s face it, one of the joys of being freelance is flexibility.
Over the years I’ve learnt that I’m at my most efficient working in blocks of time.
For my practice, if I can’t manage back to back hours split by 15 minutes break every 60 minutes, I divide my three hours into two 1.5 hour halves – am and –pm. Between these I might have a doctor’s appointment, field a conference call in a different time zone or meet a writing deadline.
My writing projects are best produced in the evening – perhaps the glasses of Rioja help the creative flow? That said, I am quite prepared for an evening clarinet performance or afternoon recording session as all I have to do is re-arrange my blocks of time appropriately.
Don’t make the mistake of over commitment. Allow space to breathe and for unforeseen events such as your washing machine breaking down, an emergency trip to the dentist or a letter arriving that needs your urgent attention. If you think a project will take X hours to complete, always add 25% extra time.
You may find Mind Tools a useful general resource on time management and remember:
Living your life without a plan is like watching television with someone else holding the remote control” – Peter Turla.
Experiment and use what works for you.
Photo credit: Travispawlewski on Flickr