In this installment of “The Practice of Practice”, I will address the quality of your practice “space” and a clear approach to time management (vis-à-vis goal deadlines) that should maximize your effectiveness and enjoyment.
When I was a freshman student at Eastman School of Music, a generous and kind Doctoral student shared some wisdom with me about attaining success in my academic life. This student emphasized the importance of securing all the materials and resources connected to a particular class (text book, class notes, recordings, sharpened pencil, pen, etc.). Although most of this comes across as obvious, I have been amazed over the years at how many of my own students embark on projects or assignments without first making sure that they have all of the relevant information to execute the task.
If possible, it is helpful to establish a regular practice space. This serves a few purposes. First, you will save a lot of time by not having to collect all of your things. Second, you will develop a familiarity that will facilitate a more accurate appraisal of how you are doing by being in the same acoustical environment. Third, you will be more comfortable and relaxed and this should lead to clearer thinking.
Your space should be dry or have a healthy humidity of approximately 40-50%. This is also important for the “health” your instrument as wood contracts and expands through the seasons by various degrees depending on your climate. It should be quiet and have a strong light source, especially on your music stand. I prefer a uniformly adequate light source throughout, so that you can also easily perform other related tasks such as write in your note book, work on reeds, change strings, etc. The temperature should also not be so warm that it puts you to sleep and not so cold that your fingers or instrument (especially brass) are cold.
If you are playing an instrument while seated it is also important to have a chair or stool that is comfortable yet firm, is at the perfect height for you, does not have arms, is perfectly level and encourages good posture. I could write a complete blog on chairs. For those of you that play an instrument while seated; the very first and last skill that you are performing is SITTING. Chances are that if you are not sitting well, you won’t be playing well. While we are on this subject; please be aware of how you feel in all parts of your body in relation to muscular relaxation. You can and should be entirely comfortable. If you are sitting comfortably, you will be performing at the optimal level.
A mirror is very useful for spotting tension in your body or technical issues. Many percussion instruments are so visual that when I would practice, I would strive to “look” like my teacher. As I looked in the mirror I would try to replicate the same posture, movement, attitude and even confidence of my teacher. We learn so many difficult skills as children by unconsciously imitating those around us. It is possible to access those same learning methods as adults if we are willing to temporarily suspend our overly analytical minds and allow the unconscious or superconscious mind to take over. Without getting too deep into the weeds here (and maybe I already have) I would recommend a book that I read around 1977 called “The inner game of Tennis”.
Other items that are important to have at hand are: a notebook, practice log (we’ll discuss this in the “time” section), sharpened pencil and eraser, pen, tuner, metronome, recording device, clock and a stable music stand. You can jot down questions that come up or observations in your notebook. A metronome is another kind of mirror which will give you another perspective and an objective appraisal of your rhythmic accuracy, sense of time, etc. A metronome will also help you work to achieve a specific tempo on pieces or particular passages in an incremental and measurable way. A solid backed and stable music stand will eliminate falling music or unwanted backlighting as possible distractions. A recording device will allow you to be more subjective as you listen critically on playback. You will notice things that you didn’t hear while actually playing.
My science teacher in high school said on more than one occasion that "work expands itself according to the time allotted for it". I'm not sure that I got it in 9th grade but I have grown to understand and appreciate his words of wisdom. I believe that his point was that we are more efficient when we are accountable to deadlines, time tables and clear cut goals as opposed to when we are vague about what we're doing and when we'll do it. If you give yourself 2 hours to complete a task you'll likely take at least those 2 hours…and more. If you are having fun with your practice and not prone to destructive self-criticism it can be useful to set outrageous and unreasonable objectives and see where you land! Often, you wind up with a result that far exceeds your expectations.
Divide your practice into sections. Time is limited. Schedule specific time for particular events: 10 minute warm-up with 2 octave major scales and arpeggios in the cycle of fourths, 10 minutes of sight reading from the "so and so" book, 10 minutes of my assigned or selected piece of music. These time guidelines assist in making you more conscious and accountable. It is easy to lose focus and engagement during practice if you don’t have a clear time frame. This is why it is important to have a visible clock in your space.
Schedule a regular time each day if possible. Choose a time of day when you will have energy. Like exercise, a productive practice session will most likely release endorphins (research says) propelling you into your next activity. A log will help you evaluate your allocation of time for various aspect of your practice, your progress and your consistency. Looking over your log and constantly observing your strengths and weaknesses will lead to reassessing where you need to invest your time in order to attain your desired results.
Finally, use your time wisely! I have had many students over the years who insisted that they didn’t have time to practice. When I pressed further to know their daily schedule, we found that they were wasting a lot of time with activities that were not beneficial. We all need moments to relax and decompress but excessive television viewing, internet surfing, Facebook viewing and video games can consume an inordinate amount of your precious time and keep you from activities that enrich and empower you (exercise, practice, study, volunteer work, etc.)!
In closing, I want to reiterate that our careful and conscious use of our practice space and time will undoubtably lead to more fulfilling, rewarding and enjoyable sessions. Watch for the next chapter of “The practice of Practice”.