Since I began my Teaching Assistantship this semester, I have often felt overwhelmed and short on time. I thought I had practicing down to a science -which I did, but needed at least 4hrs a day to feel like I had made significant progress. This semester on an average day I have about 1.5-4hrs if I'm lucky, before I run out of the mental space to focus.
I always have a primary intention with my practice time, and now that is my upcoming recital. With everything I have going on I needed to find a sustainable solution, where I didn't have to rely on sight-reading skills, feel stressed for every rehearsal, then feel more stressed because the outcome was not what I wanted.
I have done extensive research in the realms of: practice techniques, sports psychology, neuroscience focused on information retention, body mapping and coordination. So I developed a plan for myself about a month ago, and have slowly been shaping it into a system that is much more efficient. I'm still tweaking it into something that works best for my way of learning, but I wanted to share how I successfully minimize the times I feel unprepared.
*Sidebar: I practiced 6hrs a day before beginning my DMA, and that type of muscle memory development is extremely important. I'm simply advocating becoming more efficient with whatever time is available to you.
Before I get into the practice time itself, I just want to say that nutrition, developing coordination + body awareness, and getting ample sleep are key to making this work. As my Alexander Technique teacher would say, "your body is your primary instrument, and you use this instrument to play the viola."
1. I take some time every week to plan out available practice time in my schedule, within reason. I also map out what movement(s) of a piece will be my primary focus each day. Throughout the course of a week I want to have spent time on whatever solo rep I'm working on (for me right now that means covering every movement of my recital program). I plan what to practice based on available time that day, and what my responsibilities are. Once you make the plan, follow through without worrying about other things you need to do. "I have time" is one of my favorite mantras.
2. I have a "warm-up book" that is every technically challenging excerpt from every piece I am currently working on. It includes parts from solo, quartet, and orchestra music. It's not a real book, but marked sections throughout my music. I am constantly adding and removing excerpts from this. Essentially I practice them in a random order, and don't spend more than a few minutes on each one. I challenge myself to play these passages flawlessly and without tension. I have to think critically and creatively in order to succeed, and so I do this toward the beginning of my practice time. I'll remove a section if I can play it flawlessly on the first try for several days in a row.
*This method was derived from interleaving techniques that are highly successful in neuroscience studies. If you are interested in this, I would suggest checking out my first blog post!
3. I practice sight-reading every single day. I put on noise cancelling headphones, take out a piece (or movement) that I need to learn (and haven't looked at yet), and see how far I can get. I then mark difficult sections for my warm-up book. If I run out of pieces, I pull out a viola part from a Beethoven String Quartet and do the same thing. I like to do this towards the end of my practicing or if I'm feeling unmotivated.
4. When I practice a movement of solo rep, I only focus on the musical aspects (and perhaps metronome work), because I've already practiced the difficult spots. If something isn't working in context, then I might spend more time figuring out what the challenge is and how to solve it. I practice performing sections to see what happens.
5. I begin my practice time with a scale chosen at random, with the focus on bow technique and intonation. I once had a teacher say that if you can play with perfect intonation in your first hour of playing each day, then it will never be an issue. It definitely helps! I'll also practice a scale after orchestra or a long rehearsal to feel more centered in my own technique, and make sure I'm not picking up any bad habits.
6. I do score study when I can, and try to listen to as many different recordings as possible. I also try to understand the style of each composer of the pieces I'm working on. If I can understand the composer's musical language, it becomes so much easier to create a successful performance.
7. I approach my practice time with an attitude of experimentation to see what works and what doesn't, with no expectations. I record myself as often as possible so I know for sure whether or not something worked. I see unsuccessful performances as opportunities for growth, and I refuse to believe in failure. Rather than focusing on the outcome, I focus on the process and this process is ever growing and changing.
Let me know what you think! Is there a method you have for practicing when you're short on time? Did you try some of my practicing strategies, and how did they work out for you? Questions? Thoughts?