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Effective Practice on a Tight Schedule, Part 1

One of the challenges of being an amateur musician is getting time in on your instrument while juggling the demands of work, family, and other obligations. Sometimes we get defensive when this subject comes up, and we respond with the typical, “Man, I just play to have fun, so why should I practice so much.” Now, I understand that the amount of time someone needs on the instrument is relative, but to quote one of my college professors, “playing music is more fun when it’s good.” This is something I have really tried to take to heart as I pursue my masters degree; and since I also work full-time I’m constantly looking for ways to get more practice time in or make it more efficient.

This will be the first of two blog posts that describe what I’ve learned over the past few years. The first provides a basic three step framework to get your practice time going in the right direction. Next week’s post will provide some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up. As you go through this, you might realize that the steps are actually pretty obvious, and if you are a pro or a full-time music student, honestly, I hope you’ve already got all of this handled. However, for us amateurs, it is easy to forget that these principles need to be applied to our music, or sometimes we become complacent and just need a kick in the butt to get moving again. So here we go:

Step 1: Practice with Purpose / Set a Goal

Your practice will be more effective if you have something you are working toward. The goal can be pretty much whatever you want it to be: preparing to audition for a spot in your local orchestra, an upcoming concert, or learning all of the guitar solos from your favorite album. Anything music-related that you want to accomplish is a good goal. What is important is that you construct your music goals like you would any other serious project goal. Make it ambitious, but realistic, and make it measurable. Focus on the outcomes you can control, rather than those you can’t. For example, a good goal is “I will audition for the second chair trumpet spot of the WSU Orchestra in August.” This is better than, “I want to play in the WSU Orchestra.” The first has a specific timeline, is measurable in the sense that there is a specific set of audition materials that need to be prepared, and would be realistic within my abilities. The outcome is also based on something that I can control, which is my own preparedness for the audition rather than the results of that audition. In this case, if I did everything I could to prepare for the audition and played to the best of my ability, I would still have accomplished my goal, even if I didn’t get the part. Having a good goal sets you up for the next step.

Step 2: Schedule your Practice Time

No really. Get out your planner, or your phone, or whatever you use to manage your time, and put it in your schedule. Then stick to that schedule. Make it a priority. I won’t say how much time you need, that depends on you and the goal you are trying to accomplish, but you have to schedule it. This is another area where you have to be realistic. I can do a lot of practicing on my lunch hour at work, but I work at a university where the music building is only a five minute walk away. If you work in a call center and you play trombone, you’re going to have a hard time practicing during your lunch breaks. Find the times that work best for you. If you don’t have any big blocks of time, that is ok. I generally find that my practice time is more effective with smaller, consistent blocks of time throughout the week rather than with one or two lengthy practice sessions.

Step 3: Have a Plan for Your Practice

It’s all too easy during your scheduled practice time to pick up the instrument and just noodle around, or play the same old tunes over and over again. It’s comfortable, and sometimes you’re just so happy that you have some time on the instrument, you don’t really care what you’re playing. Resist this temptation. When you are scheduling your practice time, put together a plan of what you are going to practice. I recommend doing it at the beginning of the week, maybe even make it a part of your first weekly practice session. Look at your goal from step 1 and list out the different things you need to practice, then put those down as assignments in your schedule throughout the week. You can still leave some time in there for playing those old tunes you love and noodling around, those are good things, too. Just make sure the bulk of your practice time is spent working toward your goal.

That’s it. I told you it was simple, but if you approach your practice time with these three steps in mind I guarantee that your practicing will be more efficient and that your playing will improve. Next week I will follow these up with a couple of tips and tricks that can help musicians, especially us amateurs, to get more out of your practice time and deal with some of the hiccups that real life tends to throw at you.

Effective Practice on a Tight Schedule, Part 2

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