Make Time for Short Practice Sessions

I encourage music students to practice as often as possible, rather than focusing on practicing as long as possible.

Once your attention starts to fade or waver, practice sessions become less useful. You start cementing bad habits instead of strengthening good ones. That’s why I advocate multiple shorter practices instead of one longer one.

They’re also more fault-tolerant: if you plan on having 15 short practice sessions a week (a couple every day, for a few minutes), you’ll probably actually do at least 10 of them. If they’re 10 minutes each, that still nets you 100 minutes of practice a week.

But if you plan on practicing seven times a week (once a day, for 30-40 minutes), you’re more likely to miss several sessions. Something comes up, you’re tired after work, and suddenly you’ve only practiced twice this week. That’s 60 minutes, losing handily to the 100 minutes from the short practices.

Getting the most from short practice sessions

Set specific goals. You can’t plan on omnibus sessions when you’re only working for five minutes. So pick something small to focus on. You might choose:

  • A specific piece of finger technique in isolation
  • Body posture or hand position
  • Working one passage at multiple tempos/volume levels
  • Making a position change more fluid
  • Improving your intonation on a specific note transition everywhere it appears
  • Memorizing a short passage

Use a timer. Set a timer for the amount of time you intend to work, and then focus exclusively on practicing until the timer goes off. Assiduously guard your attention while you’re playing.

Keep your instrument easily accessible. If you’re doing short practice sessions, you can’t afford a lot of time spent on retrieving your instrument. I believe strongly in storing instruments in their cases when you’re not playing, but you can still keep them nearby and easy to reach. With practice, most instruments can be ready to play within a minute or so.

Use some of your practice sessions for “fun” playing. Playing music should be fun. If you’re doing multiple short sessions, make sure some of them are just playing for enjoyment rather than working. Jeff Kaufman makes this point well.

Keep a log. Write down a few words about what you practiced, and list the date. If you want to write more, that’s great, but start with just documenting the basic facts, like this: “Practiced mandolin, worked on hand relaxation and picking—9/22/14”.

Focus on incremental improvement. If you keep stacking up 5-10 minute sessions, the results will impress you—but the effect of any one session is going to be pretty small. As long as you’re bringing full attention to your practice, you can trust that it will improve your playing, so be kind to yourself.

Look for opportunities to tuck in an extra practice session. Got ten minutes between appointments? Run through one of your pieces in your head. Play a few scales while your dinner finishes cooking. Work on your hand positions while you’re waiting on hold. There are lots of little time slots you can find once you start looking.

An example of a short practice session

Today, I practiced mandolin for 12 minutes on the ferry across Lake Champlain (Grand Isle to Cumberland Head):

Mandolin practice on the ferry
Mandolin practice on the ferry—pick held jauntily in mouth while taking selfie photo

It was about 45 degrees on the boat, and very windy. Frankly, it was really cold! Still, I have a tradition of practicing while I’m on the boat, and I want to keep it going as long as I can. So today, I worked on:

  • Playing with clean technique even when my fingers started going numb. I often play for outdoor events, and developing resilient technique that can cope with bad weather is important for me. I found that my hands kept trying to cramp, so I focused on loosening my fingers and relaxing them whenever possible (since tense muscles impede blood flow and cause cold hands).
  • Steady picking. When my hands started getting cold, it became hard to feel the mandolin pick in my right hand. This made it more challenging to play with steady, even rhythm, so I spent a few minutes noticing my picking and working to make it more even.

That’s it! It was a short practice session, but I think it was valuable. Good experiential learning on playing in adverse circumstances, with some focused work on playing with even rhythm.

Caveat musicus: be careful of temperature extremes. I don’t plan on playing my wooden instruments outdoors for much longer, since it’s getting pretty cold. Also, if you’re playing in the cold, focus on your hand technique: avoid tension, since cold muscles get hurt more easily. Also be aware that if you’re weird enough to play mandolin on a ferry in the cold, lots of tourists will take your picture.)

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