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Those that have been following my content for awhile know that I am a very big fan of planning out practice sessions ahead of time. I’ve been practicing like this for awhile, and I love how much more efficiency I can get out of my time spent in the practice room.
There are a number of reasons planning out your practice can be beneficial for a musician: having structure that you can follow, knowing the length of time a practice session can take, and having the opportunity to refine routines and practice plans are a few that I can think of off of the top of my head. But there is one amazing benefit that isn’t so obvious: having a defined END.
In a culture where hard work equals success, it’s easy to feel that the solution for wanting to improve is simply to put in more time. Sacrifice is necessary to achieve at a high level, and so most people don’t think twice about devoting their lives to the pursuit of long hours honing their individual crafts.
All great training programs require the person to push themselves hard and break past their perceived limitations. But all great training programs also have an end to them. Each day has a set amount of work, and when you finish that work, you can walk away knowing you did what you needed to do that day.
I rarely see musicians thinking in a similar way. It seems like a common way to end your practice session is when you physically cannot play anymore. Or maybe you just can’t seem to focus. There is no defined end.
When speaking with a musician in the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, I was told “When I have a big solo, I might play it 40-50 times each day in preparation for the concert”. When I asked “If you need to play it 40-50 times to be ready, how do you know if you’re ready?”, they didn’t have much an answer.
If you’re someone who has no structure and no defined end in your practice, here’s my suggestion: make a plan and stick to it. Decide how long you will play your fundamental exercises, etudes, and repertoire, and when you finish, put your instrument away. We need to allow ourselves to actually learn how much work is needed to be ready. We’re never going to do that if we are afraid to try something and fail. Make a plan, stick to it for a few weeks, then ask yourself how you might improve the plan. Make small changes that will lead to big results.
Another side benefit of having a defined end of your practice is that when you do finish, you can feel confident that you accomplished the work you needed to accomplish that day. You don’t have to feel guilt that you woulda/coulda/shoulda done more. You can be more present with family and friends. You can live your life free from feeling like you’re never doing enough. That benefit alone seems worth it to me.
“A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow” – George S. Patton
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