Building A Routine: My Approach To Knowing How Much Is Enough

I think it’s trying to tell me something

In our “Building A Routine” series so far, we have talked about how to pick exercises, how fast to start practicing those exercises, the value of practicing them at multiple tempo ranges, and why practicing in cycles is an effective way to begin learning about how you learn.

Although we have covered quite a lot about how to design an effective practice routine, we still have yet to cover one of the most basic concerns that many musicians struggle with: how long to practice a given skill.

I’ve found in many of my recent discovery calls, more than a few musicians find themselves struggling with endurance issues. It seems many players are finding themselves trying to practice an average of at least 3 hours a day. They’ll get through their hour-long warm up session and take a well deserved break. Later, they come back for another hour-long fundamentals session. After one more break, they will finish the day off with a final, one-hour repertoire session.

Or at least they try to. More often than not, they’ll find themselves physically and mentally beat up long before they get through their repertoire session. They are left frustrated that they cannot seem to fit in all of the material they want to practice. How will they ever get better at their instrument if they can’t finish their practice sessions?

How Much Is Enough?

Every ambitious musician has experienced some version of this story to some point in their musical life. The notion that “more is more” is prevalent all throughout our musical culture. If you want to work harder, practice more. If you are struggling to learn a skill, practice more. I’m sure most everyone has seen the flow chart at the beginning of this post floating around social media over the years.

For some people, this poster is probably the answer. If you’re a high school student who struggles to play their band music because you never play outside of class, “go practice” is definitely the answer. But for most, this poster ingrains this unhealthy and insane culture we have created that practicing is the only thing we should care about. Forget that we are humans and music is about connection with other humans. Did you just finish practicing? Good. Go to bed, wake up, and keep practicing. If you don’t, you are lazy or don’t care! You might as well quit now.

In the age of social media, this mentality becomes even more prevalent. Whether we are comparing our chapter 1 to other musicians’ chapter 30 or we are just overwhelmed with the amount of practice it looks like others are doing, the feeling that we are not doing enough or are not good enough can become multiplied.

I’m giving everyone reading this permission to dismiss that dogmatic approach to practice right now. Leave it behind. Here’s what you can focus on instead.

Setting Your Limits

A common way to organize your practice sessions is to set time limits. You might decide to warm up for 30 minutes, practice articulation for 20 minutes, flexibility for 30 minutes, take a 20 minute break and then practice solos or excerpts for an hour. You conclude that you can do all of this in 2 hours and 40 minutes, including the break.

Although time limits can be effective, I have a few problems with this strategy. The first and most glaring problem for me is it doesn’t help you determine what you are going to do during your 30 minutes allotted for flexibility. There’s no guarantee that this time will be productive., If you haven’t developed some strong practice strategies to use during the time you’ve set aside, you’re still left with finding ways to make that time productive.

My other problem with a time limit as an organizational strategy is when things aren’t going very well in your practice, it’s difficult to pinpoint what is holding you back. Are you playing too much? Should you rest more? It’s hard to know exactly what to change because we’re only accounting for one variable: time. If you go this route, you can minimize wasted time by setting shorter time limits and narrowing your focus. That said, I believe I’ve found an effective alternative. 

It’s Time To Rep It Out

My solution to this problem is to simply change the metric by which we measure completion. Instead of resolving to work on articulation for 20 minutes, I believe picking specific exercises and choosing how many times you will play them ahead of time. I’ve seen incredible benefit in this simple tweak in my practice organization.

To start, choosing exercises and repetitions ahead of time means that you are first asking yourself, “What do I need to work on?” “What exercises will help with that?” This clarity of purpose will improve everything that comes next regardless of time or repetitions. Once you are armed with a clear goal you can ask, “How many times do I think I need to perform that exercise to improve the skill I am trying to improve?” Instead of an open block of time, you are controlling multiple variables that you can observe and track progress with.

Performing 4 short, articulation exercises 5 times each at a specific tempo may take you 20 minutes to accomplish, and at the end, you’ll have an exact plan that you can reflect on. Did you improve at the skill you were working on? If you didn’t, maybe try 6 repetitions the next day. Did you feel a little beat up at the end? Try 3 repetitions of each exercise instead.

After some time of doing this, you’ll begin to learn exactly what you need to do to maintain, progress, and continue pushing your limits. The more variables you account for, the more information you earn.

It’s About Your Needs

In the end, designing a customized practice routine is all about finding what your needs are. Even though you heard one time that Maurice Andre practiced for 3 hours a day doesn’t mean you need to practice 3 hours a day. We’re all a work in progress and we have to be honest about our limitations. Consistently working outside of our means won’t get us anywhere fast.

My personal practice routine takes me no more than 90 minutes to complete. If I can get all of things done in that time and still feel like I am getting better, then you can too. Instead of focusing on how much you can do, try shifting your focus to how much you need to do.

Do you have questions? Schedule a free, 30 minute meeting with me. I’d love to help!

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