Today is Labor Day, our modern-day signal that summer is over and we all have to get back to work. Whether you spent the last three months studying or playing at various festivals and camps? Or maybe you took some time off to travel, see family, or enrich your life in some non-musical way (I am SO all for that, by the way!)? However you spent this past summer, the prospect of getting back to a routine can seem daunting and overwhelming. Here are a few tips that might help you get back into your practice groove in time for that first performance, studio class, or concerto competition.
I believe very strongly in transitioning between one thing and another and wrote about having a whole Transition Week here. When I’m getting back into practice mode after some time away, I usually spend at least a day or two just playing. That’s right. Not practicing anything, just playing. Favorite pieces I could play in my sleep? A new concerto I want to learn this year? All six Bach Suites–just for fun? It’s hard to leave the beach vacation behind and immediately be excited about scales. Start by getting excited about your instrument, and begin the routine by spending a certain amount of time with your instrument each day. If that means just serenading yourself for a couple of days, that’s wonderful.
What repertoire are you responsible for between now and Jan 1st? After a couple of days of getting all of that “playing for fun” out of your system, it’ll be time to face reality. Open up your calendar app, or your planner (I use these and have the entire year up on the wall of my studio/office). And start planning out your year. For pros, this will mean rehearsals and performances, grant deadlines, important dates for your students (like when you’ll need to have extra time to write all of those letters of recommendation) and for students, you want to write in all of the deadlines for concerto competitions, seating auditions, studio classes, and chamber music and orchestra concerts. In other words, when do you need to have things prepared by? Knowing this in advance will be extremely helpful in avoiding the dreaded “practice cram” one week before a pre-screening festival audition video is due.
Are you a morning practicer, an evening practicer, or a late-night practicer? I am and have always been an early morning practice person. When I was at NEC, I would practice early in the morning AND late at night, but the morning session was always more productive for me. The late-night sessions were more about wanting to be where my late-night practicing friends were! Even if you’re a student and you can’t get a full 3 hours in before school, you could probably manage to do 1 hour then, right? Take advantage of your body’s natural energy patterns, and do your best work then. If you’re better at night, then get into the habit of getting everything else done earlier in the afternoon and evening, so that when the time comes, you’re free to practice.
Yep. You got it. Scales, Arpeggios, Octaves, Etudes. The part that gets rusty after a leisurely summer isn’t our sense of musicality! It’s our muscles. Like an athlete coming out of the off-season, it’s all about the warm-ups and the skill-work. Don’t underestimate how quickly a good technical routine can whip you into shape.
There is no rush right now. Work for a few minutes and take some time to do a few stretches. Start with your scales (for god’s sake—start with your scales!) and think of it as a morning yoga routine for your fingers and your cello. Set the timer on your phone for 5 minutes, and for the first week, practice 15 minutes, and take a 5-minute break. You can increase your playing time by 5 minutes each day after that.
Have a coach you can work with? Someone to keep you honest? Or friends who are in the same boat? Text each other to compare notes and keep each other going. Or, commit to an Instagram challenge. Post a different section of your concerto each day. Trust me, people will nag you if you skip a day!
This is a well-known habit enforcer. Pick something that brings you joy. It could be a vanilla soy latte or a certain kind of chocolate or listening to a favorite podcast. Decide that you can only do that thing after you’ve practiced. I love podcasts, and I have a long list of ones that I listen to every week, but I’m only allowed to listen to them while I’m exercising. So, voila. I exercise more because I want to listen to my podcasts. It can be a video game, watching youtube videos, reading a favorite book, etc. whatever works for you.
You knew I’d get to this one sooner or later. If you don’t have any big, exciting goals for yourself, then WHY would you choose to lock yourself away for hours every day and play scales and drill passages over and over. But if you are determined to get into a certain school/camp/festival, make a certain orchestra, win a job, ace that graduation or Doctoral Recital, win a competition, whatever it is. Make a sign. Write it out and tape it where you can see it every time you practice. Turn it into a graphic and make it the wallpaper on your phone. See it and read it multiple times a day. It will give you a reason to get into the practice room. Reasons give us purpose, and Purpose keeps us motivated.
Happy Practicing! (Don’t forget those scales 😉