The Robot and The Wanderer – Time Management for Musicians, part 2

In part 1 of this article, we discovered that our first priority to ourselves should be balance.  As we are able to get away from the practice room, we can discover how interactions with others can seriously change our perspectives on the music we write and perform.  Now that we are comfortable with stepping away from our instrument for periods of time, we can explore how much more effective we can make the hours that we do still practice.

Efficient Practice – Step 2

There is so much that can be discussed about efficient practice that I am sure another post will be forthcoming down the road.  However, for today lets talk about 2 general groups of musicians and the practicing pitfalls that they encounter:

Practicer 1 – The Robot

You find yourself repeating difficult passagework in hopes that building muscle memory and new synapses will eventually lead to flawless performance.  Or perhaps you mindlessly repeat difficult spots for so long that you lose track of time and before you know it, 1 or 2 hours have gone by!  Or perhaps you are one of those people who watch the football or basketball game on your phone while the rest of your body goes through the ‘practicing motions’.  Two words for you: stop, PLEASE!

If you practice at home and live with others, the first things that you will fix when you stop are your relationships!  As we discovered in Part 1, those relationships are more important than we sometimes allow ourselves to recognize.

But beyond the social positivities, if you fall into this group you should seriously consider changing your practice habits so your music can also benefit.  Let’s say you are concerned that this really difficult spot isn’t going to be there for you when you are in front of people, on stage, maybe a little (or very) nervous, and/or during an audition or any one of a number of different but important occasions.  Well, I’ve got some hard news for you: Your constant repetition isn’t really making it any more likely for you to ‘nail it’ on stage.  You are only building one part of the performance equation, the muscle memory.  Because of that, you are just as likely to totally fall apart as you are to get it right.  When we are in front of an audience, feeling nervous, anxious, and stressed, our brain can trigger the ‘fight or flight’ status, sending the hormone cortisol everywhere.  Cortisol tells your brain that absolutely nothing is more important than your survival… literally.  Ever been in front of people feeling nervous and completely blanked out on something you’ve practiced for hours, maybe even performed before?  That’s cortisol functioning at it’s best.  It very literally stops your brain from accessing ‘unimportant’ information.  The good news is that it’s not your fault; it’s a human reflex.  What is your fault is a crash and burn in front of others because you didn’t take the time to program in anything more than muscle memory.

Stay mindful during your practice.  Every repetition needs a purpose.  And it needs a purpose much bigger than ‘just get it right’.  When you do want and need to repeat spots because they are difficult, be sure every repetition is musical, has emotional meaning, has varying tempos, has differing articulation, and more.  What I’m saying is, be human and not a robot.  You’ll see tremendous differences in your efficiency (and your musicality) if you stay fully engaged.

Practicer 2 – The Wanderer

You find it difficult to stop in the middle of songs and pieces, and perhaps even more difficult to start in the middle of a piece.  Quite the opposite of The Robot, you spend most of your practicing time performing full versions of whatever it is that you are working on, finding it hard to see the trees within the forest.  Your prescription is a bit different.

Because your tendency is to perform during your practicing time, consider ways in which you can discipline yourself to work on more details and less broad-picture.  Personally, I like to imagine my practicing progress on a mental graph.  The peaks on my graph are places where I feel confident and comfortable.  The valleys are places that, for any number of reasons, are not good yet.  Some of those reasons could be: technical execution, lack of emotion, lack of ‘proper’ emotion in context, tone color choices, phrasing, and more.  As I practice, I spend more effort in the valleys and less on the hills.  Over time, the valleys and hills even out and become a straight line.  When that happens, I can go back and practice performing larger sections again.

Like The Robot, stay mindful during your practice.  Your ‘valleys’ are never going to be as comfortable as your ‘hills’ unless you spend more time on them.  At some point, running through entire sections becomes a big waste of time because the effort needed to better the rough patches is far beyond the time being allocated, while the comfortable spots may already feel more than 95% there.  Stay focused and disciplined in your practice and use the emotional context that you’ve already so well developed to keep your practicing fresh.

Rounding It Out

As I mentioned, this is only the tip of a large iceberg when it comes to building more efficient practice techniques.  However, if you start to incorporate a different approach, maybe like one mentioned here, you will begin to accomplish things in half the time they used to take and maybe over time you’ll get even more efficient than that.  It’s always nice to get 4 hours of practicing done in just 2!

In part 3, we will finish up our discussion of time management for musicians talking about creating opportunity and other business ideas.  See you there!

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Time Management for Musicians, part 1

In the beginning, musicians practiced.  Their job was to perfect their craft and their live performances.  Managers took care of bookings, PR reps made sure the public knew they existed, and record labels had a vested interest in seeing their signed talent sell lots of product.

In today’s music market, only few have the resources necessary to delegate these tasks to people or teams.  That leaves the rest of us to fend for ourselves in what can, at times, seem like a pond of piranhas ready to eat you alive.

The Biggest Mistake I See Musicians Make

Your job is to entertain people.  It is not to practice, alone.  I see this especially true in the classical music world.  Granted, the standards for performance are extremely high, possibly even un-humanly high.  Classical performers are expected to be flawless beings, and missing just a note or two can cause a loss at a competition or bad press after a professional engagement.  However, at least 95% of the classical musicians I know make practicing hard enough to achieve perfection such a high priority that guess how many opportunities they have to show what they’ve been practicing?  About 0.  Or nearly 0.  If you are practicing 6+ hours a day and you have no performances booked, you’re doing something wrong.  If you are practicing 6+ hours a day and expecting someone to telepathically hear you and how wonderful you are, you’re doing something wrong and perhaps need to see a doctor.  If you need to practice 6+ hours a day to get your music right, you’re also doing something wrong.

Classical musician or not, I get it – prepping for a concert is tough business, both mentally and physically!  And don’t get me wrong, practicing is definitely important for us.  The opposite problem is also true in some cases: too little practicing leading to lots of poor public performances.  What we need to get down to is balance, higher efficiency during our practice time, and better time management.

Balance – Step 1

As musicians, we feed on the stuff of life to inspire us.  Take a break from practicing and get out into the world for some fun and enjoyment.  Go sit at your local coffee shop with a latte and do some people watching.  Take a walk through the park to clear your mind.  Go to another artist’s concert.  Ask someone out on a date, or if you’re married/in a serious relationship please take your significant other out!  Take this very short list, and add your own fun ideas to it.  You are all individuals and you’ll have your own ideas.  Do a little brainstorming, I guarantee you can come up with at least 5 more things to do in less than 5 minutes.  Please share them below if you’d like!

When you come back to your music after being out in the world, feeling the presence of other people, building relationships, and creating memories, your music will instinctively feel different.  If you’re playing music that someone else wrote, you’ll have a new and fresh perspective on what they are trying to tell you and your audience.  And if you’re writing new music yourself, you’ll have fresh ideas and feelings to springboard from.  In the meantime while you’re enjoying some of what life has to offer, your brain is still subconsciously working on the music you were practicing and/or writing.

Ironic, isn’t it, that in a big way making your music better is just as much about being away from it, as it is about working on it.  The best part is that as you get used to stepping away from spending so much time practicing, you are also unlocking new time you can devote to pursuing other parts of the music business.  Check back in for part 2, where we will begin to cover some other things you can work on in your new found time!