Smart Practice

I have a deep, dark confession – I have a day job outside of music.

I know there are many others out there like myself trying to balance their passions and their need for survival which in this economy do not always go hand in hand. With an 8-5 job, studio teaching on nights and weekends and smatterings of rehearsals and performances, practice time is often in short supply. How do we use the small amount of time allotted in our schedules to focus on sustaining foundational skills, achieving performance goals and sharpening new techniques? The word “smart practice” is sometimes dropped in relation to reprioritizing practice time to achieve particular goals however the definition of what qualifies as “smart” practice time remains nebulous. Is “smart practice” simply setting and sticking to a routine no matter what? Or is it only practicing a certain piece on certain days of the week? Does it refer to working only on the difficult bits and if so how should we work on troublesome sections effectively in such small amount of time? In today’s blog I will outline a few ways to make the most out of your practice time and suggestions for what “smart practice” means for those of us with little time on our hands.
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Block Out Specific Times to Practice and Stick to your Schedule
We all know the old adage that 30 minutes of focused practice each day is far more productive than a 2-3 hour cram session on Sunday afternoons. It is also true that unfocused practice sessions that expand beyond your allotted schedule are a drain on time and resources. I say this because I live it. Now and then I will promise myself “only 1 hour” of focused practice on weeknights however after my timer goes off I often switch to unfocused, “I will play what I want because it is fun”, musical meanderings. I am not saying that creative musical meanderings do not have a time or place (they do! It’s called Saturday) but when you are short on time or simply want to use your time to its fullest potential, it is more important to practice efficiently with your goals in mind. My practice power hours are typically between 8-10 pm on the weeknights. Sometimes this is shortened to 8:30-9:30 pm if I am working on other projects but I use this hour to practice to a specific goal. If you wait for a convenient time to practice to materialize in your evening, chances are it will never come knocking because life gets in the way. Find your power hour(s) and stick to it. Download a timer app on your smart phone, set an egg timer or recruit your husband, significant other or even your kids to annoy you to stop practicing when your allotted time is up. Sometimes the most effective work produced in this world is that which is created on a deadline.
 
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Set a Theme and Game Plan for Each Day
All or nothing thinking creates blockages within progress. Guess what? You do not have to practice all the music your have on your plate every day. I know what you are thinking – Blasphemy! Feeling or thinking you need to work on everything every time you open your flute case to practice will lead to burnout and you may start finding creative ways to procrastinate your overwhelming practice sessions. I have been there – water the plants, sweep the floors, vacuum the house at 10 pm, read a book, etc. – you name it. It was not until I learned to organize themes for each practice session and priorities within those themes that my shorter weekday practice session became effective and I began accomplishing more in a shorter period of time (therefore helping me to sleep a bit better at night). I like to divide my practice session into 3 parts: 1.) Foundational Theme of the Day (tone, scales, flexibility, articulation, chunking, etc.); 2.) Piece of the Day #1 and 3.) Piece of the Day #2 or Excerpts of the Day. Within this framework I give the entire session one principal goal. On Mondays, for example, this may be a focus on strengthening technique with slow practice. On Tuesdays I may focus on tone improvement in the middle register. Wednesdays are typically chunking days – what difficult passages can I chunk to improve finger dexterity? My practice plan for the first part of the week therefore may look something like this:
MONDAY – Long Tones (low register focus); Piston Sonata, Movement 1 (goal – improving resonance of passages in the lower octave);  Rememorizing Nielsen Concerto (pages 1-2)
 
TUESDAY – Scales (varied articulation on Taffanel/Gaubert Exercise #4); Dutilleux Sonatine (focus on cadenzas, ironing out scales and slow practice on articulated sequences); Excerpts – Mendelssohn Scherzo, Voiliere, William Tell, Symphonic Metamorphosis
 
WEDNESDAY – Flexibility Exercises (Trevor Wye Tone Book); Karg-Elert Appassionata Sonata (focus on chunking technical passages); Rememorizing Nielsen Concerto (pages 3-4, focus on chunking difficult passages on page 4)
 
Set up your themes and practice plans on Sunday night before the chaos of the week begins to unfold. Stick to your schedule and remove all else from your music stand each day (if something else is on your stand it is likely to distract you from your core daily goals – I’m talking to you, Ibert Concerto). You will be pleasantly surprised how much more you accomplish using a simplified practice schedule built upon fewer yet simplified core goals applied to 1-2 pieces per session.
 
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Bracket Sections that Need TLC and Don’t Fix what isn’t Broken
Right now stop reading this, grab your music and a pencil and place brackets {   } between the sections in your music that you know you need to practice. This includes those pesky technical passages in the high register, the octave jumps in the melody that jump out of the texture in not so cantabile ways and the articulated patterns that plague your tongue, fingers, brain, etc.. These are your priorities. Improving these weaknesses are what stands between you and achieving your performance goals. I know how enjoyable it is to play passages that you know you can always nail or beautiful melodies that sing to your heart but when you only have a short amount of practice time to work with on the daily, those sections of the music are gorgeous, exciting distractions. Practice your brackets. Break them apart. Practice them slowly. Chunk them. Change the rhythm. Transpose them to another key (warning: this will be a bit mind blowing). Slur everything. Tongue everything. Use your time to creatively think about your weakness and practice passages with particular goals in mind. Devoting your time to passages that are already in decent shape is like trying to fix what isn’t broken. Instead break out your toolbox and focus on that busted pipe in the musical kitchen.
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Review, Revise and Restructure
Sunday nights are magical because they force you to think about the week ahead before it happens. Use this time to think about what you accomplished in your practice session over the previous week. What worked well? What did you spend too much time working on? What did you did you not spend enough time working on? How is your overall sound and what could be improved? Are there passages that are still sloppy or not quite up to snuff? What would you like to memorize? Do you have a concert coming up? Did you stick to your practice schedule last week as planned? This is the perfect time to review, revise and restructure. Think about your goals. Think about your performance deadlines. Restructure your practice plan based on what your learned from last week and what you wish to accomplish this week. Remember that practice is a process and like any process there is an element of planning that must be incorporated to lead to true progress.
 
What does “smart practice” mean to you? How do you design your own practice sessions when you are short on time? What does your weekly practice plan look like? Please comment below!
 
Happy fluting!
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2 comments

  1. Good for you for being honest that you also have a day job. So many musicians lie about that. You are quite right that once you are no longer a music student then you end up practicing differently…..more truncated…..more organized with what you do practice….less time wasted & more focus during that shorter period of time spent on fluting. Basically though if you keep going with the flute and DON’T quit, you’ll achieve your music goals AND do it amidst all the other daily challenges of life as an adult.

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