Practicing + Time Management

Practicing + Time Management

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?


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Violin/Viola(/Cello) Hickeys and How to Heal Them

Violin/Viola(/Cello) Hickeys and How to Heal Them

About a year ago I started a dermatological experiment on myself to remove the awful rash down half of my neck caused from practicing. You may remember my instagram post where I shared a few of the products I was using at the time that seemed to help. I did a ton of research and wanted to share my findings here in more detail, because I believe that this information could help others that are having the same problem.

At one point in our pursuit in becoming a better string player, some of us began developing a hickey-like spot. Most of us just accepted it as a normal result of practicing a certain amount of time. This spot is not a callus. It's usually some type of mechanical dermatitis caused by friction, and is prone to infection because the skin dilates whenever we hold the instrument in a playing position. Sometimes the skin reacts by producing more keratin to protect itself. Reducing the friction, and making sure the surface of the instrument is clean will help. 

In addition, it is extremely common for string players to develop an allergy to the materials we are constantly exposing ourselves to. I know of musicians who developed allergies to rosewood, ebony, or even rosin, and I myself have developed a severe allergy to nickel. It can sometimes be very hard to tell if you have an allergy or not, because the allergy causes a contact dermatitis reaction. Unless you are a trained dermatologist, you will most likely not be able to tell the difference between mechanical and contact dermatitis (or something else) just by looking at it.


Here is my suggested regimen for eliminating/preventing a violin or viola hickey:

1. Switch to a plastic chinrest, or use a cloth over your existing setup for at least 30 days. After your skin has cleared up, you can try to reintroduce your old chinrest and see what happens. This is the best way to tell what's going on if you aren't sure what your allergies are, or if this is even an issue for you. You may end up wanting to keep this setup because it will help keep you safe from developing an allergy.

2. Make sure you are not 'clamping down' when you play. If you need to press down at all with your chin, then you are not playing in the most ergonomic way. You should be able to hold up the instrument easily by using the weight of your head. Video yourself practicing, and see if there is anyway you can play with less tension. Experiment with different chinrest/shoulder rest setups to find what works best for you.

3. Up your instrument hygiene game. I carry alcohol wipes and clean my chinrest before I play. I personally can't stand using a cloth, so this is an easier solution for me. If you are using a cloth, make sure you always are using a clean one and switch them out regularly.

4. Treat the infection if there is one. I use a product called ScarAway if I am having a flareup. It's a silicone sheet intended to heal scar tissue. I cut it into a piece that fits over my viola hickey, and only use this when I'm practicing. One piece can last me an entire day.

Make sure to use a triple antibiotic + pain relief ointment (like neosporin) when you aren't playing, to help cut down on the infection. It really helps with pain and itchiness.

You could alternatively try something like Dermarest Eczema cream if you're having more issues with pain than an infection.

I occasionally use a charcoal mask to help draw out impurities and smooth out skin.

Treatments that are normally for acne can sometimes work really well, but they can really dry out your skin which will make the eczema symptoms worse.

Don't use products for removing calluses, or try to freeze it off as this will just irritate your skin more.

5. Don't pick. Give your skin a chance to heal. If it's infected and you try to drain it yourself, you will be pushing just as much of the infection back into your body.

If you struggle with this step, you aren't alone. Don't be afraid to seek out help if you have issues with OCD or a BFRB. Take steps to eliminate stress in your daily life.

6. If there is no improvement, don't hesitate to seek out medical treatment. Playing a string instrument is something we obviously want to be able to do for the rest of our lives. If your skin is damaged enough, you may need injections or surgery in order to fully heal.


More information:





Let me know what you think! Have you struggled with a violin, viola, or cello hickey? Did you try this regimen, or is there a product that works well for you? Are you a cellist that has adapted this regimen? Do you know of any scholarly or medical research done on this topic? Thoughts?


*My statements have not been influenced by sponsorship of any kind

Self Care for Musicians

Self Care for Musicians

It's almost Thanksgiving Break, which means that for students the rest of the semester is going to be intense. Even more so for student musicians, because we've had to negotiate our time around midterms and academic work as well as concerts and high expectations -and right about now is the time we experience burnout. 

It doesn't have to be that way, and it is completely possible to stay on top of everything during the semester and feel like you're doing your best, while also continuing to feel inspired.

I'm not going to lie -this lifestyle is stressful. It's hard to balance music with school and everything else I do, but I thought I would share a few things that help me. 


1. Don't forget to make time for yourself.

Being a musician is like being a professional athlete that also has to be able to create sonic artwork at the drop of a hat. It can be overwhelmingly stressful, and easy to forget why you began making music in the first place. Give yourself time to do things you enjoy. Things that remind you who you are, and don't cost money. Extra points if it has nothing to do with music. I schedule in a free day each week to not practice or think about school, and I also schedule in things throughout my week that I enjoy (like yoga, meditation, or walks). Think about what makes you happy, and try to do something small for yourself every day.

2. Make two playlists.

I have two playlists of classical music available on my phone at all times. One is a running list of music that I'm working on in orchestra, so that I can listen while I have a free moment. I try to have several different versions of each piece to refer to, so that I don't get just one way of doing it stuck in my head, and if I have extra time I can easily score study while I listen. This helps tremendously with not feeling overwhelmed, because from the first rehearsal of each concert cycle: at the very least I already know how my viola part goes, and how it fits into the texture of the piece. It's not too late in the semester to get into the habit of doing this.

The second playlist is a running list of classical music that reminds me why I do what I do. Just having this list keeps me motivated to listen to recordings and continue discovering new pieces. It helps me find inspiration in moments where I'm tired of everything I'm working on.

3. Sit down and make a list of everything that needs to get done this week. 

When I'm feeling overwhelmed and burnt out, I find that making a game out of it works better than trying to micromanage. I make a long list of everything, and if it's a list of every academic thing I need done before the end of the semester, sometimes that alone is enough motivation to just do it so I only have to worry about practicing from then on. Regardless, instead of scheduling what to do I put it in my calendar after I finish that task. I include the time it took for me to complete it, and cross it off my long list. For some reason, I get a much bigger sense of achievement when I do that. If you're feeling stuck, it's definitely worth a try. 

4. Try scheduling in blocks of time.

I sit down once a week and plan out how to make 4hrs of available practice time a day, but adjust that based on what I have going on. I only schedule practice times when I know I'll be able to focus. Instead of feeling rushed to learn something, I use the majority of my practice time to work on technique, and feel comfortable with sections of my repertoire under tempo (or doing metronome work). I like to focus on spots, while interleaving different passages (see last blog post for more info). I try to find creative solutions to things I'm struggling with. At the end of my allotted time, I run through what I've worked on and decide what to focus on next time I look at this piece. I record myself at least once a week to keep myself honest. Because of this general strategy, I don't get stressed because I know this is the best environment for me to learn.

5. Motivation isn't the answer

I know many people that only practice when they are motivated, or believe that successful people are motivated all the time. Instead of searching for a way to stay motivated, give yourself space to enjoy what you do. If you're beginning to feel that you're not enjoying what you do, reflect on that feeling. Is it because you didn't give yourself enough time to practice this week? Are you bored of the repertoire? Did you practice when you 'just didn't feel like it' or did you give up? Are you ruminating over something that didn't go great in a performance? I know from personal experience that I stay passionate about what I do when I have time to prepare for things, and also time to reflect on my successes. I don't believe in failures -only learning experiences, and I view stress as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. If I give myself time, and shift my view of the situation to something positive, that is so much better than motivation because I can create it and it's sustainable.

6. The only person that can determine your self-worth is you

Don't let others (teachers, conductors, colleagues, etc.) make you feel like you aren't worthy, because whatever you're doing isn't at their standard. Each of us has completely individual needs and is on our own path. If you are setting aside enough time to practice, and are discovering the way you best retain information, then you are doing the work. Your teacher is there to supplement what you do, not offer the only way at finding success. Stay in your own lane and don't compare yourself to others. Be your own best advocate, and don't hold on to anything that doesn't serve you.

7. Take care of yourself

If you don't get enough sleep then it won't matter how much work you're doing. Don't be afraid to ask someone for help if you are struggling mentally or physically. Always put your health first.



Let me know what you think! Is there something you do that helps you stay on track when things get hectic? Did you try any of my suggestions, and how did they work out for you? Questions? Thoughts?