At some point in every musician's life, we struggle with how to practice so we can perform better on stage, in front of our peers or family, or just for our own enjoyment.
Living in the information age has great benefits, like instant access to whatever answers we need.
Living in the information age also has disadvantages, like information overload and not knowing whether the information will help us or hinder us.
The three areas of practicing
In my article on Maximizing Your Practice Using the Rule of 10's, I talked about splitting your practice session(s) into three areas: Tone, Technique and Music.
I remember back in the days when I was studying with Vince Penzarella, Trumpeter with the NY Philharmonic, how he wanted me to think of my practicing in this way.
All areas are equal; it is especially important to play music each day to tie everything together and to make sure there's joy in playing.
As Vince would say, “if you're not playing music everyday, what's the point?”
Back then, I was so focused on playing exercises and focusing on the technical side and not leaving enough time, or embouchre strength to play music.
I would think that I made up for that by spending a few hours every Saturday just sight-reading and playing music.
In order for me to have made more progress at that time, and not burned myself (and my embouchre) out, I should have divided my practice into 10 minute sessions (Rule of 10's), and made sure that I was focusing on one area per 10-minute session. Instead, I spent too much time in the Technique/Tone areas ,and not enough time on the Music area.
For Beginner Musicians, it's a little simpler to strictly follow the Rule of 10's because practice sessions usually total a 1/2 hour anyway.
Intermediate and Advanced Musicians have to put in more time for practicing. They will need to plan their 10-minute mini sessions and structure them throughout the day. For these musicians, the Rule of 10's can be a little more flexible as some pieces or exercises require more than 10 minutes of time.
Here's an important point:
Don't spend more than 15 or even 20 minutes on one area at one time.
In other words, if you have an hour a day to practice, don't spend 40 minutes on Long Tones and Endurance exercises. You won't have any endurance left for music. Instead, do 2 sessions of Tone/Technique/Music @ 10 minutes each.
Let's use this analogy: You want to make lasagna, which will consist of pasta, meat and cheese. Too much of any one of these doesn't make lasagna anymore; you wind up making a different dish.
So, too much time on Tone may not help you play a new piece with tricky rhythms. Too much time playing Music may not help you fix some articulation issues. Too much time trying to increase your flexibility may not leave enough time to apply that work when approaching a new piece of music.
Why did I create the Ultimate Practice Planner?
Don't have your Ultimate Practice Planner yet? Download the Ultimate Practice Planner here
After teaching over 27 years, I have noticed that most Beginner Musicians are never really guided through an effective practice routine.
Today's beginner method books don't seem to give students a clear idea of how to practice to get results.
There seems to be more emphasis on flashy colors and making sure that each exercise can be played by the entire band at the same time, in order to accommodate school administrators cutting music programs and group lessons. Each page isn't really a Lesson that's divided into working on Tone, Technique and Music.
I think back to the old standard, Breeze Easy Method, and I remember how each page was a Lesson; it had a warm-up, tone exercises, technique building and then ended with songs. Yes, according to today's standards it's a boring looking book, with outdated pictures of teenagers or young adults from the 1970's modeling posture and embouchre. But the book worked!
I never felt great when assigning exercises from the method books I used while teaching in public schools. Like most other teachers, I would supplement by adding my own warm-ups and technical exercises, but I always felt the books lacked something.
And the time limitations and other constraints of public school teaching never allowed me to finish teaching these lessons in one session. It was very frustrating!
After researching many others' practice logs, reading scores of books and research studies on How to Practice, and studying with many different teachers, I decided to create my own practice planner.
Recognizing that the needs of Beginner musicians are different than Intermediate and Advancing players, I created separate tabs for each. The main point I wanted to include in my planner was to give examples of the types of exercises that would be worked on for each area for each level of musician.
I wanted the Planner to be interactive in the sense that the student can type in the exercise they were working on, and more importantly, think about Goals they were trying to accomplish that week.
I also wanted to include some space to note whether the daily goal was achieved, and if not, a space to reflect on how to improve to achieve that goal. (I'll talk more about goal setting in a future article – COMING SOON!)
For the Advanced Musicians, I totally changed up the design to include Long Term Goals, Pre Warm-ups, as well as a Journal type of feature, where the student would also address recording and reflecting upon parts of their practice. (More on these aspects in another future article – COMING SOON!)
I also needed it to be thorough enough so that musicians would feel they were addressing the 3 Main Areas, Setting Goals, and Reflecting on How to Improve.
It took me many years of research and experience and many hours to figure out the best way to figure out a layout that's easy to understand and simple to complete.
How to Use the Ultimate Practice Planner and Make Progress
Many people state they have no time to practice, let alone write down what they are practicing in a log. Writing things down can feel like an inconvenience.
Think about it, isn't it more time-consuming trying to remember what you worked on last session, the tempos you played, and whether or not you accomplished your goal?
Here's a priceless tip that can yield big results:
Plan your practice the day before.
For example, you just had a great practice session.
After working on each area, you spent all of 30 seconds writing down what you've accomplished.
When you're totally done with practicing for the day, list your goals for the next day (metronome markings, which exercises, which songs or pieces, etc) so the next time, you can just start practicing and not waste time trying to figure out what you need to work on.
You can print out the planner and stick it by your music stand, download it as an Excel sheet or save it as a Google Doc and edit as needed. You can also save your weekly Planner as a separate file on your computer, and over time see how much progress you have made.
I would strongly recommend that you create a folder on your computer and save your Planner sheets after each week. It is really encouraging to see how far you've come by looking back a few weeks/months and comparing to where you are now.
Still don't have your Ultimate Practice Planner yet? What are you waiting for? ?
Playing an instrument is like playing a sport; we are developing and fine-tuning large and very small muscles.
A good balance between the three areas of practice (Tone, Technique and Music) can properly build muscle strength and stamina. Spending too much time, or not enough time on each area can have the opposite effect, leading to muscle damage.
Using the Ultimate Practice Planner, you can divide up your practicing into the 3 Main Areas, and reflect on whether you accomplished your goals and how to improve to achieve them the next practice session.
Planning your sessions the day before saves time and confusion, and allows you to make more seamless progress.
Saving your Planner sheets to your computer and checking back in time on occasion will motivate you to practice more because you will see how much progress you have made over time.
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