Decluttering Your Practice Time: Keep it Short and Simple, Part 1

Keep it Short. I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to ask my students to practice daily, putting in at minimum the same amount of time that they spend at a lesson. In other words, a thirty minute lesson should be reinforced with at least thirty minutes of practice every day between lessons. I do think, however, that the conventional wisdom used to dictate that practice be finished in a single block of time. Indeed, this was how the vast majority of my own practicing was done for many years. And then I discovered that my available time didn’t always come in nice, neat blocks of two or three hours. Finding those big blocks of time was easy when I was a teenager, because I didn’t do anything except music. Then I became a parent, and then a student, wife, business owner, and all the other perks of adulthood. Even now though, because I’m pretty organized, I could find large blocks of time if I’d get off the computer. The real revelation came during grad school, when I figured out that my trusty kitchen timer could be used for things other than making sure the fish sticks didn’t burn. I could remind myself to watch a particular show on TV if I set the timer. I could remember to reboot the laundry. I could do homework without my brain turning to mush. Why, I could even practice if I set the timer! Wow, what a concept! Why, oh why, didn’t anyone tell me that thirty years ago?

In the last couple of years, I have noticed more and more teachers (especially those with an online presence) urging their students to practice in smaller chunks. I dunno — maybe this train of thought was always there and I just wasn’t paying attention, which is entirely plausible. But lately I’ve been packing up files in preparation to move to a new house and decided to read through a stack of articles I saved for future reference. Many of them made some kind of reference to these short, organized, fun practice sessions that I’ve advocated for many years now.

There are several really valid reasons for what I call “spot” or “chunk” practice, or “Two-Minute Drills”, It gives you an activity to focus your attention on, because sometimes it’s really hard to focus productively on practicing when you’re brain is thinking about what to have for dinner, or “goshthisisboring, whencanIgodosomethingFUN!” Short sessions keep a student from losing track of time, or even better, from wasting time. Another is to actually learn to focus. Smaller chunks of time allow you to vary your work and not get bogged down with too many details, or get stuck in one mode of thought for too long. Shorter chunks are (or should be) the norm for very young students anyway, like preschoolers, who can’t concentrate for more than two or three minutes at a time in the first place. One reason that doesn’t get discussed much, but should be, is injury prevention. Musicians, and especially string players and pianists, suffer proportionally higher numbers of repetitive stress injuries. Sometimes it’s helpful to think about practicing the same way an athlete would about training. Practicing is an endurance sport, both mentally and physically, but you develop endurance by starting small. I read an article the other day which addressed the problem of younger and younger string players falling victim to injuries caused by overuse. It is virtually impossible to get your muscles into a state of overuse if you practice in short bits of time.

Personally, I think that two minutes is an excellent starting point for most students. OK, I know what you’re thinking, “Two minutes?? She’s crazy. What can you do in two minutes? I can’t even get the violin out of the case in two minutes!” Preschoolers may or may not be able to go that long, but for older students it gives both a starting point and a definite, predetermined stopping point. The time between is reserved for complete focus on the task at hand, whatever it might be. In other words, it gives you some structure to your time. “Two Minute Drills” allow a student to get an incredible amount of work done, despite the fact that we usually vastly underestimate the time we spend doing a task. When I first started using a timer during practice, I was very surprised, even shocked, when the timer went off because I thought that certainly I had much more time left than I did. Total focus has the amazing benefit of making time seem like it disappeared or flew by, and leaves you wanting do more. I’m not a clock-watcher now, but I can fully concentrate for about twenty minutes, with the aid of a timer, and still have enough focus and patience left to do some more. Which is a really good thing if you have aspirations of wanting to play better.

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