by Rachel Taylor Geier, DMA
It’s a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon. Perched on a music stand in a darkened room is a mountain of repertoire, scales, and excerpts that must be practiced before your upcoming flute lesson. You thought you had more time to practice earlier in the week, but alas, life got in the way (as it often does). You are now bracing for another long, exhausting, and uninspiring Sunday evening of cram practicing. Sound familiar? You are not alone. Sometimes scheduling practice time can be more difficult than solving the weekly New York Times crossword puzzle, and even when you do manage to book some focused practice time in your busy schedule, you may find yourself distracted or unmotivated. Luckily, there are a few strategic ways to prevent cram practicing in the future. In this article, I am sharing my top 10 practice productivity hacks to help you both identify the most optimal time to practice and to make the most out of your allotted practice time. Gone are the days of checking social media between boring scale exercises. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and work smarter, not harder (as the kids say).
Top 10 Practice Productivity Hacks
1. Identify your Power Hours. I often write about how important it is to find the time of day to practice that works best for you. I realized this for myself as a young flutist attending the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. Immersed in nothing but music for eight beautiful summer weeks, I was free to practice in the mornings before violin class, in the afternoons prior to large ensemble rehearsals, and in the evenings before curfew hours. I learned quickly that I was most productive in the evenings when the stresses and distractions of the day were gone, and the practice rooms were empty (as most other students had gone back to the cabins for the evening). I carried this into my college years and was often the lone flutist practicing before the music building closed at midnight (10:00 pm - 12:00 am were definitely my power hours!). As an adult, I’ve scaled this back to earlier in the evening, but still find that the 8:00-10:00 pm time frame works best for me. My advice is to experiment with these time frames for yourself. You may be trying to practice in the evening but find yourself far more focused in the morning hours. Or perhaps you need to have a bit more hustle and bustle in your practice environment to spark your productivity. We are all different. Experiment to identify the time of day when practice doesn’t feel like work. When do you leave the practice room with a smile? Those are your power hours!
2. Break Up your Practice into Mini Focus Sessions. Let’s be honest – It is difficult to find a convenient two-hour (or more) window in your schedule to practice, given all of your other daily responsibilities. And just how efficient is a longer practice block anyways? A great way to clock in the same amount of time but retain better focus is to schedule a few mini practice sessions throughout the day. If you followed the previous advice and identified your most productive time of day to practice, schedule a slightly longer session during this time to work on repertoire or anything else that must be mastered by a certain date (aka recital prep) while squeezing in shorter 30-minute blocks in the AM for tone work and scales and PM for sight-reading and improvisation. It is far more difficult to procrastinate a short practice session than it is to avoid the marathon awaiting later in the day. This approach makes practicing feel like less of an inconvenience.
3. Set a Pomodoro Timer (and Take Breaks). Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980’s, the Pomodoro time management technique breaks up work time into shorter intervals (typically 25 minutes in length) followed by a short break (typically 5-10 minutes). This is considered one “pomodoro” (from the Italian word for ‘tomato’ after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer used by Cirillo). Four pomodoros form a set. A longer break (typically 20-30 minutes) follows each set. There are a number of good Pomodoro timer apps on the market or you could even go old school with a simple kitchen timer. The great part about this technique is that there is a reward (short break) at the end of a reasonable focus session, so you are always looking forward to something while concentrating on a project. I’m even using the Pomodoro method to write this article! The Pomodoro technique is brilliant for practice sessions. The short break helps your muscles (and brain) relax more frequently, giving you more energy for the next practice session. It also helps avoid repetitive frustration practicing if you are struggling with a technical passage. Save it for the next pomodoro! Use your break to hydrate, check social media, dance around the practice room, or stare blankly at the wall – Whatever makes you feel relaxed and happy before the next focus session.
4. Program a Practice Cue. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear explains that every habit begins with a cue. A cue signals a craving which leads to a response and then a reward. Okay – Are you sitting down? Practicing.Is.A.Habit (*mind blown*). Therefore, according to Clear’s logic, if we find the right cue, we can program ourselves to practice at a certain time simply out of habit. If you have already identified your best practice time of day, think about what events typically happen before or after this time. Do you practice after work? Hanging up your car keys when you get home could be your cue. Are you a morning practicer? Perhaps cleaning out your coffee cup could be your cue to start your AM practice session. A fellow flutist that practices in the evening like myself may use a dinner plate in the sink as a cue to practice. What is your cue? Program it!
5. Location. Location. Location. Do you practice at a school? Or a home studio? What are your options when it comes to practice space? Try changing things up a bit, if possible. An introvert may prefer a practice room located in the back of the building while an extrovert may enjoy the background buzz of people in a room located closer to a central stairway. If you practice at home, have you tried setting up your space in a guest bedroom or an insulated garage? A more ideal environment can help you practice free from outside distractions.
6. Practice Theme Days. A great way to keep your daily practice routine interesting is to program themes on certain days. For example, Mondays may be devoted to memorization exercises (Memorization Mondays) while Saturdays could be reserved for scale study (Scale Time Saturdays). This will help focus your attention on the theme of the day for part of your practice routine while having something to look forward to later in the week.
7. Keep a Practice Journal. This one is for all of my fellow Law of Attraction enthusiasts! A practice journal is exactly what it sounds like – A place to record your thoughts about your practice time and goals for your next session. Your journal can be in whatever form works best for you. It could be a small notebook that you carry around with you or even just a list that lives in the Notes app on your phone. A good way to use a practice journal is to begin each day by writing down three goals you wish to achieve by the end of your practice session(s). This is known as setting an intention. At the end of your practice for the day, write down briefly which goals you achieved, what went well, and what will need some more work at your next practice session. You may even take this a step further and capture a couple of reasons you are grateful to play the flute (this is Law of Attraction work at its best). Use this journal to structure, reflect, review, and plan for each new practice session.
8. Avoid Music Stand Hoarding. I am guilty of this from time to time, so I know first-hand how a cluttered music stand creates a cluttered practice session. You pack your music stand with the best of intentions to practice all of the things. If you see it, chances are you will practice it, right? Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. Just thinking about the mountain of repertoire awaiting your attention may lead you to abandon ship (hello, procrastination city!). Pare it down so it looks more approachable. This will make practicing a walk in the park and not a snowy hike up Mount Everest.
9. Video Record Yourself. No – You do not need to post every practice session on Instagram (just the good ones!). Smartphones come in very handy for this hack. Aim to record at least 30 seconds of your playing per day. What can you learn from these videos? Analyze everything from tempo, posture, dynamic changes, and any weird idiosyncrasies you may not realize you are performing. Most importantly, ask yourself how you can make your playing even better tomorrow. Remember: Embrace progress over perfection always.
10. Hydrate. This may seem like the most obvious piece of advice, but trust me, we all forget. “I’ll hydrate after I’m done practicing.” Been there, and most of the time I skipped the water fountain on my way out of the building. If you combine this last tip with the Pomodoro timer or the practice journal technique, hydrating on a more regular basis will be super easy (this is called “habit stacking” according to James Clear). Stopping for regular water breaks will help keep you energized and on top of your practice game until the flute is packed safely in its case for next time.
Practicing does not have to be the daunting task we often turn it into. It is a process. It is a habit. And it is an opportunity to design a routine that works best for you. If it feels like work, you may need to try something new. Dare to reinvent your current routine. A redesign will improve efficiency, productivity, and inspire happier, more continued improvement in your flute playing.
Rachel Taylor Geier holds a DMA in Flute Performance from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, an MM in Flute Performance from San Francisco State University, and a BM in Music Performance from DePauw University. Former applied instructors include Immanuel Davis, Linda Lukas, Anne Reynolds, and Rhonda Bradetich. Dr. Geier currently teaches and freelances in Davis, California.