“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.
© 2010 Gerald Klickstein