I have a lot of middle school and high school students who are very high-achieving and overbooked. They are looking for ways to get the most results out of limited practice time. Here are some ideas about time management and ways to make your practice more effective.
This blog post grew out of a video presentation I developed for the Suzuki Association of the Americas’ Parents as Partners online video course. I had way too many ideas to fit them into the 5-minute video, so I decided to expand on them in this blog post.
1. Getting started: get that instrument out of the case!
Often the hardest part of practicing is just getting started! Sometimes, we resist things that we know we want to do, but we also know will take a lot of work. Often, the first step toward doing that thing is the most difficult. If you feel that sense of resistance about practice and it takes you a while to get your instrument out of its case, then see what happens when you take that barrier away. If you’re a violin or viola player, get a string swing (you can mount it on the wall or get one that attaches to your music stand). If you’re a cellist, buy yourself a box stand or less-expensive metal cello stand so you can just lift it right out and get started, so that you don’t waste time getting the instrument out of its case. Please consider your pet and sibling situation as you decide which option will work the best for you. I keep my violin in its open case on top of a bookshelf, because that’s a safe place for it to be and it’s just ready to go whenever I want it.
Many of my students have reported that it's so much easier for them to practice when their instrument is already out. Some of them find that they just pick their instrument up and start playing several times per day if it's already "out" and ready for them.
2. Consider your own personal learning style and personality as you plan your practice schedule
Each person has a distinct learning style and personality that influences the type of practice routine that will work best for that person. There are many great books that can help you figure out what will work for you, but two of my favorites are Life Lens (by Michele Horner, a Suzuki guitar teacher who classifies learning styles and how they relate to learning music) and The Four Tendencies (by Gretchen Rubin, who explains how people respond to both internal and external expectations).
If you’re a person who does very well with schedules, then schedule your practice into your day. If you tend to rebel against schedules, find a way to make practicing an easy thing to do on the spur of the moment (the string swing idea above has really helped some of the more impulsive practicers in my studio.) If you need accountability in order to get something done, ask a friend to check how your practice went each day, or use a #100daysofpractice hashtag on social media.
You may also be a person who does not do well with your parent telling you to practice. When I was a teenager, I got very angry when my mom reminded me about practicing, even if she did it kindly! I would find myself basically throwing away my practice session because I was holding onto resentment about getting nagged. I’m not saying that this is a good way to be! But if that’s the way that you react, then figure out a way to initiate your own practice. Set your cell phone alarm or find another way to build it into your day.
I was a junior in high school before I figured out that I had much more effective, happy practices when I just did it myself before my mom felt the need to remind me.
3. Try interspersing different types of work in shorter blocks of time
Whenever I have a lot to do, I do my work in 20-minute blocks of time. Most of us can only really focus well on something for about 20 minutes before we lose focus, slow down, or start making a lot of mistakes. I set my timer and work really hard on one task for 20 minutes, making sure that I focus that whole time. When the timer dings, I’m done with that activity and I move onto something else. Knowing that my time on the task is limited to 20 minutes helps me to be able to focus and resist distractions, knowing I’ll get a break. The awesome thing about this is that you can use your practice, homework (even different subjects for school), and other tasks as breaks from each other, getting a lot more accomplished in a shorter amount of time. Read up on interleaving learning if you’re interested in how this will help your brain to retain what you’ve learned in each subject.
If you intersperse your instrument practice with homework and other tasks, you will avoid the problem of trying to complete your homework first and running out of time to practice. You don’t want to lose your chance to practice that day because your family was asleep by the time you were finally ready to make noise.
My students tend to resist the idea of the 20-minute focus blocks initially, but once they try it, they love how much more efficient they are, in both homework and practice!
4. Keep track of your assignments and your progress each day.
Many of my students don’t have enough time to get through every single assignment, every day. This makes it tricky for them to keep on top of each assignment and to have all of them ready for the next lesson. As my dad advised me when I was a teenager, “Plan your work and work your plan.”
If you’re good with lists, write down what you need to get done that whole week, and write down what you did each day so you can keep track of what assignments you need to hit the next day. If you’re an Excel spreadsheet person, use that spreadsheet! I know musicians who have amazing spreadsheets of all the stuff they want to get done, when they worked on what, how much time they spent on each element, etc. Some of my students get remarkable results when they use an assignment chart, even a simple one like this practice chart I created for my students.
Sometimes just seeing the dates and how much you’re accomplishing each day helps with motivation to practice on future days. It can also be a reality check if you tend to think you’re practicing more than you actually are.
Ready for more practice tips? Go to part 2!
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