How to be Less Distracted in the Practice Room and Have More Productive Sessions
Have you ever been in a practice room, picked up your phone to use a metronome, but instead of opening the app you find yourself scrolling on instagram?
Have you ever been an hour into a practice session, sitting just staring at your music feeling frustrated, wondering why you just can’t get these two measures right?
Have you ever found yourself doing anything BUT actually practicing during a session?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in situations where I’m 3+ hours into a practice session, decide to leave, and have thought, “what did I even accomplish?”
In today’s world, we are constantly surrounded by technology. Social media is our friend, and our enemy. We sit in practice rooms with not only our phones, but also our smart watches, ipads with all of our music, and computers. Everything we touch almost has the ability to connect us to the outside world and all its problems.
On top of that, oftentimes we go in without a specific plan. We’re going to practice, but what’s exactly the goal? What am I working on? For how long? How much time do I need for each piece? We just say, “I’m going to practice”. So we start warming up and know what we need to prepare, but don’t really have a plan past what we need to work on.
So between so much access to the outside world, general distractions, and a lack of a structured plan, how much time are we actually productive for?
The truth is, we aren’t as productive for as long as we think we are. Nobody can focus for 2+ hours straight. It humanly is not possible. And if you think you’re being productive, well great! But take a minute to look at your progress. Have you made any? If so, or if you think so, address what kind of progress you’ve made. Do you think you could have possibly done that in less time? The answer is probably yes.
Now I’m not saying that if you practice one hour a day versus two hours that your high range is going to magically be better in a week. However, it has been proven that more productive work can be done in less time. At some point during long sessions, the productivity stops, whether you realize it or not. Is that extra 15 minutes on that Strauss Concerto really going to make a difference, or are you wasting your chops at this point?
This all comes down to working smarter. Ready to hear about what that entails?
Get rid of excess distractions. This means limit the technology you have in your space, the friends you have visited or stop by, or anything that may bother you like a ticking clock or a broken music stand or snare drum that vibrates when you play. Anything that could be bothersome, or draw your attention away from what you’re doing should be eliminated if possible.
Technology. Sometimes we find that we need to have our phones on us, or we use an ipad because it now stores all our music. Take a minute and either turn the phone off, or place everything on airplane mode. I really love airplane mode because it just temporarily turns our connection off from the world and I wont get any notifications that might become distracting. Especially on my Ipad. I hate when I’m playing through something and I just start getting notifications at the top of my screen. Annoying! Sometimes we use our phones as metronomes. Many of us probably have the Tonal Energy app that we use frequently, but you should be able to have the option of not using it. Go old school and purchase a tuner and metronome, just so you have the option of not using your phone if you really want some time away from technology use.
Our friends. Don’t get me wrong, I love when a friend of mine passes by and compliments how good I’m sounding. However, sometimes if its longer than a, “Hey I heard you practicing down the hall and you sound great. See you later”, it becomes a distraction rather than just a quick hi-bye. If someone tries to overstay their welcome, chit chat about nonsense, etc., do not feel scared or embarrassed to politely kick them out. Just simply explain that you’d love to catch up, but you don’t want to disturb your practice focus right now. Even offer to meet up or call them later. Sometimes we worry about seeming rude to our friends or even seeming snotty for wanting to not have your practice disturbed, but when the tables are turned, you know that you’d respect how they feel if they asked you to leave. It’s a fairly common occurrence, and I guarantee that if they’re really your friend, that they will completely understand.
Noisey nonsense. Sometimes there are snare drums in the rooms that aren’t turned off, or there’s some type of metal that's vibrating when you’re playing that’s just driving you crazy. If you can, turn off the drum, and anything else maybe like a broken stand that's buzzing, just simply remove it from the room. There’s no harm in placing something outside the door until you’ve finished what you need to do. If it’s something that cannot be moved, you have a few options. 1. Find a different room. Sometimes that’s not always possible, which leads me to 2. Practice later that day. If something is so distracting to you that it’s making it near impossible to really get focused work done, it's best to book a different room and come back later on. Better to practice later in a good room, than now in a room that’s distracting and that you won't be productive in.
If you find that your mental health is suffering, and still feel like you have to go practice. I suggest two things:
Try to meditate and see if you can calm yourself and get back to a better state of mind.
If you are too upset to practice, are having an anxiety attack, or are just simply having an off day, go home, rest, and take care of yourself. Call someone to talk to. Practicing when you are going through it is not productive or healthy, and will probably just cause more stress and anxiety. It is absolutely okay to take a mental health day. It is just as warranted as taking a day off when you’re sick.
Now that we’ve covered how to deal with the distractions, lets cover the idea of setting yourself up for success.
You absolutely need to have a game plan before you go into your practice sessions. Rather than walking in and listing a bunch of things you need to work on, take 20 minutes for yourself at the beginning of the week and set up a schedule. First, write down any new things you were assigned, and then write down what you’re already working on. After that, you’ll need to figure out how you’re going to structure your practice sessions. I’ve talked about this before in my How to Spark Motivation, blog post. There are two types of practice methods that you should try. The 40/30 rule, and the 10 minute rule. The 40/30 minute rule is you practice for 40 minutes, then take a 30 minute break. This helps your brain rest for nearly just as long as you practiced, encouraging productivity and focus. Typically your brain wants to be productive for 1 hour, and then requires at least a 15 minute rest period. 40/30 gives you plenty of recovery time. The 10 minute rule is where you practice everything for just 10 minutes. I personally follow the 10 minute rule because I’ve found it incredibly helpful in terms of really being productive and focusing on one piece intensely for 10 minutes. Everything, except for my warm up, is just 10 minutes. If I feel like I want to, or need to go back to something later, I will. Sometimes if a piece is brand new, I will allow 20 minutes so I can listen to a part of it like the first page, or just start working on basic notes and rhythms. But definitely no more than 20. Once I know things, or at least have them under my fingers, the 10 minute rule stands and applies to everything!
I would absolutely encourage you all to try both methods and see if one sticks. Post doing that, then we can get to scheduling. I take out my practice journal and I schedule everything for the week. I will usually do this right after my lesson so I know exactly what I need to work on or for the week. I also take really good notes on a white board during my lessons, as well as record them so I know exactly what details my teacher thinks I’m doing great with, and what details I need to work on and remember for the week. I will put those notes in my practice journal too so I can refer to them throughout my practice. My warm up I typically schedule for 40 minutes. I’ll then move on to etudes, which then starts the 10 minute rule. After working on Rochut, Fearn, and Alphonse etudes each for 10 minutes, I will then take a 10 minute break where I will sit and do absolutely nothing. This gives me time to decompress and really come back with a clear head. Next, I schedule my solos. Each again, just for 10 minutes. For example, I’ll schedule the 3rd page of Strauss 2 for 10 minutes, the third movement of the Franz Strauss concerto for 10 minutes, and then Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy for horn for 10 minutes. For each of these, at the beginning of the week I’ll write down what the focus should be for the week. Could be articulation, speed, musicality in a certain spot, or really whatever I think I need to fix. I’ll write three things down for each piece. After I would schedule another 10 minute break to just decompress. Lastly, excerpts. I’ll schedule each excerpt for 10 minutes and do exactly what I did with solos where I’ll identify what exactly I need to work on for that excerpt. In the end, my practice sessions are typically 2-3 hours a day, but will vary. I don’t schedule the same exact things for every day. Sometimes I’ll work on a different solo, or I’ll rotate my excerpts. Either way, I don’t keep every day the same, or else it would get boring and tedious. So I’ll rotate things every other day, or so.
P.S. The answer is, YES! I do take days off. I don’t tend to “practice” on my lesson days. So I’ll partially consider that a day off. Sometimes I’ll deliberately schedule a day off and sometimes it just depends on how I’m feeling. If I get home from work on Tuesday and I am exhausted, I might skip a day of practice, because it is ABSOLUTELY OKAY to take a rest day. Most people think that we have to be at it day in and day out. But the truth is, if you are taking time to make sure your schedule is right for you and that you’ll be the most productive you can possibly be on all the other days of the week, then take the day off. You deserve it.
Below I’ve posted some pictures of my practice journal, my schedule for the week, and my notes from one lesson as an example. I do also write down the positive things my teacher says because it’s important to give yourself a boost and know what you’re doing well. You can’t just write all the negatives because you’re more likely to develop a negative attitude towards practicing, performing, and towards yourself as an artist. It’s just as important to lift yourself up, as it is to be on top of what you need to work on.
I truly believe that a combination of less distractions, scheduled practice, and kindness to yourself in the practice room is really what sets us up for a successful practice session. Any information, or want to talk about practice scheduling? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me and send a message on instagram @mindoverpractice.
See you next week for a new entry! For now, have a productive week of positive practicing!