Optimizing Practice Time

“Of all my skills, none is more important
than the ability to organize my time.”
–Twyla Tharp, choreographer (The Creative Habit, p. 178)

Whether you’re a mature musician or a rising one, your creative output will hinge on your knack for carving out practice time and using it productively.

Here are 7 strategies that will help you make the most of your practice.

1. Plan Your Work, and Work Your Plan
Use the free downloads at MusiciansWay.com to document your goals, devise a schedule, and track your work patterns.

In particular, pinpoint numerous small aims that you can accomplish one after the other, and then strive to practice multiple times each day.

I’ve observed that many aspiring musicians don’t abide by consistent practice schedules, and then they become dejected by their scant progress.

If you don’t have a deliberate practice plan in place, make one after reading this post. Committing to a routine will boost your productivity and motivation.

2. Increase Gradually
If you want to incur a music-related injury, you can do no better than to abruptly hike your playing or singing time. To avert overuse problems, limit any increase to no more than 10-20% per week.

For instance, if you ordinarily make music 2 hours per day, then it’s safest for you to add a maximum of 12-24 minutes to your daily regimen for one week.

That formula assumes, however, that all else remains the same – e.g., your repertoire hasn’t jumped in difficulty and you aren’t playing an unfamiliar instrument. When those situations arise, it’s safest to ease off on practice and then step it back up.

But those time restrictions only pertain to your physical practice. You can still do as much score study and mental rehearsal as you want (see “Mental Imaging“).

If you attend a music festival, let’s say, where extensive practice is expected, build up your stamina in advance, and then blend copious mental practice into your plan. If an arduous schedule is ever thrust upon you, ask for help to set up a healthy routine.

3. Take Breaks
Mix in frequent micro-breaks during which you roll your shoulders or otherwise refresh yourself.

Then, in solo practice, play or sing no more than 25 minutes before taking a 5-minute breather. Group members might rest for 10 minutes after working for 50, as long as the rehearsal pace isn’t taxing.

See pages 75-82 of my book The Musician’s Way for additional thoughts about breaks as well as descriptions of six restorative movements that invigorate practice.

Most of all, take regular timeouts even when you don’t feel tired. Fatigue is a signal that you’ve reached or exceeded your limits. By pausing before fatigue arises, you enhance both wellness and learning.

4. Keep Creative Goals in Mind
When you aren’t making music, periodically remind yourself of your practice goals and timetable. Doing so will ready you to begin practicing at the drop of a hat.

You may also find that, by fueling your intention to practice, technical difficulties ease and memorization becomes a snap.

5. Sleep On It
Just before you turn in for the night, review the next day’s practice goals – look at your practice sheet or some scores and think about your objectives. Maybe recite an affirmation that galvanizes your commitment to your art: “I’m grateful to be able to make music.”

Pre-sleep thoughts influence your mental landscape upon rising: With music and gratitude in mind before you doze off, you’ll get up primed to practice.

6. Create First Thing
Allot some time to make music as soon as you rise, when your mind is at its most uncluttered. Even if you can only grab 20 minutes to warm up and touch on a couple of excerpts, be creative.

Not a morning person? If you aren’t inclined to practice in the a.m., at least do some mental rehearsal or score study. Morning work puts you in a music-making mode that can last all day.

7. Stay Flexible
As you assemble your routine, allow room for the unexpected. Sometimes an interruption will cut a session short; other times you’ll want to do extra work on a single piece.

Be organized but also open to possibilities because creativity and flexibility go hand in hand.

See Part 1 of The Musician’s Way for additional strategies that optimize practice sessions.

Related posts
Assessing Your Practice Habits
Efficient Practice
The Twin Aims of Deliberate Practice
Upgrading Your Practice Habits

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

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7 Responses to “Optimizing Practice Time”

  1. Dan Comerchero said:

    Jun 16, 10 at 00:38

    Cool post gerald!

    http://www.staffnotes.net works nicely as a practice log. Music in 1 column with notes to yourself, tempos, etc in the other column.


  2. Gretchen Saathoff said:

    Jun 17, 10 at 16:08

    Hi Gerald,

    Yes, great post!

    One additional consideration concerning #2: what you do away from your instrument counts in terms of repetitive strain potential. Taking a break by not using your hands/arms/shoulders/back after strenuous work makes a big difference.

    For example, lifting weights followed by practicing works much better if there is a break between the two.

    Take care,

  3. Gretchen Saathoff said:

    Jun 17, 10 at 22:53

    Still thinking about this post.

    Other stressful activities: carrying heavy objects, writing, typing, computer games, heavy txting.

    Small muscles need time off before and after practicing. Otherwise, RSI will sneak into your life undetected.

  4. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jun 17, 10 at 23:28

    Thanks very much, Gretchen. I emphasize the same points several times in The Musician’s Way. And I appreciate you bringing these issues to the fore because they fly under the radar of many musicians.
    As you know, when we maintain busy practice/playing schedules, balancing out other hand-intensive activities becomes crucial, yet it’s not always easy to do.

  5. Bobskeyboardz said:

    Jun 24, 10 at 22:12

    Time, as well as BPM practice and making sure everything lines-up is a very time consuming task, however the more you practice the faster youll become!

  6. Evan said:

    Jul 08, 10 at 08:10

    Thank you Gerald, Great comment on time flexibility and muscle building! Thank you

  7. deric said:

    Feb 05, 13 at 16:32

    Don’t spend a lot of your practice time on stuff you can already do. Use it for stuff you are having a hard time with.