With more and more musicians entering the blogosphere, the resulting quantity of practice-related posts is hardly surprising-I’ve lost count of the number of blogs I’ve read containing advice on how to make one’s practicing more effective and inspiring, or how to simply summon the motivation to take the instrument out of the case in the first place. As an aspiring cellist, I’ve certainly found such posts to be relevant and useful, but have always felt a bit of trepidation about writing one myself. We all work and improve in different ways, so it’s hard to offer all-encompassing advice about achieving productivity when for some people, it might very well result in the opposite. A colleague recently told me that they experience increased efficiency whilst practicing in front of a muted TV; if I did the same, I doubt I would get anything accomplished outside of obtaining a greater knowledge of the 2016 presidential race (are we seriously talking about that already?). As I contemplated this dilemma, however, it occurred to me that while there are an endless variety of techniques to employ in the practice room, there are certainly some universal hazards that we can all relate to. So, I’ve dedicated my requisite “practice blog” to a discussion of such distractions-or more specifically, the things that engender them.
1. Your phone
As a proud owner of an old-school flip phone, I’ve yet to engage in the variety of time-sucking activities offered by a typical smartphone, but know enough to deduce that such devices do not belong on the music stand. The metronome app might be convenient, but when Facebook notifications keep popping up every few minutes, it can become very tempting to switch your focus from sixteenth notes to Facebook notes. Even if you wisely switch your phone to silent during your practice session, it can turn into a dangerous source of procrastination at break times-what was originally intended to be a five-minute rest can turn into a fifteen minute social media sweep, including a brief chat with your friend on the floor below and a perusing of that intriguing viral video that just materialized in your newsfeed. My advice would be to use the phone for timekeeping purposes only. The viral video will still be there when you go home, and your etude will be all the better for it.
2. Your schedule
When faced with the impossibly busy schedule that most college students maintain, it’s very easy to slip into the habit of finding practice time as opposed to making practice time. However, planning in such a manner could greatly impede your progress. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t start functioning in the morning until at least 10 A.M., don’t head into the practice rooms at 8 (unless you’ve managed to procure a mocha frappuccino grande from the local coffeehouse), and if you turn into the figurative pumpkin at 9 P.M., a 10:30 practice session will do you little good. I can testify to the ineffectiveness of practicing at inopportune hours-during one particularly crazy year in undergrad, I had a couple weekdays where I had no choice but to practice after 9 P.M., causing my evenings to consist of purchasing a Dr. Pepper from the student lounge vending machine and practicing until I (sometimes literally) dropped. At the time, I assuaged my guilty conscious by telling myself I was in fact making progress during these epic nocturnal sessions, but in retrospect, I think I accomplished little more than maintaining my calluses.
3. Your friends
While playing for your colleagues is an excellent way to get feedback in-between lessons and studio class, taking prolonged breaks to visit them in their own practice rooms could turn into yet another time vacuum for both of you. Don’t force your buddies to be the recipients of your venting if you’re having a bad day; bemoaning your inadequacy to play at tempo will do nothing whatsoever to solve the problem, nor will the requisite expressions of sympathy expressed by your probably indifferent colleagues. There will always be time later to intimate your instrumental ills, and the hallowed time spent in the practice hallway would be better spent solving them. Engaging in gossip is probably not the best idea, either. Not only will it cause your mind to be sufficiently occupied when you resume your practice session (Focus on the octaves….focus on the octaves….OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE HE JUST SAID MELINDA HAS “DEPLORABLE” INTONATION!), but you run the risk of having the unfortunate subjects of such gossip overhearing you from a couple doors down (“Oh, hi there, Melinda….might I say how pristine your sixths are sounding today?”).
4. Your iPod
While listening to recordings of your repertoire is certainly beneficial, I think it’s not inappropriate to classify it as an “outside of the practice room” activity. With devices such as iPods becoming ever portable, you can attend to your listening work almost anywhere, and you don’t necessarily need to be in top-focus mode to do so. Playing with recordings can sometimes be a valuable practice exercise, but it’s quite easy to let it become another way of procrastinating the nitty-gritty work. Sure, you might be on cloud nine playing the Elgar concerto along with Jacqueline du Pre and the London Philharmonic, but it won’t change the fact that you can’t get the cadenza in tune. Keeping the iPod dormant (alongside your iPhone), and reserving listening time for later will definitely increase your focus, and ultimately, your efficiency.
5. Your dinner
Between classes, rehearsals, lessons and all the other activities you’re required to attend to in a given day, making time for meals can sometimes be difficult. However, that’s no reason to attempt to multi-task and bring last night’s leftovers into the practice room. It might seem like you’re killing two birds with one stone, but considering that playing while eating is pretty much impossible (especially if you’re a voice major), it’s best to consume your necessary means of sustenance in an alternative venue. Not only will abstaining from such a practice eliminate the issue of getting food onto your instrument (“Is that chicken on your C-string, Melinda?”) but it will eradicate the unpleasant possibility of local rodents comprising of an audience for your concerto (and you thought audition panels were terrifying!).
I’m sure there are many more potential “hazards” that would be appropriate for this compilation, but I think you get the picture. The point is that it’s not very difficult to use your practice time well as long as you keep it as practice time and not as social media-sleeping-socializing-listening-dinner-time. If you’ve recognized any of these “hazards” as a common aspect of your practicing, don’t stress-you’re definitely not alone!-but if you take care to avoid them, you’ll be handsomely rewarded with the opportunity to employ all of the advice and techniques offered by the myriad of other practice blogs out there. Plus, you’ll curb your addiction to Facebook, get more sleep, maintain healthier relationships with your colleagues, have a cherished time of day to listen to your favorite recordings, and probably improve your diet as well! Clearly, it’s a win-win situation.