If you are reading this article, music is a high priority in your life and performing may even be your favorite thing to do. Although I believe that mastering the craft of music-making is a worthwhile way to spend one’s time, I sincerely hope that there is more to your life than music making. A balanced life full of hobbies, interests, friends and family will give you a rich variety of experience that can be drawn upon when making music.
Below are a few tips for getting the most out of the time you spend practicing so that you can spend more time living.
1) Put your phone away (airplane mode/do-not-disturb)
The goal here is very simple: minimize distractions. The capabilities of our smartphones have become a ruthless double-edged sword. On one hand we have amazing tools like tuners, metronomes, and recorders at our fingertips, but we also have more opportunities to get distracted than ever before. Calls, texts, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook (my biggest distraction), Instagram, Candy Crush….the list goes on and on. It may not seem like responding to a text or checking your Facebook notification is a big deal, but according to a study done at UC Irvine, it takes up to 25 minutes to get back on task after a distraction.
For me, 25 minutes is the optimal length of a practice session, so if I get distracted 5-10 minutes in, the remainder of my session is rendered useless. Want to get serious about practicing? Start by getting your phone on do not disturb (decent) or airplane mode (best). Very few calls/texts/events in life can’t wait 20 minutes before you deal with them.
Spend your time wisely, you will never get it back!
2) Log your practice in a journal
Peter Drucker, recognized in 2014 by Forbes magazine as the father of modern management, has a famous saying, “What gets measured, gets managed.”
Want to lose weight? Track your food intake. Want to get stronger? Track your exercise, nutrition, and rest. Want to close the gap between your real life sound and the Ideal sound that lives in your head? You’ve guessed it, track your practice.
The goal here is to create data that we can analyze over time and compare to our progress. Only with a record of your practice will you be able to figure out what is helping you improve and what isn’t. All you have to do is write down whatever you play during your practice session. If you have a fundamentals routine, you can write down “routine” instead of every exercise. Not only does this help us track, but it also helps us find comfort in the daily steps we are taking toward our long term goals. You will slowly become addicted to adding entries to you practice journal.
As #FredBrass16 Artist, Marty Hackleman, would say, “My goal is to get a little better than yesterday and not as good as tomorrow.” For more information about tracking your practice and goal setting, check out Lance LaDuke’s - Music Practice Coach (available for free if you sign up for his newsletter http://www.musicpracticecoach.com/)
3) Record yourself often
This step is the one everyone says they do, but few people actually do. Recording our practice and listening back is the only way we can have an accurate idea about how we sound. Our brains are incredibly powerful machines that are fantastic at performing and judging, but terrible at doing both at the same time.
Recording ourselves allows us to focus with 100% intensity on performing, because we know that we will have the opportunity to listen back later. One great way to do this is to create a gmail account that is YourNamePractice for easy free storage. For each entry in your practice journal, record one take and send it to your new recording database for reviewing later.
Important note, the best recording device is the one that you use! High quality recordings are of no use to you if they are never listened too. The recordings we can get on a simple iPhone voice memo will not give you the best representation of your tone, but you will be able to clearly hear intonation, time, and style. I like to do my recording in the App Tonal Energy because it allows me to listen back in half time, observe note shapes, and monitor my intonation all at the same time.
4) Practice in 15-20 min sessions
With the rise of the technology like google, we have become accustomed to instant gratification and our attention spans have become ever shorter. It is a sad truth, but rather than fight it, I plan for it. I personally know that somewhere around 30 minutes into my practice sessions, my mind start to lose its edge.
As a result, I like to keep my sessions to a focused 20 minutes with five minutes or so in between. The value of this strategy is backed up by the research of Dr. David Sousa about the Primacy/Recency effect, which shows that we retain the most information from the beginning and the end of our practice sessions. Shorter practice sessions are therefor more effective because they create more beginnings and endings (productive time) while minimizing the middles when we are least productive.
Another advantage to 15-20min sessions with short breaks in between is the minimizing of muscle fatigue. Imagine your chops are a sound making engine. If the engine stays in the green, it will wear out ever so slowly, and a short break will bring this happy engine back to near the original level of freshness. However, if that engine is forced to work too hard and dips into the red zone, the only way to get back into the green is to take it to the shop, aka - taking a nap. Too much time in the red can lead to injuries, and it will reduce the returns of future sessions that day.
If you are no longer making your best sound, stop and take a nap.
5) Know thy self
Some days I have no interest in fundamentals. I look at my daily routine like it a dose of disgusting medicine that my mom is trying to make me drink. Although I know that my routine is the best way to start my practice, the real goal is simply getting started. On days like this, I pull out an etude book or favorite solo to help me start playing, and transfer to fundamentals and routines once I am grooving. I know myself well enough to know that if I get started, I will very likely play significantly more than whatever my starting material happened to be. I also know that if all I play that day is etudes, I can take satisfaction in the fact that I played something rather than taking the day off.
Knowing yourself may mean listening to the song that helps you get focused or watching a youtube for inspiration. Maybe it means doing a daily workout from the Breathing Gym DVD or sitting down for a five minute meditation. Do whatever is needed for YOU to succeed.
These tips have simple themes. Increase focus on the task at hand, increase feedback, increase self awareness. You can use these techniques to practice as little as possible and still sound ok, or you can use them to jump to the next level. Regardless of what you choose, I hope that you get more out of the time you spend improving your craft.