Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Timer

The next step to making your practice focused, efficient, and patient is to use a timer. Call me nuts, but I time every bit of my practice. Call me compulsive, but I even time my breaks. (For the record, this post is being written during a one-hour break from the instrument.)

As you can see with my online practice log, I'm pretty precise about how much time I devote to each piece I'm working on. (I summarized some of my approach to timings here.)

So, what's up with the timer?

The timer works at both ends of the practice spectrum: it moderates the exciting moments, when one want to keep on working while avoiding everything else, and it forces those moments when one might not be so motivated. Let's begin by looking at the first end of the spectrum.

When I'm really excited about a piece, it's easy to go on and on. It's easy to ignore all of the other things on my plate, and, before I know it, all of my practice time is gone for the day. For me, the worst thing is when I practice a piece so much that I don't feel like practicing it the next day--or anything else the next day, for that matter. To this end, the timer keeps everything in moderation.

Let's face it: memorization practice (or any practice, really) is hard work. It's not always the most fun thing, and it's easy to get distracted with other things, such as email, phone calls, or writing a blog about memorization. The timer keeps limits while also making obligations. 

It's important to know, before beginning the practice session, how much time you have. From there, divide up your time. Don't forget breaks! Use a timing and stick to it. (You can always change it the next day.) My advice, if you're doing this for the first time, is to work with shorter timings. You'll be pleasantly surprised to see how much you've accomplished in a short amount of focused time. If you have a smartphone, you most certainly have a timer with your clock app. (You probably also have a stopwatch--another important tool.) Set it and use it!

A timer helps you to know your limits. It forces patience, and it forces you to do a little each day instead of too much one day and nothing the next. As Aesop wrote, "Slow and steady wins the race."

I haven't written yet about how to exactly memorize notes, but repetition is a large part of the process. Repetition practice can be redundant, and redundancy results in thoughtless and inattentive practice. With a timer, one can address the need for repetition practice while avoiding spending too much time in redundant practice. 

In a typical day for me, I try to practice around three hours. I might start first thing in the morning with two 30-minute sessions and then a 30-minute break. Because I'm most creative in the morning, I really need to set the timer for my breaks. Otherwise it's too easy to get caught up in my break activity. And since my break activity is often at the computer, it's really, really easy to lose a sense of time. 

Until I started using a timer regularly, I simply couldn't practice in the afternoon due to inattentiveness and lack of motivation. Knowing this, I'd squeeze everything in before lunch, with short breaks and a mad dash to the finish. But the timer has helped me to pace my work better, and, with short practice blocks, I can easily continue into the afternoon. 

The timer is my solution for disciplined practice. Do you have one? Leave a comment, and let me know what it is!