One of the constant refrains I hear from students when I admonish them regarding insufficient practice is “I just don’t have enough time to practice!” Whether we are discussing the multiplied hours of individual practice expected of performance majors, or the lesser requirements of music education and other non-performance music majors, the complaint is the same, as is my advice. In today’s post I am condensing my responses to the “not enough time” complaint into five simple principles. While I am writing with college and university music majors in mind, the same principles will to some extent apply to anyone who wants increase his skills on a musical instrument or instruments.
1. Make Practice a Priority
If you want to practice sufficiently, you have to give special priority to individual practice among each day’s activities. This doesn’t necessarily mean that developing your performing skills is your top long-term professional goal. Those that aspire to careers as conductors, composers, musicologists, etc. will, of course, become increasingly focused upon concerns in those areas. However, in most areas of study (both within and outside of music) if a particular bit of reading, writing, or other study is not completed today there is little harm in putting it off until tomorrow, unless such delaying continues perpetually. Individual practice is not like that. While I do concede that there will be days during which one can devote a greater or lesser amount of time to individual practice than others, the general principle remains that practice must be a daily activity if it is to be effective. Once a day has passed without individual practice, that opportunity is gone, and attempts to “make up for it” with extra practice the following day or days will be of limited utility. Daily individual practice must be prioritized because it can’t be “put off until tomorrow.”
2. Schedule Your Practice Time
If you want to practice sufficiently, you must schedule your practice time, and then hold to that schedule. When students come to me with the “I don’t have enough time to practice” complaint it is often followed by something like “I just get to the end of every day and realize ‘Well, I ran out of time again.’” And yet, when I look at the student’s schedule I see multiple times when individual practice could have taken place with just a little planning. Music majors in particular spend the majority of each school day in the music building, with their instruments near at hand and usually (at least at our university) several available practice rooms. Again, with just a little planning, these students can easily turn a day with “not enough time” into a very productive practice day by capitalizing on short bits of downtime in the music building and using them for individual practice. Indeed, you will likely find that practicing in multiple short sessions of 20-30 minutes is much easier to do and more effective than one or two “marathon” practice sessions.
An additional note on this point: Schedule more practice time than the minimum amount required of you. Not only should you not be satisfied with the “bare minimum,” but you should acknowledge that sometimes “life happens” and can prevent you from making one of your scheduled practice sessions. If you have “budgeted” extra time in your schedule, these (hopefully rare) events will not devastate your practicing (and your performances and lesson grades) as much as they otherwise would.
3. Start Early
By and large, musicians are “night owls.” We are accustomed to late-night performances and other engagements, and generally like to operate on a “go to bed at 3am, wake up at 11am” kind of schedule. Unfortunately, “real life” doesn’t operate on that schedule, particularly here in the academic world. Rare indeed is the music major that gets by without taking 8am classes, and then the frenetic pace of activity continues throughout the day. And yet, one of the best ways to ensure that you are practicing adequately is to schedule your first practice session before your first class. And so, if your first class is at 8am, then practicing begins at 6:30 or 7. Is that early? Yes. Is it miserable? Often. Is it effective? Very, and the feeling of accomplishment in knowing that at least some of the day’s practice goals have been met so early is invigorating, as is the knowledge that, after one or two more short sessions later in the day, one is often done with individual practice by around 5pm. Start early!
4. Work Before Play
At all costs, resist the urge to say to yourself, “I’m going to go hang out with my friends for a while and then practice,” or “I’m going to go to lunch and then practice,” or, even worse, “I’m going to play video games for a bit and then practice.” If you start practicing you will eventually finish for the day. If you start doing homework you will eventually finish for the day. If you start “having fun” you will never finish, and thus never practice. Again, schedule your practice, and hold to that schedule. If this means declining offers for social and recreational engagements during the day, so be it. If you start early and hold to a practice schedule, you’ll have time remaining at the end of at least some days for socializing, work, and recreation, but if you do those things first, you’ll find that, mysteriously, there is no “left over” time for practice. Work before play!
5. Never Be Satisfied
While there will of necessity be some point at which you must say “that’s enough for today” whether because of time constraints or plain physical fatigue, on some level you must never be satisfied with your playing or with your practicing. I can tell you from my own experience that the times when I was least satisfied with my playing were the times that I practiced the most frequently and the most effectively, and as a result grew the most as a player. Conversely, the few times when I have even begun to entertain the notion that I was “good enough” were immediately followed by precipitous declines in my playing ability. This has, for the most part, been true for my students, as well. The ones that practice the hardest and play the best are always unsatisfied, while those that are content to “get by” fail to do even that. In the music business you are either improving or declining; the “plateau” is a myth!
Do understand that this can be taken too far. I am not suggesting that one should become self-deprecating or make negative value judgments about himself because of areas in his playing that need work. I mean to say only that if you want motivation to prioritize and schedule your practice time, starting early and putting off “having fun” until you’re finished, then don’t allow yourself to be satisfied, to become complacent with your playing. Constantly strive to do better!