How to practice when you don’t have time

Some weeks this is just how it is.

One of my teenage students walked in the door today, obviously frazzled. I asked how she was doing. “Tired!” she said, with uncharacteristic force.

“Are you tired from good things or bad things?” I asked.

“Good things. But they’re wearing me out.” She went onto explain: she’s just joined a gymnastics team. Their first meet is only a few days away. The team has only a few practices to learn a lot of moves and put together an entire routine. Most of them have never done gymnastics before, including her.

As we settled into the lesson, it became obvious that this situation had taken a toll on the amount of time she’d been able to spend practicing this week. That’s natural enough. It’s not that she’s losing interest in fiddle; she’s just engaged in an intensive project right now in another part of her life.

I see this all the time with my teenage students; they have so many opportunities available to them, so many adults in their lives encouraging them to express themselves creatively and athletically and to do it all right now. Hey, I’m one of them! We adults like to enable kids to overcommit themselves with fun stuff since we know they won’t have as much time to pursue these opportunities later. Of course, we need to be careful to avoid burnout, and we need to teach kids how to set boundaries that will support their emotional and physical health. But that’s a different article.

This busy-busy theme is obviously not limited to the teenagers I work with. My adult students are even more likely to come to their lessons buzzing with stress: “I’m sorry I’m late; my business meeting ran over time and then I hit all the red lights! They’re restructuring my department and now I’m doing the jobs of two people, for three-quarters of my old pay!” And then “I didn’t have time to practice,” often followed by “I’m sorry” or “I know I should be practicing” or some other self-deprecating comment.

Look. We are all going a mile a minute. Want to know a secret? There are weeks I don’t practice at all. And I’m a full-time musician! The important thing is to know what our priorities are, and to live according to them. Some weeks, music and the personal growth it facilitates are top priorities. Some weeks, they aren’t. And that is okay.

But we also know that we do need to practice regularly if we are to keep making progress. A day we don’t take a step forward is a day we take a step backward. What we need is a way to be kind to ourselves by continuing to press forward in our music projects at the same time that we allow ourselves the freedom to respond to the rest of life as it happens dynamically around and within us.

We need to practice efficiently.

We need to know what the bare minimum is that we have to do in order to keep moving forward, even in baby steps. Or at the very least, we need to know what we have to do to stop going backward–even if we’re just treading water.



So, okay: how to do that.

1) Focus your practice time on the stuff you don’t already know.

This sounds obvious, but most of us don’t actually practice that way. Especially if we’re stressed. We’ve been working all day; we don’t want to work more now! Music is supposed to be fun! So we play the stuff we do know, over and over.

There’s nothing wrong with this when you have unlimited practice time. It’s really fun and rewarding to play the stuff you’ve already mastered. And of course, the more you play in general, the more fluent you are with your instrument.

But doing what you already know doesn’t help you move forward. If you only have ten minutes to practice, and you’re trying to learn a new technique or song, you need to spend as much of that ten minutes as possible learning that new technique or song.

Look at the song you’re working on. What’s the hardest part? I don’t mean “the D#s” or “the time signature”; I mean “measures 4 through 9”. Let measures 4 through 9 be all you work on today. Really get to know measures 4 through 9–what’s happening there that’s throwing you off? How can you practice those six measures so that you feel totally confident with them by the end of this mini-session? Master measures 4 through 9 today, and the whole song will feel better tomorrow. That’s true even if you don’t play the song from start to finish today.

Now, if you’re so worn out that you can’t motivate yourself to play at all if it means doing actual work, then don’t. Just pick up your fiddle and play something you already know. But don’t call it practicing. Call it recess. It’s still better than not playing. Just be aware that if you take the path of least resistance too often, you may find yourself on the plateau. And that can be a very demoralizing place.


2) Practice improving your focus.

Exactly how you approach this will depend on your worldview:

  • If you have a formal meditation practice, do that for a few minutes before you play.
  • If you need some inspiration, try this: play a long, slow scale. I mean really slow; every note should last 4-5 seconds, minimum. Really focus on every note as it’s happening. Notice if your brain is anxious to get to the next note, and the next, so you can complete the sequence of the scale. If so, bring your attention back to the note you’re playing now. Enjoy it while it’s here. Relax into it. Accept and celebrate that music is a series of moments to be fully experienced, not a task to complete.

If this all seems too touchy-feely hippie to be relevant to the task at hand, consider this: the number one thing that separates truly advanced players from beginners is the degree to which they’ve developed their ability to listen. Think about how many times a day you encounter people who nod and smile when you speak, then unselfconsciously interrupt you or respond in a way that shows they have no idea what you just said. Musicians have the same problem because we are people and people have this problem.

All of us can work to become better listeners and observers. But musicians have a particularly pressing need to learn to listen because it’s the only way to know if we’re doing anything correctly and fitting with what others are playing. The only way to learn to listen is to create a space in which we pay attention to the part of us that pays attention–or doesn’t.

This isn’t an exercise to do once; it’s an exercise to do all the time, throughout our lives. The minute we feel cocky about how great we are at listening, it’s time to do some especially careful observation about whether or not we are really hearing what we’re playing, what others are playing, what our spouses or children are saying, what the birds outside are chirping.

“Hey, wait;” you may be thinking, “how is this meditation business going to get me through my practicing faster? It’s counter-intuitive, I agree. But here’s the thing: once you’ve taken two minutes, or five, to settle down and get focused, you’re settled down and focused. You won’t have to do as many repetitions of the passages you’re practicing, because you’re more likely to comprehend and perform them correctly the first or second time you try.

And that brings us to the mother of all efficient practicing techniques:


3) Slow everything down.

If you’re making mistakes, you’re going too fast. You want to program things into your muscle memory accurately now, so that those programs will run properly later when you speed things up.

Maybe next week you’ll have more time. Then, by all means, play fast! Play songs you’re not even working on right now! Do everything you can to have fun, for Pete’s sake, and remember why you’re doing any of this.

But when you’re in efficiency mode, find the small project that will help the big project come together, focus your mind, and slow it down. Then find another small project tomorrow, rinse and repeat.


You might also like:

How to find your way back in after a crazy summer.

How to practice (without freaking out or getting bored).

Why being an adult learner is awesome.

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