How many times have you heard someone say this:
“You have to practice hours a day in order to begin to make some progress and sound good.”
It makes sense, right?
I mean, how can you possibly get any better if you only put in a few minutes every day?
Here’s the thing – if you want to be a world-class performer, then YES, you do need to put in the time.
But not everyone wants, or needs to be a world-class performer…
But what if you just want to play music for friends and family?
Or play in your local church, community band or jam with friends in a rock band?
Or maybe you do want to get good enough to perform on the weekends with a band.
But the problem is, you just don’t have enough time….
Time: everyone’s enemy
Let’s face it, as adults our time is extremely limited and very valuable. We have work obligations, family obligations, we need time to unwind…
We have to figure out ways to maximize our time so we can do the things that are important to us.
But how do we maximize our time, especially when we have little or no time to practice everyday?
What if we took that enemy, Time, and used it to our advantage?
Funny little personal story…
When I was growing up, my mom would make us go to bed earlier than my friend’s moms. (It was frustrating as a kid, but I am grateful for that today.)
But if we wanted to stay up a little later to watch a new show we had to “save time.” (Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley were big at the time.) How do you “save time”, you might ask?
My bedtime was 8:00 every weeknight. If Happy Days was on Tuesday night at 8pm and it lasted for a 1/2 hour, the night before I would have to go to bed at 7:30 to make up for the 1/2 hour. If I wanted to stay up and also watch Laverne & Shirley, which was on at 8:30 Tuesday nights, I would have to go to bed at 7:00 the night before. (I actually can’t believe I remember what day and time those shows were on – that’s too funny 😂)
What’s the point of this crazy story from my childhood? No, not that my mom was so strict…..😡 (I hope she’s not reading this article 😉)
She taught us to take advantage of time, use it wisely and figure out ways to get things done in the time that we had.
From that lesson, I figured out how to make schedules to accomplish all my homework tasks, instrument practicing, playing sports and chores.
This would lead to a lifetime of being able to accomplish many things in a short amount of time.
The following is a personal mantra of mine that I often relay to students as a reminder of the importance of time:
The worst thing you can do to someone is waste their time. Why?
Because you can never get time back.
In order to maximize our time, we need to first analyze how we are spending it every day.
We all have 24 hours in a day; the people who achieve the most know how to organize and prioritize their time to be most productive.
Here’s a challenge for you: over the next 5 days, write down everything you do throughout the day and how much time it took. Be totally honest, and don’t edit; just write down your activities and how long they took.
Using me as an example, it would look something like this:
8-8:30 am: shower
8:30 – 9 am: stretches, breakfast
9-10 am: writing session to complete an article
10 – 11 am: research a topic that will help me write my next article
11 – 11:30 am: Break – take a walk
and so on…
You get the point..
Once you commit to doing this, you will see how much free time you have and where you can fit in a practice session.
You may have noticed that there are times throughout the day where instead of watching that NCIS Marathon or playing Candy Crush you could put some time in the practice room.
Now, make a commitment to set aside a particular 1/2 hour block of time everyday to practice. Maybe you are a morning person and feel that you are better off practicing from 7 – 7:30am. Or maybe you prefer to practice right after dinner from 7:30 – 8pm. Set aside that time and commit to sticking to it as your personal time to practice.
You’ve set aside your daily practice time and have now conquered that enemy of “not enough time.” What’s the next step?
We have to get super-specific and identify the areas we need to work on…
The 3 Main Areas We Need to Practice
Before we get into the 3 main areas, we need to think about what would go into our practice session. (A future article will talk about setting goals.)
What you include in your practice session depends upon a few factors:
- what playing level you are currently at (Beginner, Intermediate – playing for 3-7 years, Advanced – playing for more than 8 years, and Professional – this is your life)
- what styles of music you play or want to play – for example, Jazz musicians need to not only build technique, but also build their jazz vocabulary by learning licks (patterns), chord changes and tunes.
- your specific instrument – for example, Brass players need to spend a lot of time on flexibility and endurance, Woodwind players – finger coordination, so their practice time needs to reflect that
- your performance schedule – if you perform regularly, you need to think about endurance, mock auditions or run-throughs, stage presence, confidence and adding more and more time as the performance gets closer.
Considering these factors will help you choose the best exercises and pieces to play and work on during your practice sessions.
Here are the three main areas that need to be considered when planning your practice:
- Tone – includes quality, embouchure (facial muscle development), breathing, long tones, articulation, posture, etc.
- Technique – (Coordination & Flexibility, Endurance, Vocabulary/Transcription) includes fingerings using steady time, coordinating air speed with embouchure control; ability to play the entire range of the instrument; Jazz patterns & tunes, learning chord progressions, transcribing solos
- Music – playing pieces or songs while only thinking of the end result (not worrying about technique); sight-reading
For beginner musicians, your practice may include:
- long tones, lip slurs, interval exercises
- practicing scales with a metronome
- playing music (by ear or reading)
(Reading music does NOT have to be included in your practice session. In fact, it shouldn’t. You can make that a separate time, any time of the day because it doesn’t require pulling out your instrument and making sound.)
The key is to hit each of these areas in each practice session.
But your next question may be, “I have so much material to cover, how can I possibly fit it into a half hour?”
Here’s where we get super-focused and apply this next Rule to do just that…
The Rule of 10’s
The Rule of 10’s is simply this:
You focus on one area for a solid 10 minutes, then move on to the next area.
For example, your 10 minute session could be working out a jazz lick in all 12 keys, or working on technical exercises from a method book, or learning to play the melody and/or bass line of a new song, or even working on coordinating fingerings and articulation for a challenging passage in a classical piece.
Why 10 and not 15 or 20? It was believed for a long time that adult attention spans used to be 15 – 20 minutes. With the advent of smartphones, tablets and other devices that not only create information overload, but also anxiety about having too much to do, our attention spans have rapidly decreased.
In fact, according to a recent Fortune Magazine article, our attention spans, as adults, have decreased from 12 minutes in 2000, to a mere 5 minutes in 2013!!!
What needs to be stated is that people will pay attention longer if they are interested and engaged in the subject.
The time of day matters too (longer attention spans in the morning as opposed to the evening), as well as the person’s willpower (if you want something bad enough…).
Keeping within 10 minutes for each area stays within a reasonable amount of time and keeps our minds engaged and more focused.
And if we like what we are doing, and are achieving some sense of success, we can find more time throughout the day to practice! (And we have conquered the enemy of “not enough time.”)
Here’s an example…
So let’s say you have been playing your instrument for a few years (Intermediate Level), but only have time to practice 30 minutes a day.
Let’s break up that time into 10-minute segments:
- 10 minutes – Tone & Flexibility: warm-up, interval exercises, lip slurs
- 10 minutes – Vocabulary & Coordination: scale exercises with a metronome or work on difficult spots in etudes or songs; if you play Jazz- 1 pattern in all keys or learn the chord progressions to a tune
- 10 minutes – Performance & Endurance: just playing music! (leave 2 minutes at the end to warm down)
You can do 3 sessions of 10 minutes each (just add a minute to warm-up for the 2nd and 3rd sessions), OR do 30 minutes in one session.
If you are more advanced, and can put in an hour a day, then you can break the session down into two 30-minute sessions or one 60-minute session.
Advanced musicians will have built up enough mental and physical stamina to focus on a particular area for more than 10 minutes. Some pieces and exercises take longer than 10 minutes to work through.
The key here is to recognize when your mind wanders, and try to gently get it back in focus. Too much mind wandering means it’s time for a short break.
How to really make the Rule of 10’s work for your practice
So you like this idea of the Rule of 10’s, but are thinking that you need help following it.
Use a timer….it’s that simple!
You know those old style kitchen timers, with the annoying ringing sound? Those work great and they’re cheap.
“Why not use the timer on my iPhone, tablet or smartphone, Donna?”
It will benefit you most if you avoid using your phone as a timer because it is so easy to get distracted by incoming notifications, email, texts, etc.
One tip to avoid the phone distractions is to set it on Airplane Mode (in your phone settings). Notifications and texts won’t keep popping up in this setting.
Benefits of the Rule of 10’s
⇒ Breaking the session down into 10 minute mini-sessions makes you focus more on each area
⇒ Only having 10 minutes to focus on a task makes you want to get as much done as possible to feel like you accomplished something
⇒ Only having 10 minutes for an area forces you to not stick with 1 exercise too long, so you don’t get burned out
⇒ You are not limited to only 10 minutes for a particular area: You can focus on technique, for example, for 10 minutes in one session, and then 10 minutes in a later session too. The Rule of 10’s is meant to be flexible and to maximize your practice.
⇒ Changing up your routine creates interest
Two of the biggest problems musicians face is how to practice and what to practice.
By analyzing how you spend your time throughout the day, you can find pockets of free time to set aside for practice. Committing that time to your personal practice time every day is the first step.
Concentrating on the three core areas of Tone, Technique and Music addresses the question of what to practice.
By using the Rule of 10’s, you can laser-focus your practicing into mini-sessions and accomplish more in less time.
The Rule of 10’s is flexible enough so that musicians at all levels can prioritize what they need to work on and make solid progress.
Using a timer and the Ultimate Practice Planner can help you maximize the Rule of 10’s, so that you are practicing less and improving more.
But before we can set up our practice sessions using the Rule of 10’s, we need to establish, clear, specific, measurable goals.
About the Author
DONNA SCHWARTZ has been teaching Band, Jazz Band and General Music in public schools for over 14 years, and private Brass and Saxophone lessons for over 27 years. She has performed on saxophones in NY and Los Angeles with artists such as Vicci Martinez from NBC’s The Voice, Richie Cannata from Billy Joel’s band, and Bobby Rondinelli from Blue Oyster Cult, at such notable venues as the House of Blues in Anaheim, The Orpheum Theatre (LA), City National Grove of Anaheim, The Paramount, World Cafe Live, Wolf Den (Mohegan Sun), Riverhead Blues Festival and the Patchogue Theatre. Donna has written articles that have appeared in publications in SBO Magazine (School Band & Orchestra), NafMe (National Association for Music Education), AMP (National Association for Music Parents), and many others.
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