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How do you manage your practice time?

[This is a repost from December 2009.  Enjoy!]

Since it is almost impossible to have the same amount of time available every day, it helps to be organized and flexible.  After all, exact repetition every day is soooooooo booooring.

Do you start at the beginning of your program each time you practice?  Are you able to practice everything each time?  Do you have several programs going at once?  It usually happens that I have many different situations to prepare for all at the same time.  With all those variables of performance dates, types of music (vocal, instrumental, collaborative, solo, choral music, etc.), there is rarely a time when everything is ready to go on the same day.

I have found it crucial to set priorities for each practice session.  Depending on the time available, the dates of upcoming concerts, and whether or not a piece is ready to perform, I make a list in my head ~ or sometimes on paper ~ about what I can realistically accomplish that day.  (Most of the time it works.  Sometimes I revise my goals along the way ~ and don’t get mad.)

Keeping a notebook of practice sessions helps immensely.  When you can see the last date you worked on a certain piece, as well as what you did, progress is easier to achieve.  If you don’t know what happened last time, or what state the piece is in, you could spin your wheels for quite a while just figuring out where you are.  And while it may feel good to just play something, it is a huge waste of time.  If you use your time well, you can learn twice as much music.

If I’m increasing the tempo, I write down metronome markings in my practice notebook (but not on the music).  While things are in such a state of flux, I’d rather not have all that writing on the score.  (And erasures wear out the paper.)

When I’ve worked on dynamics, I write that down.  How did it go?  What needs to improve?

Sometimes my impression of a composer’s intent will change, so I write that down, too.  That could change again in a day or two.

Trouble spots definitely make the notebook.  And then I make sure I concentrate on them until they’ve been solved.  Allowing portions of a piece to stay unlearned or remain uncomfortable is truly asking for trouble in performances.

Keeping written comments is the best way I’ve found to get all elements of a program together at the same time.  (It’s like cooking a large dinner, except there’s no backup such as a warming oven or a microwave!)  Having one piece or movement that I’ve ignored until the week before a concert makes me very uncomfortable.  (That happened exactly once.  I discovered on stage, of all places, that I had never put fingerings in a Haydn trio.  Oops.  I felt nervous just for that one reason.  A friend who was in the audience said she noticed, but that it was a good performance anyway…  and I trusted her not to lie to me.   And it will never happen again!)

On days when my practice time is limited, I often surf from one problematic spot to the next.  The next time, I do the same thing in reverse.  Why waste time practicing what you already play well?  You could be reinforcing unusual fingerings, making fast passages more comfortable, calibrating accelerandi and ritards, improving dynamic contrasts, playing the end of one movement and the beginning of the next, practicing intros and interludes in piano reductions or songs, or making a myriad of other effective choices.  What about the ending?  If it’s faster and louder, especially, I spend short periods of time getting it to be foolproof so I can be memorable in the concert.

A word of caution:  I have found that I often feel rushed when I have limited time.  So I play faster.  NOT helpful.  I have improved upon this tendency by being aware of it.  Now I frequently practice under tempo when there is too little time.  That increases my concentration and keeps mistakes from creeping in due to tension and anxiety.

And on those days when there is plenty of time, I revel in it.  Finally!  Time to “perform” an entire program!

How do you manage your practice time?

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