Monday, October 01, 2007

Build a Regular Practice Schedule Part 1 of 2

If you're learning an instrument and you want to improve your playing, learn music, or get more enjoyment out of playing, the one thing you need to do above all else is practice. This means setting aside some time nearly every day for quality work on honing your craft. Many of the things I would like to impart this month deal with fun ways to make your time spent in the practice room more enjoyable.

However, the one thing that must already be in place before any nifty practice techniques will actually work is a regular practice schedule. In fact, today's theme is probably more important than anything else I'll be talking about this month, and if you get nothing else out of this series, this is the concept that will yield the most growth in your playing:

The most important element of practice is that it be a regular, fulfilling, and disciplined time spent with your instrument on as regular a schedule as possible.

Showing up is half the battle.

Here are some ways that people of different ages and schedules can fit practice time into a regular schedule.

Students 12 and Under

One of the most valuable things that parents can impat to their children in musical study is a sense of schedule and structure in day-to-day musical life, and that time be rewarding and fun. I see too many young students fall by the wayside simply because their parents didn't want to have any kind of engagement in their kids' musical activities.

Here are some optimal practice times in a young student's daily routine:
  • First thing in the morning before school. They'll need to get up earlier to do this, but work it into their schedule and you'll have kids bursting with mental energy as they head off to school.
  • First thing after school. As soon as they come home in the afternoon, getting them into the habit of practicing will also fit nicely into a regular schedule without taking significant time away from homework or other activities.
  • Right before dinner. An okay time, but not optimal because of obvious hunger issues.
  • Right after dinner. Also a good time.
  • Mid-evening. Another very good time, and takes planning fitting in homework. Beware of the seduction of television and computer games at this time.
  • Right before bed. A possible time, but not optimal unless there is no other time to fit in the practice session because of other activities. Some kids that have a lot of energy at this time of day might actually benefit from practice before bed.
Although mixing and matching practice times will work, for younger students it is probably a better idea in the long run to stick with one or two regular times of day.

High School-Age Students

As students go through high school, their hold on a regular practice schedule can be tenuous, with competition from homework, sports and other activities, social time, internet time, and computer games.

Here are some optimal times, bearing in mind that more practice time will be needed for advanced students:
  • Before school at home.
  • Before school at school. Many schools have practice facilities, and teachers gladly let responsible students use them. This is a great time, because they are at school, can usually concentrate if they have privacy, and have a chance to get away from parental supervision (very important).
  • During free periods at school. Again, it takes discipline, but these can be profitable time.
  • Right after school upon arriving home. An excellent time of day to practice as long as there are no conflicting activities.
  • Mid evening. Another useful time, but faces stiff competition from Nintendo and Facebook.
  • Late evening. This starts to be an excellent practice time for teenagers once they get into the zone, especially for those who will eventually become nightowls. Warning: can distract siblings.
There are two things I notice with my students that get in the way of regular work:

1. Not enough parental engagement at an early age. I can't stress how important this is. Music teachers are not babysitters, and parents often don't realize how much of a positive model they can be through taking an active interest in their son or daughter's musical life.

2. Extreme overbooking. The opposite problem. I also see a great many students who are involved in way too many extra-curricular activities for their own good that never get to develop any sort of process in working at any activity because they are always being shuttled to the next one.

For the parent, it is good to develop a sense of balance, remaining engaged in getting their kids practicing and thinking about music, but with the ultimate goal of letting them do it by themselves without the prodding. Proud indeed is the parent whose son or daughter works hard at their instrument, has fun at it, and feels the satisfaction that they did it for themselves.

Tomorrow I'll be looking at how adult students can fit regular practice times into their schedules, given an entirely different set of life challenges.

Next: Build a Regular Practice Schedule Part 2


  1. I am reminded of a saying that one of Darryl Edwards's teachers had posted in their studio:

    If you aren't practicing, another person is. And when you meet that person, they will win.

  2. Excellent article once again! Thank you so much for breaking things down in a concise manner.

    I'd like to place in a request for practice tips for the super-busy music teacher.

  3. Thanks for the idea, Rhona-Mae--take a look at Tuesday's installment.