3 Areas We Need to Maximize in Our Practice Session

by Donna Schwartz

How many times have you heard someone say this:

“You have to practice hours a day in order to begin to make some progress and sound good.”

It makes sense, right? I mean, how can you possibly get any better if you only put in a few minutes every day? Here’s the thing – if you want to be a world-class performer, then YES, you do need to put in the time. And, the top performers know how to maximize music practice time to get results. But not everyone wants, or needs to be a world-class performer…

But what if you just want to play music for friends and family? Or play in your local church, community band or jam with friends in a rock band? Or maybe you do want to get good enough to perform on the weekends with a band?

But the problem is, you just don’t have enough time….

Time: Everyone's Enemy

Let’s face it, as adults our time is extremely limited and very valuable. We have work obligations, family obligations, we need time to unwind… We have to figure out ways to maximize our time so we can do the things that are important to us. But how do we maximize our time, especially when we have little or no time to practice everyday?

What if we took that enemy, Time, and used it to our advantage?

Funny little personal story…

When I was growing up, my mom would make us go to bed earlier than my friend’s moms. (It was frustrating as a kid, but I am grateful for that today.)

But if we wanted to stay up a little later to watch a new show we had to “save time.” (Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley were big at the time.) How do you “save time”, you might ask?

My bedtime was 8:00 every weeknight. If Happy Days was on Tuesday night at 8pm and it lasted for a 1/2 hour, the night before I would have to go to bed at 7:30 to make up for the 1/2 hour. If I wanted to stay up and also watch Laverne & Shirley, which was on at 8:30 Tuesday nights, I would have to go to bed at 7:00 the night before. (I actually can’t believe I remember what day and time those shows were on – that’s too funny )

What’s the point of this crazy story from my childhood? No, not that my mom was so strict….. (I hope she’s not reading this article )

She taught us to take advantage of time, use it wisely and figure out ways to get things done in the time that we had. From that lesson, I figured out how to make schedules to accomplish all my homework tasks, instrument practicing, playing sports and chores. This would lead to a lifetime of being able to accomplish many things in a short amount of time. The following is a personal mantra of mine that I often relay to students as a reminder of the importance of time:

The worst thing you can do to someone is waste their time. Why? Because you can never get time back.

In order to maximize our time, we need to first analyze how we are spending it every day.

We all have 24 hours in a day; the people who achieve the most know how to organize and prioritize their time to be most productive.

Here’s a challenge for you: over the next 5 days, write down everything you do throughout the day and how much time it took. Be totally honest, and don’t edit; just write down your activities and how long they took.

Using me as an example, it would look something like this:

8-8:30 am: shower

8:30 – 9 am: stretches, breakfast

9-10 am: writing session to complete an article

10 – 11 am: research a topic that will help me write my next article

11 – 11:30 am: Break – take a walk

and so on…

You get the point..

Once you commit to doing this, you will see how much free time you have and where you can fit in a practice session. You may have noticed that there are times throughout the day where instead of watching that NCIS Marathon or playing Candy Crush you could put some time in the practice room.

Now, make a commitment to set aside a particular 1/2 hour block of time everyday to practice. Maybe you are a morning person and feel that you are better off practicing from 7 – 7:30am. Or maybe you prefer to practice right after dinner from 7:30 – 8pm. Set aside that time and commit to sticking to it as your personal time to practice.

You’ve set aside your daily practice time and have now conquered that enemy of “not enough time.” What’s the next step?

The 3 Main Areas We Need to Maximize Music Practice

What you include in your practice session depends upon a few factors:

  • What playing level you are currently at (Beginner, Intermediate – playing for 3-7 years, Advanced – playing for more than 8 years, and Professional – this is your life)
  • What styles of music you play or want to play – for example, Jazz musicians need to not only build technique, but also build their jazz vocabulary by learning licks (patterns), chord changes and tunes.
  • Your specific instrument – for example, Brass players need to spend a lot of time on flexibility and endurance, Woodwind players – finger coordination, so their practice time needs to reflect that
  • Your performance schedule – if you perform regularly, you need to think about endurance, mock auditions or run-throughs, stage presence, confidence and adding more and more time as the performance gets closer. 

Considering these factors will help you choose the best exercises and pieces to play and work on during your practice sessions.

Here are the three main areas that need to be considered when planning your practice:

  1. Tone – includes quality, embouchre (facial muscle development), breathing, long tones, articulation, posture, etc.
  2. Technique – (Coordination & Flexibility, Endurance, Vocabulary/Transcription) includes fingerings using steady time, coordinating air speed with embouchre control; ability to play the entire range of the instrument; Jazz patterns & tunes, learning chord progressions, transcribing solos
  3. Music – playing pieces or songs while only thinking of the end result (not worrying about technique); sight-reading

For beginner musicians, your practice may include:

  • long tones, lip slurs, interval exercises
  • practicing scales with a metronome
  • playing music (by ear or reading)

Reading music does NOT have to be included in your practice session. In fact, it shouldn’t. You can make that a separate time, any time of the day because it doesn’t require pulling out your instrument and making sound. The key is to hit each of these areas in each practice session. But your next question may be, “I have so much material to cover, how can I possibly fit it into a half hour?”

Next time, we get super-focused and apply this next Rule to do just that, and this tool will help you do just that...

Stay tuned for Part II of this article and using Donna's tactic of "The Rule of 10's."

Donna Schwartz has been teaching Band, Jazz Band and General Music in public schools for over 14 years, and private Brass and Saxophone lessons for over 27 years. She has performed on saxophones in NY and Los Angeles areas. Donna has written articles that have appeared in publications in SBO Magazine (School Band & Orchestra), NafMe (National Association for Music Education), AMP (National Association for Music Parents), and many others.

For more of her articles, visit Donna's site.

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