Anyone who has spent any time practicing an instrument is familiar with the feeling of not getting anything done. This doesn’t have to apply only to music practice. You can be working on a task, but never actually get anywhere.
Real progress comes from daily focused attention and deliberate practice. If we are to get better at doing something, in this case music, we can’t just say “I touched my instrument today, so I did my part.” You won’t learn just by doing. You must have a plan and then execute that plan consistently to see results.
Is it hard? Yeah, it’s pretty hard. Just like anything else, focusing is a learned skill. The more that you study and practice it, the better you’ll get at it. Once you learn to focus, you’ll see progress. Progress will help you enjoy your practice more and more.
Ready to get more done than you ever have before? Ready to become that amazing musician you’ve always wanted to be? Let’s get started.
Ok this may not be a way to focus better, but if you never sit down to practice, you’ll never get a chance to focus.
Never Break the Chain
Jerry Seinfield’s productivity tip can help you practice consistently. Each day that Jerry accomplishes a task he wants to do daily, he writes a big red X through that date on his calendar. His goal then was to “never break the chain”. There is an innate neurological reaction to checking things off a list, or in this case marking a calendar.
You’ll feel obligated to complete your practice task every day, so that you can make a chain of x’s that continue to the end of the year. In addition to practicing, you can use this method in order to stay consistent with anything.
Learning to set short, medium, and long-term goals will help give your practice a clear direction. Make sure you understand what you want to accomplish with your practice time. Are you working towards an audition? Maybe a competition, or some other kind of performance? When is the date of the performance? Make sure you write it down and what pieces need to be ready by that time.
By setting goals in this way you’ll be more motivated to practice daily. While goals are important, the focus should be more set on the process.
Goals lead to processes. Without clearly defined goals there would be no need to practice every day. The process is the actual practice. This includes what you do during practice.
Plan Out Your Practice
By defining short and medium term goals you’ll find it’s clear what specific pieces, and parts of pieces, need to be practiced in a given day. Goals won’t ever be realized unless you have a plan to accomplish them. There was a point in my life when I was practicing for more than 6 hours a day. I often worked on 4-5 pieces at a time.
For a while I would just practice what I thought needed the most work. I would basically sit down at the piano without a plan and decide then and there what needed work.
It became a stressful habit because it seemed unorganized and chaotic. Unproductive. And it was. I needed a plan.
I learned to plan out, and set aside, a specific amount of time to practice each piece every day. I had a short, week-long goal in mind, which was usually dictated by my lesson. I would then decide what pieces needed the most work.
Every week I would sit down and plan out every minute of my practice day on an excel spreadsheet. I decided that maybe the Chopin Scherzo I was working on needed 50 minutes of practice, but the Beethoven sonata only needed 30 minutes. I would also put some breaks in the spreadsheet. Finally I would come out with my practice plan down to the minute. Not a minute was wasted.
Something important happened once I did this. I was focusing. I was progressing. Pieces I normally didn’t have time for were getting practiced more than ever before. I was budgeting my time. And it increased my practice productivity so much so that it was visible to others.
You know what the best part of it was for me though? My practice anxiety was gone. I wasn’t so worried about how much time I wasted, or if I was productive. I knew I hadn’t wasted a minute. Every minute was accounted for.
You can plan all day long, but if you don’t leave time for your brain to rest, then focus will be difficult.
Every musician needs to understand the importance of sleep. There have been multiple studies done that show that mass practice (practicing all in one sitting) is less effective than spaced practice (spacing out practice on multiple days). For example, practicing 10 minutes a day for 6 days is much more effective than practicing 60 minutes in one sitting. So consistency is key, when learning a skill. This doesn’t help us understand how to focus better in a single day of practice though. That’s where breaks come in.
Take a Break
When Lang Lang was a child, he would practice for an hour in the morning, 45 minutes at lunchtime, two hours after school, and another two hours after dinner. Spacing practice out over many different sessions, even in a single day, can help intensely with focus.
In one study a group of people was given a 50 minute task without breaks or diversions, and another group had the same task to do, but they were given a break in the middle. The group that took the break outperformed the group that did not. The results may seem like common sense, but it just goes to show that breaks are important.
Perhaps breaking up practice time like Lang Lang’s father planned for him into morning, afternoon, and night practice is the best way to go, but it may not always be possible. So what do you do if you have 4 hours to practice, but you want to break up the time? Three words: The Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is very similar to what I had come up with on my own for practice time in the past. What’s a Pomodoro? It’s the word for tomato in Italian. Still lost? Ok in the late ’80s, a college student by the name of Francesco Cirillo was having trouble focusing. Cirillo had a kitchen timer nearby that just happened to be in the shape of a tomato. He decided he was going to set it for 25 minutes and focus on what he needed to study.
The rule was that in those 25 minutes he was not allowed to do anything else. After the timer finished, he would set the timer for 5 minutes for a break. During these 5 minutes he didn’t allow himself to do the task he was doing for the 25 minutes before.
Each cycle of 25 minutes work and 5 minutes break he called a Pomodoro, which was named after the kitchen timer he was using. After 4 Pomodoro’s he would take a longer break of around 20 minutes. Pretty simple right?
If you’re like me, you’re probably worried about taking so many breaks! What I, and many others, have found however is that the amazing focus that takes place in those 25 minutes makes up for the lost 5 minutes in break time. When I practice, I’ve found that 40 minutes is a better amount of time for each Pomodoro. You’ll have to try it yourself to see how long you can focus without thinking about anything other than the task at hand.
Remember, during a Pomodoro you can’t do anything other than your task. Nothing. Don’t look at your phone, don’t open another piece of music. Nothing.
If you’re interested in learning more, I would suggest reading the book “Pomodoro Technique Illustrated“.
If you absolutely must have a tomato shaped timer like Cirillo, you can buy one on amazon. I don’t really see any need to buy a timer like that though. I like using an app on my phone.
There are apps specifically made for the Pomodoro Technique. I personally use BeFocused. Another interesting app is FocusNow.
So plan out your practice, and take frequent breaks. Do it. It works.
Do checklists have a place in practice? Yes. Yes, they do. As I’ve progressed as a musician and a teacher I’ve realized that many students tend to focus on technique, that is playing the notes at the correct tempo and accurately. Too often however young students tend to ignore some of the more subtle parts of music.
I remember in college I was working on Chopin’s Nocturne Op.27 No.2. It’s a beautiful piece, but being the impatient young man that I was, I was only interested in memorizing and playing it from beginning to end accurately. It wasn’t that difficult of a piece technically for me, so I wanted to get through it quickly. I ended up learning the notes fairly quickly, and that was that.
Soon after learning this piece I went to a masterclass (unfortunately I don’t remember who gave it), and the teacher spent the entire class working with a student on playing extremely softly, without unneeded accents. I noticed that the left hand for the nocturne I had recently learned needed the same work.
I decided to spend some time and work on the tone and softness of that left hand. I worked on it for 15 minutes a day for about a week. After that one week there was a very noticeable difference. Of course there was. I practice it specifically. But it wasn’t something I would have normally thought to practice, even though my teacher regularly said to work on balance. I just never did it. My time was better spent, I thought, working out fast difficult passages.
Typically your teacher will tell you about these small changes, but no real practice time is allocated to making it better. Many students are just “aware” of it, or spend a little time playing it once. It seems as if students think these changes will happen magically. They don’t. You need to focus on that one issue for a serious, consistent, amount of time.
This is where checklists come in. There are many different parts of a piece beyond the notes that need to be practiced. Put those sections and ideas on a checklist, and review it before you actually start practicing. You’ll find you actually end up practicing those sections and techniques that you never did before. When you’re done practicing, you check it off. Your brain loves checking items off of lists, and it makes you want to do more.
Checklist App – Nirvana
This will keep you focused on things you should be practicing, but never really set time aside for. You can just make a paper checklist, but my personal favorite is an app called Nirvana. It’s software that is based on the book “Getting Things Done“, by David Allen.
With Nirvana you can create projects. Each project should be a piece you’re working on. Each time your teacher tells you something that needs to be practiced, you can add that item to your project. I would only add items to this list that you wouldn’t typically spend a lot of time practicing.
For instance the balance between hands, or voicing of some specific section. Then set a Pomodoro and practice just that. Once you practice it for the day, check it off. Do this for a week or two and you and your teacher will be extremely surprised at how mature your pieces become.
Multitasking sounds like a good thing. But it’s not. Actually true multitasking doesn’t even exist. In reality multitaskers are more like little kids that get distracted by every little thing. This is why the Pomodoro Technique is so effective. It forces you to focus on one task for a short period of time.
Even if you are not using the Pomodoro Technique, put your phone on silent! Research has recently been done to show that even hearing your phone make a sound can divert your attention and minimize your productivity.
212 students were given the task to press a key on a computer anytime a number was shown on the screen. The only exception was if the number was “3”. This task was done by each group for 10 minutes. The task was then repeated a second time for each individual. Before the test each person gave the researchers their phone number.
During the second test the task was interrupted periodically for the first two groups by notifications on their phone. For one group researchers would call, another group received texts, and the final group served as the control with no phone notifications.
Only research subjects that did not touch their phones were included in the final numbers, that is people who only heard the notification. The group that heard the phone calls made 28% more errors than their first try. The group who heard the text notifications made 23% more errors. Finally the group that received no notifications made only 7% more errors than their first test. The researchers hypothesized the increase in errors in the control group was due to fatigue in taking the same test twice.
So what does this all mean? You won’t practice as well if you are listening to constant notifications on your phone. The research subjects task was very simple, and they had an average of 25% increase in errors. I would hazard a guess that with music practice your increase in errors may be even higher because of the complexity of the task. Remember practice equals permanent. You don’t want to continually practice errors, and that’s what practicing with your phone will do to you.
Cognitive Switching Penalty
What if you not only hear a text notification, but also read it? Or what if you talk to a friend that walked into your practice room. The loss of productivity gets even worse. The loss of productivity caused by switching from one task to another is often termed by researchers as the “Cognitive Switching Penalty”.
Research shows that attempting to do more than one task at a time decreases your productivity by as much as 40%. That’s even more than the 25% from just hearing a distraction. That’s quite a penalty. That turns your 4 hours or practice time into only 2 hours and 25 minutes of focused practice. Ouch.
Take More Lessons
Some of the best practice you’ll get is likely when you practice with your teacher next to you. Lessons are important not only to guide your practice, but to help you stay on task. If you have lessons more often, you’ll find that you work harder and are more focused because someone is going to hear you more than once a week. When you have someone sitting next to you telling you exactly what to practice, you’re also much more likely to stay on task.
In this widely shared post, entrepreneur Maneesh Sethi decided he needed to increase his productivity so he did what any normal human being would do. He hired a woman off of Craigslist to slap him every time he used Facebook.
No, I’m not suggesting you hire someone to slap you if you stop practicing, but a teacher serves this purpose without needing to go to such extremes. My guess is during your lessons you concentrate pretty well because you have someone there to keep you on task.
In the past, and still in some cultures, musicians would live with their teachers, so they could get lessons as often as possible. Some of the best musicians were taught by their parents daily. Having lessons as often as you can afford is a great way to increase productivity.
Quantity of practice does not matter, if your quality is suffering. Quality practice is not just about focus. If you don’t know how to practice effectively, you can focus as much as you like, but you still aren’t going to get anywhere. The opposite is true as well.
If you know how to practice, but can’t focus for more than a couple of minutes, you won’t get anywhere. Of all the things you could learn to improve yourself as a musician, it’s how to practice better.