Advice for the High School Musician on Getting it All Done When You’re Being Pulled in Two Directions.
I see you. Every morning, between your 7:10am chamber orchestra rehearsal and your 8:00 advisory, you sit in front of your locker and map out your day. Projects you have to work on, reading that needs to be finished, papers to write, plus 3 hours of practicing and rehearsing. Maybe you have a extra-curricular club meeting or a family obligation thrown in there as well because, you know, life. You start every day feeling utterly defeated before it even begins–the math never works out. There aren’t actually enough hours in the day to get do what is being asked of you by your school teachers, coaches and music instructors. I see you so clearly, because I was you. When I was in high school, that was me. That was my everyday existence.
Week after week, I see the high school and college students that I meet facing the same dread. Homework, Tests, and Group Projects battling it out with Practicing, Rehearsals and Concerts for their time and brain space. They feel as if they constantly have to choose who they are going to disappoint that week. “Sorry, I didn’t finish that assignment.” “Sorry, I didn’t study for that test.” “Sorry, I didn’t get much practicing in this week.” “Sorry, I still haven’t learned that scary orchestra passage.”
But here’s the thing. I survived. Somehow, I wasn’t kicked out of my honors classes, and somehow, I got into music school. Somehow, it all worked out, and I learned a few important tricks along the way. I always share these tips and practice hacks with my students, and I am offering them up here to you all as well. Take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay.
1. Map out the big picture Music commitments for the entire year in advance.
Ask your teachers for help with this. When are districts? Studio recitals? orchestra concerts? competitions you are interested in doing? (and the application deadline), auditions for summer festivals? (and their application deadlines!). Everything you can think of that has a definite, set-in-stone date already. Put them in your calendar.
2. Map out the big school commitments.
Is there a senior trip that happens every year over spring break? What about that dreaded “Junior Year Research Paper” that stretches between January and Spring Break? Is there a big science fair that you want to enter? When is that? When is the submission deadline? When are your orchestra concerts? Are you going to be in the pit band for the school musical? When are those required rehearsals going to be? (trust me, the director has known all of this since the first day of school—just ask).
3. Take note of where different commitments overlap
Now that you have everything in front of you, you will be able to see where things are a little bit crowded. Maybe you have that huge research paper happening between January and mid-March, but, oh look! That’s exactly when you have to submit your summer festival audition recordings. (deep breath) Now you know that you’ll need to have your audition music learned and ready to go by the time to you get back from winter break, right? With the music learned, You’ll just be recording and submitting, and then you can give your full attention to the paper. Likewise, if you have a big competition happening in the middle of that research paper? You’ll need to get ahead of the game in your research so you can ease up the week of the competition and focus on your practicing without falling behind.
4. Communicate with your teachers when you anticipate a problem.
I remember talking to a teacher who assigned a fairly long essay on Friday and said it was due Monday morning. But I had my usual 8am-7pm Music Center activities on Saturday and a competition on Sunday afternoon. I stayed after class and told my teacher about my weekend and that the competition was really important to me and I wanted to be able to really focus on it for Sunday, but that writing a good essay was ALSO important to me, and I couldn’t do both of those things at the same time. I couldn’t fully focus on my competition AND write a good essay. She nodded, asked me if I thought I could have it finished by Wednesday, and wished me luck on my competition. I was amazed. She understood! She was helping me! Likewise, now that I am on the other side of things, I can appreciate it when a student comes into a lesson and tells me that they have 4 tests the following week and do not anticipate having a lot of time to practice. I can take that into consideration, and maybe NOT ask them to learn the next movement of their concerto that week, or tell them to have their piece memorized at the next lesson. Always remember that we teachers are going with our own timeline when we assign things (both in school and in music). But the learning is for YOU. There is time to do everything, just not at once. Trust that we are all on your side and will help you when you need it.
5.Don’t wait until you have large chunks of time to practice.
You’ll probably find that you don’t often HAVE large chunks of time every day. And yet, we often feel like if we don’t have at least two hours available to us, there is no point. If you’re practicing smart (and you can read more about that here and here) you already have some small sections marked out as well as a few scary technical passages that always need a bit of drilling. Those are perfect for those times that you walk in the door and you hear “dinner will be ready in 15 minutes!”. Great–do you know how many times you can drill that passage in 15 minutes? Awesome. Go do it. And depending on your mood and how much of either you need to do, you can use homework as a practice break activity or you can practice between homework subjects. By the way, you ARE listening to your pieces (solo, chamber music and orchestra) while you do your homework, right?
6. Try to schedule two or three 1- hour blocks each week that you treat as an extra lesson.
You wouldn’t blow off a lesson because you felt like playing 10 more minutes of that video game, right? So, if your schedule says 5pm practice, then at 5pm, get up and practice. The rest of your practicing will be done in those small nooks and crannies mentioned above, but this is your full focus time. Because I can guarantee you can find one hour 3 days a week. The rest of your practicing will be done in those smaller chunks throughout the week.
Some of the Savannah Arts Academy Orchestra
7. Can you practice at school?
Do you have free periods or study halls that you can get signed out of and use a practice room or an empty ensemble room? Or if you often get to school 30 minutes early, or picked up 30 minutes late, can you use that time to knock out a few sections?
8. Create shedding sheets.
Arts and Crafts, anyone? Collect your music (solo, etudes, chamber music, orchestra music-everything!) and pick out the spots that have tricky passages that just need a lot of shedding. Photocopy those pages. Cut out the passages and glue them to a piece of blank paper. You’ll end up with a few pages of random passages from all sorts of different pieces. When you are practicing (especially if you only have 10-15 minutes) take out that sheet and start shedding the passages one by one. Even in your busiest weeks, you will make good progress on your pieces this way. You can also just bring this sheet to school with you if you are going to practice a bit there, so you don’t have to drag all of your music books with you.
9. Have a clear goal of what you want to accomplish or improve on that week in your practicing.
That goal shouldn’t just be “get better”. It can be “be able to play through the entire Popper Etude. “ Or, “fix those double stops at letter C” or “memorize the Bach”. Even those weeks where you are fully loaded up on extra school work or activities, pick a smaller goal for yourself, like: “I am going to listen to the recording of my concerto every day on the way to school” or “ I want to be able to play the first half of the first page of the popper”. And do something every day to get yourself closer to that goal.
10. Accept that you are human.
You will have days every once in a while when you didn’t get it all done. You’ll get a bad grade, you’ll have a poor performance. Please keep in mind that one bad thing does not make or break your career–academically or musically. If you fail at something, use it to figure out how to do it better next time, and, above all, learn to ask for help. If you are feeling overwhelmed by it all, tell someone (a parent, a teacher, a school counselor) and let them help you to take it easy and figure it out. Every high school student/musician in the world is feeling the same pressures as you. Talk to your friends about it. Don’t feel that you need to impress each other by saying that you practice 5 hours a day when you are struggling to find 2. Support one another and come up with solutions together.
a little advance planning, a few little life and practice hacks and a heck of a lot of communicating with your parents, school teachers, music teachers and anyone else who can help support you, you WILL get through these four years. Believe me, if I could, you can too!
New Trier High School. I survived.
Have you figured out some creative ways to balance your homework and practice schedules? Let us know in the comment. Your peers will thank you!