Balancing the Workload

You know you’re supposed to practice.  You just have so many other things to do.  Homework, soccer practice, friends, volunteering… it gets so overwhelming.  Practicing?  You just don’t seem to have the time.

You’re right - you don’t have the time.  You have to make the time.  

Here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to be as daunting a task as it seems.  Practicing doesn’t have to be (and realistically won’t be) an hour or more a day seven days a week.  Come up with a reasonable plan, and you’ll be amazed at how much you can play… and still get your homework done!

Decide how much time you can spend that day.

It’s a slow week and you don’t have lots of homework and/or after school activities.  Cool!  Make your practice sessions frequent, 5 or 6 days, and long, 30-45 minutes each.  Use this time to really dig into your work and move through the material.  

So many projects due!  A paper in Lit class, a chem exam and then a lab, and a soccer tournament over the weekend.  It’s ok - your practice sessions are going to be shorter this week, and probably not as many of them.  You’re going to go through small periods of time when you’ll practice less.  This is alright, as long as it isn’t week in and week out.  If it’s year-round craziness, you need to consider the possibility that you are trying to do too much.

Decide what to work on before you start playing.

Don’t just play everything every time you sit down to practice.  You’ll feel overwhelmed and frustrated before you even start!  And even if you do make it through everything, you’ll dilute your efforts and not really get anything accomplished.  Before you start playing, think about what you want to work on that day.  A scale, a study from your lesson book, and a specific section in one of your band or recital pieces is plenty to fill up a practice session.  Choose spots to target: the twelve measures of whole notes at the beginning of a band piece - probably not; the soli section you’ve been having trouble with - absolutely!  

Some days, your practice sessions are going to be short.  Like 10 to 15 minutes short.  On those days, go for fundamentals: long tones, scales, and arpeggios.  If nothing else, do those things.  If there’s a few minutes left over, work on whatever is most pressing: a measure in your music that has been giving you trouble, a playing test that you have coming up, and etude that you really want to finish so you can move on.  

Just remember: you don’t have to do everything every time you sit down to practice.

Make use of time you didn’t even realize you have.

My personal favorites are study breaks and down-time.  

Do you ever start getting foggy or drowsy when you’ve been sitting at your desk doing homework for a while?  I used to, especially doing math problems.  When you get to that point of “I just cannot look at quadratics anymore!”, what do you do?  You take a break.  Use practicing as a study break.  Get up, go to a different room, take out your instrument, and set a timer for 15 minutes.  You’ll get to get up and move around, breathe deeply, make noise, do something you enjoy, and feel like you’ve still been productive with your time.  As a benefit, when you return to your homework, you’ll be refreshed and more alert and ready to tackle that science chapter outline.  

When your band director stops to work with the trumpets for the umpteenth time, don’t just sit there in a daze.  Use that time.  Practice your music (silently - no air, no articulation).  Mark your breaths.  There’s all kinds of things you could be doing instead of just sitting there.  (Here’s a list!)

Along those same lines, when you’ve finished work in another class and you’re just sitting there, that would be a good time to pull out a piece of music you’re working on and read.  Count rhythms, name notes, get familiar with repeats, codas, etc.  There’s little pockets of time in your day that can be made productive - can you find them?   

Try these tips out in your practice over the next few weeks and see what kind of difference it will make.  I’ll bet even adding two 10 or 15-minute practice sessions will make a noticeable difference.  Give it a try and see what you think.