The second part of a two-part blog post aimed at the amateur musician trying to find ways to practice more effectively. In the first post I put forward a three-step strategy to prioritize and organize needed practice time. In this post, I want to provide a few tips on how to make that strategy more effective and easier to implement.
#1: Be Flexible
In reality this is the most important part of being an amateur musician. Let’s say you have put together the perfect roadmap. You’ve established a great musical goal. You have your practice time all scheduled out for the week, and you have a plan for each of those sessions. Then life happens. You get called into work, a kid gets sick, or your brother’s car breaks down and you need to pick him up. Life happens, and while you should make practicing a priority, there are times when you are going to have to shift your schedule around. What’s important is that you be flexible and don’t give up.
For example, last Wednesday I had intended to practice during my lunch break. However, when I got to work, I had to put out a number of fires, got behind, and didn’t really get to take a lunch break. Since I had skipped lunch I rescheduled my practice time at the end of the day when I could take that hour to leave early. Inevitably, I got a call before I was about to leave that I couldn’t say no to and I ended up staying late anyway. But, I stayed flexible, and was able to squeeze my practice time in that evening while everyone else was getting ready to go to an appointment later that night. This brings us to the next tip.
#2: Look for Moments of Downtime
You would be surprised how often you have a spare 5 or 10 minutes. Whether you are waiting for your next appointment, waiting for the kids to get back from school, or are goofing around on Facebook before your favorite show starts, there are inevitable times during the day when, for at least a few minutes, you find yourself not really doing much. Where possible, seize those moments of time and use them. Pick up the instrument and run scales or other exercises, or use that time to run the “for fun” tunes that you like to play so that you can use your regular practice time for the hard stuff. It’s important to not try and schedule these times or you’ll end up driving yourself crazy. Just keep your eyes open and take advantage of opportunities when they come up.
#3: Play With Other People
The act of practicing is often a solitary pursuit. Ideally, however, music is a shared experience. So get out there once and a while and play with some other musicians. Whether it is a regular gig, a jam band, or just getting together once in a while to run through some tunes or exercises with a friend, you should find times to play with other people. Don’t know any musicians in your area? Go to your local music store. They often have postings of bands looking for musicians and the employees know about community groups, both formal and informal, for people who want to get together and play.
#4: Let your Family In
This last applies to those of you who have significant others, spouses, children, or other family members that live with you. Let them in to your practice sessions. When we are practicing toward a goal we have a tendency to lock ourselves in a room away from everyone else. That way we can be free of distractions and hammer things out. There are times when you will absolutely have to do this. But for the amateur, and maybe sometimes even for the professional, our career and reputation aren’t riding on every single note we play. We can afford, and even benefit from letting people in on our practice sessions. This shouldn’t be formal or complicated. Just let your spouse sit in the room and work on his or her own projects while you play, and take the time to chat a little in between exercises. When your kids knock on the door and want to try and play your instrument, give them the chance. Let them hold it and blow or strum a few notes. After a minute or two, take it back and keep practicing. The more you let your family participate in your playing, the more they identify it as a shared experience with them rather than something that takes you away from them. They start to take pride in your musical abilities and want to support you. They go to your concerts. They are more forgiving when you are making a lot of noise in the living room playing along with Maynard Ferguson tunes. Giving up a few minutes of your practice time each session can add up to a lifetime of musical enjoyment between you and your family down the road.
So now you have a plan and a few tips to help you execute that plan. In the future, I’ll talk about some things that we should all be doing as part of our practicing, but for now, stick to your schedule and go make some music.