Continuing on with our series on how to build an effective practice routine, this post will dive into the value of programming your routine in cycles. Make sure you go back and read the other blog posts in this series. Part 1 dealt with assigning proper exercises based on your goals. Part 2 discussed how to pick appropriate tempos and repetitions for those exercises. Part 3 went over three different tempo ranges, and the importance of including each into the routines that you build.
What Is Cycling?
There are many viable definitions for the word cycling, so before we begin, I feel it’s best to define the way in which I am using it. For our musical practicing purposes, cycling can be thought of as simply a period of time in your practice that has a beginning point and an ending point.
Let’s look at athletic programming to help us understand. At the very base level, we have our individual sessions. These are the actual workouts you do on a day to day basis. At the core of growth, this stage is the most important. It’s clear to most everyone that no amount of planning will pay off if you don’t actually show up daily and do the work. There can be no progress without action.
The next level of organization to consider is microcycles. This period of time can vary, but generally we would consider it to be one full week of training. The beginning point would be day 1 and the ending point would be 6 days later. This level of organization ensures you’re getting in all the work that you need each week to reach your goals.
Continuing on, the next level — the level that we are concerned with for this blog post — is the mesocycle. Again, the length can vary, but for simplicity sake, we will consider one full mesocycle to be the completion of 4 microcycles, or one month. Understanding how to organize a mesocycle is a big step toward developing the ability to build your own workout (or practice) routines.
What Is So Special About A Mesocycle
Individual sessions are all about effort, or in our case, focus. You have a plan and it’s up to you to put in the work and get it done. Microcycles are about organization. Making sure all your bases are covered. Want a stronger squat? Make sure you have 2-3 squat sessions during the week. Want to build your deadlift but you don’t want to accumulate too much overall fatigue? Program a variation of the deadlift on a second day to work with less weight while still attacking weaknesses.
Mesocycles are all about progression. You finally zoom out enough to see how you are performing from week to week. Not only can you track how much progress you make from week to week within one mesocycle, but you can also compare mesocycles to mesocycles to assess whether or not you are moving in the right direction to accomplish your macrocycle (yearly or lifetime) goals.
Although I could continue with this fitness analogy, I’m going to stop and move on to how it affects us as musicians. There are limitless options for mesocycle programming, but we know enough to make an effective application toward our practice.
Mesocycle Programming For Musicians
So how do these ideas apply to us? How do we apply the micro, meso, and macro cycles to make us better practicers? Unfortunately, the answer is both simple and complicated: it takes trial and error. Fortunately, I have been experimenting with these ideas and have some insight.
Programming to this degree can be difficult. You’re not just assigning exercises and figuring out what tempo you can play it at right now. You’re aiming to plan out a month (or so) of your practice before you even start. How detailed you get is up to you, but here are a few benefits I have experienced from programming mesocycles into my practice routine.
You Get To Start Over
One of the best reasons for practicing in cycles is you get the chance to start over each month. With never ending linear progression, you will eventually hit a tempo that you cannot pass. If you stay at your threshold, it’s likely you’ll develop bad playing habits as well as a bad mental association with “what you can’t do”. Having the chance to start a cycle at the beginning means you have a chance to breathe again. You have a chance to reassess, try something different, and build anew.
You Learn From Your Mistakes
Through the use of mesocycles, I’ve learned the benefit of seeing something through to the end, assessing what I need to do to improve, and then implementing that knowledge at the beginning of the process.
When I was learning Cascades by Allen Vizzutti, I was practicing my slow tempo repetitions very long and connected, to promote ease of playing.When I got to the fast repetitions and mock performances at the end of the program, I couldn’t play long and connected fast enough. I learned I wasn’t playing my slow tempo repetitions in a manner that was helping my performances. I started the program over again with more information, played my slow repetitions a little shorter with firm articulation (like I do when it’s fast), and the result at the end was more consistent. Also, completing the cycle gave me the added mental bonus of reaching a finish line. Complete enough cycles, and you will become the type of person that finishes what you start.
You Learn Your Needs
It’s impossible to know if you’re doing enough work to progress in a given week unless you look at the bigger picture. Seeing how the exercises you play on Monday are progressing will give you a good sense of whether or not you need more or less repetition of those exercises. Instead of letting fear guide you, you’re letting the observable data from your weekly progress inform the adjustments you make to practice sessions.
Hopefully this blog post has shed some light on the importance of zooming out and planning long term. Finding objective metrics to track progress leads to less stress. There’s no emotion about whether or not you are improving. Cycles are like scientific experiments; you can observe, pivot, and try again. Over the course of time, you get better at programming, better at practicing, and better at your instrument.
If you would like to work with me to organize your practice or get help planning for your own goals, don’t hesitate to reach out!
If you are interested in working together to build your very own personalized practice routine, let me know! Send me a message on my website or social media.
Editor – Will Baker, www.willbakermusic.com