One of the most difficult duties of a professional, freelance musician, is finding time to practice. Yet practicing should be at the heart of the musician’s daily routine. Much like a professional athlete needs to constantly maintain their level of fitness, so must musicians keep their skills sharp. Yet unlike an athlete, musicians’ skills can continually improve over decades before peaking, making for a long, fruitful career. It’s just a matter of focused practicing.
Since college, I have struggled with keeping a steady practice routine. Life has always been full of distractions. Some distractions have nothing to do with music, like day jobs or TV, and others have everything to do with music, such as writing new music or booking gigs. Unlike college, when I’d practice roughly eight hours a day, I now rarely have a solid hour of uninterrupted time for practicing.
But let’s face it, everyone deals with the same types of distractions. The people that are the best at what they do have simply established better practice habits than everybody else. Everyone has their own methods–here are some I’ve adopted to improve my own habits.
What are your goals as a musician? What skills do you need to reach those goals? This seems obvious, but knowing what you want to do as an artist is the first step towards being the best. John Coltrane didn’t happen by accident!
When time is limited, you need to be very focused with the time you have. If you’re not sure what exactly you want to do, keep working on the skills that are in demand for better paying gigs such as sight reading and memorization. Those can come in handy in a variety of musician jobs. It’s also always valuable to use your metronome and work on your tone. Excellent time and unmistakable tone are the two things every great musician has in common.
And remember that making a living as a musician isn’t necessarily about being front and center. Highly skilled sidemen are always in demand. Guitarist Gary Melvin recently contributed an article to this site called A Guide to Being a Successful Sideman. In it, he recommends starting out with a broad skill set in various genres that can become more focused later:
Chances are, you’ll end up working in only a couple main genres with an occasional gig in another, but you want to start out with this mantra in mind: my specialty is not having a specialty. This leaves you open for many types of gigs, and once you get going you can steer yourself towards the genres you prefer.
Most importantly, by setting goals you can determine what not to practice. If you have no ambitions to be a studio or theater musician, then sight reading could be a lower priority. If you want to be the first call accompanist in town, then sight reading should dominate your practice routine.
Honest Self Assessment
If you don’t study with a private teacher, then it’s up to you to evaluate your own skills. Record yourself whenever you can, date the recording, and save it. I learn the most from video taping my gigs. Seeing myself play live really helps diagnose the weaker points in my guitar playing and musicianship. I find recording to be the best method of self assessment available, and listening to recordings made over a year ago really helps me chart improvements.
One Hour Before Noon
If you need to force some practice time, I’ve found that the One Hour Before Noon rule works for me. Regardless of what I have going on each day, I can get up and give myself one hour of dedicated practicing before noon. The idea is that once your day starts, you’ll have more distractions and find more excuses to not pick up your instrument. But if practicing never happens later in the day, at least you had your hour before noon.
I’ve also found that by giving myself this hour I can warm up for the day. Then if I have a few minutes here and there, I can pick up the guitar and my hands feel ready to go. These small chunks of time add up to more hours.
Practice Before Bed
When you learn something new, your brain forms new connections, or synapses, between neurons. Through repetition, these synapses become stronger and permenant, which is essentially how learning takes place. There have been studies that suggest sleep enables these connections to become stronger.
Understanding this idea in college, I never pulled an all nighter. I also discovered that if I practiced a new transcription or etude before going to sleep, it was significantly easier to play the next morning. If you’re into efficiency, practice the really hard stuff right before bed, and your Hour Before Noon will be even more productive.
Practice in Your Head
I used to have an hour commute between home and work, and it was a great time to zone out and visualize myself playing guitar. Because a great deal of playing music is just knowing what you’re going to play, visualization can be highly effective. Your brain won’t know that you don’t have your instrument, yet you’ll continue to strengthen the connections between neurons.
Tip: You need to be idle to do this properly. I don’t recommend visualization while driving or listening to your significant other.
Keep Your Instrument Easily Accessible
Most musicians don’t have a problem keeping their instruments out of the case and ready to play, except after a gig. I’ve gone days without even realizing my guitar is still in it’s case (granted I have several sitting out), but now I take it out after getting home from every gig, so it’s ready to go the next morning. Sometimes, just the act of doing this leads to an hour or so of inspired practicing before bed.
Practice vs. Maintenance
One mistake many beginners make is thinking that noodling counts as practicing. Professionals make the same mistake, but the noodling is just fancier.
I used to be a competitive distance runner. When you first start training, you make huge improvements through relatively less intense workouts. When you reach your peak fitness level, it takes more intense workouts to make incremental improvements.
It’s easy for a skilled musician to just keep working on what’s already in their bag because it’s full of great things to play. There’s nothing wrong with this, but sometimes we need a little shove to get outside our comfort zones and work on the stuff we can’t do. At this stage it takes a lot more work to show smaller signs of improvement, but unlike distance running, the improvement is virtually limitless. Be honest with yourself and know whether you’re practicing or maintaining.
Turn off the Computer
We have control over everything that distracts us, yet it can be so difficult to get away from something like your computer or TV. Just remember, nobody will really care if you saw the latest episode of American Idol, or are caught up on all your blogs. But you will only disappoint yourself if you screw up on the next gig!
Schedule Practice Time
Finally, set aside the time for yourself. Allow yourself a solid chunk of several hours a few times a week to really practice. Put it in the calendar ahead of time so you don’t book yourself with other activities. I’m not suggesting you turn down a paying gig, but schedule your social life around your personal improvement. I know people that work their schedule around their favorite TV shows, so I doubt your friends will mind!
Now then, get away from your computer and give me 15 minutes of arpeggios!