Music time management – How to manage and organise your instrument practice time

By Ugo Onwutalu

Over the years I have experimented with different ways to get myself to practice. I have tried practicing after teaching and in the early morning. Everyone’s circumstances are different but if you are like most people, you

·         Either have a 9-5 job which leaves a limited amount of time to practice, usually after work. Or:
·         are a full time student

Other factors include:

·         Who you live with – if you have young children it’s most likely you can’t practice in the morning because of the need to get them ready for school. If you live in a shared house/flat, your other tenants’ needs have to be considered.
·         the type of instrument – some like a guitar can be quietly practiced in a room while a brass/wind instrument are harder to suppress

We all have jobs or courses to attend during the day. Therefore, it can feel like a big ask especially when we get back home in the evening. Therefore, in deciding how to make time for practice, you must consider how important the goal of what you’re learning is. Preparing for an exam/concerts/gig means there’s enough motivation therefore you’ll find a way to fit the practice in. Nevertheless, other commitments, priorities and unforeseen circumstances mean you are constantly juggling your schedule. So how can you get the practice in without feeling overwhelmed?

1. SET A GOAL

In order to give you the fuel and desire to practice when you least feel like it, you must have a goal that is motivating enough. I teach a pupil of 7 who because what he is learning is exciting, is at the piano so much, they has to be prized away from the instrument! He even practices at the expense of watching their favourite cartoons and kids TV shows! Granted he is at the age where he has more time than an adult, but the basic principle is there – he has something to look forward to, that motivates him. If what he learns is no longer of interest he can easily stop as he has many distractions as you would expect of a 7 year old.
Now with adults, what needs to happen is simply set a goal of learning something that inspires you. It could be learning a song by your favourite artist/band/group for pleasure or something bigger like a performance. Either way, without an inspiring goal, no amount of planning and time management can make you practice your instrument.

2. BE ACCOUNTABLE

It is always best to have someone who takes an interest in your music learning and if they are there to remind you to practice at the time you should, you are more likely to follow through than if left on your own. One pupil used to put a sign up on the door of the room where his piano was saying: 

“My practice time is from 7.30pm to 8.30pm If you don’t see me practicing here 10 minutes after this time any night, I will pay you 5 pounds”. 

As methods go it was clearly unusual but it worked because it kept him focused on being at the piano at the time stated.

3. COMMIT TO PRACTICING AT YOUR MOST CONVENIENT TIME

I could talk about forcing yourself to practice at times you’re not used to but it is easier and more logical to work with what’s in your favour. Even if (in the extreme case) you have 1 hour a week free, you must use this time for practice. To not do this is to neglect an area you can do something about to help you in your goal. Use whatever free time where you don’t have bigger priorities, to practice. Make the commitment and use the time well. Don’t change minds and do other less important tasks, or get distracted with trivial matters. Just do it. The other benefit is that if you can practice at a convenient time more than once a week, you can develop a routine which is vital for progress.

4. MAKE THE OCCASIONAL SACRIFICE

We are all saying yes to one thing and no to another. Often we might put things we’d like to do constantly low down the priorities list. This means however, we might never get round to doing what we might intend because other things always get in the way. To get round this, you have to choose one time when you might do something important, but which is not urgent and replace that with practice time. This could also mean rising early to practice for 30 minutes (depending on your instrument). The reason is that you tell your mind, what you are doing is important enough to make the odd sacrifice for. This does not mean your practice comes at the expense of everything else all the time, but it does reinforce how much your goal means to you and keeps the desire alive.  

5. DISCIPLINE

Oh dear. The dreaded ‘D’-word. Probably hoping you wouldn’t see it in this article eh? Well there’s no avoiding it. If you want to maintain anything like a proper practice schedule, you have to discipline yourself to do it, not just say or intend to do. 

If someone were to follow you around and monitor you just for the time you had to practice, could they honestly say you put the time in? Or would they see you being distracted, stop-starting and procrastinating?  Once you have chosen your best time for practicing use it effectively. A good way to be efficient and effective is to get a stopwatch and time yourself for how long you practice. Stop the watch for any stoppages, such as stepping out of the room etc and restart on practice again. Then add up all the minutes you have been actively practicing. Is it as long as you thought? You might be surprised? Try it. Then look at the correlation between that and the results you are getting/want to get.

6. TRACK YOUR ACTIVITIES AND PROGRESS

Lastly, if you are serious about getting the most out of your practice, you should have a way of monitoring your activities. This can be on a notepad, workbook, or personal organizer etc. It need not be advanced but it should have the days you practiced, time and length of practice, what you practiced and any notes for improvement. This can be written like this:

  • Monday 1st August.
  • Practice start time: 7pm.
  • Practice time end: 8pm 
  • Practiced: Beetles songs.
  • To work on: Left hand of ‘Hey Jude:

Doing all the above will give your practice structure. Now put these methods into practice.

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