Flight Plan for Practice
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. This is your Captain speaking. Thank you very much for joining us today as we make our way to more efficient practice habits. The length of the flight is up to you. We may experience some turbulence as you let go of old inefficient habits but if you keep your seatbelts fastened and your seats and tray tables in the locked and upright position, we’ll do everything we can to make your trip an enjoyable one.
I’ve never liked to practice. Oh sure, there were times when I got caught up in the moment and time slipped by without notice. Those times are great and always welcome. In fact, they can be cultivated. They occur when your abilities are perfectly aligned with the task at hand. Otherwise, practice can become boring, frustrating time-consuming and hypo-allergenic. Okay maybe not the last one, but I’ve always wanted to use that term. Anyway, I realized that since I don’t like to practice all that much, I want to do it as little as possible. However, I have a lot to learn. There are always new skills, new pieces and new challenges ahead.
I am a very fortunate musician for a number of reasons. First, I have been able to make a living performing music for people all over the world. Second, I have had a steady paycheck for the last seventeen years. Third, and maybe the most amazing, I am a euphonium player by trade. Yes euphonium. It’s a tenor tuba, kind of a cross between… anyway, in my opinion, the biggest factors accounting for my success are goal setting, planning and effort. It’s that easy. And that difficult.
Does talent play a part? Who knows? The experts don’t agree and some recent research indicates that effort trumps genes. And for some reason, khakis trump jeans as well. But that’s another story. My intent here is to provide a bare-bones, no excuses, no nonsense (well a little nonsense) method for becoming a more accomplished musician by becoming a more efficient practice-er and will invent new words. Like practice-er.
CHOOSE YOUR DESTINATION
Step one, where are you going? Pick a destination. Begin with the end in mind. You’ve heard it before because that’s how it works. As I write this, I’m on a plane from Tokyo to Bangkok (I told you I was fortunate). Plotting your course in musid is no different than embarking on a long flight. Except for the food. And the legroom. And the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll experience a water landing when you practice. Unless you play the tuba.
Anyway, as I sit here on the plane, a number of things are very clear to me; where I am, where I am going, how long I have to get there, and the route I will take. In fact, on this particular flight, I can even see a map, which constantly updates me on my progress. I can see where we are, how fast we’re going, our miles traveled and how many we still have to go. Crystal clear. Easy to understand and monitor. Practicing should be no different. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Where are you now?
2. Where are you going?
3. How long do you have to get there?
4. Which route will you take?
5. How will you deal with the obstacles in your way?
If these things are clear, there’s nothing to stop you. Attitude is EVERYTHING!.
PRE-FLIGHT EQUIPMENT CHECK
To continue with the travel analogy, before you begin your trip, you need two know two big things; what you’ll need and what you already have. In the case of progressing on aa musical instrument, “What you need” can be taken musically or physically.
On the musical side it refers to the skills needed to perform the music you need to play at the level you intend to achieve. This list includes such things as:
1. Tone quality
4. Knowledge of scales and theory
You get the idea. Basically, everything needed to express yourself through sound.
On the physical side of things, the most obvious is a high quality musical instrument, in good working order. Other things to consider are:
3. Recorder (tape or digital)
5. Maintenance and cleaning equipment
6. Music stand
Less obvious, but no less important needs are a good teacher, and high quality recordings of model musicians (supermodels are also highly coveted).
Obviously, once we know what is needed for the trip, we can compare the list to what we already have and look to fill in the remaining items. You may need a new instrument, a metronome, some MP3s, or season tickets to an orchestra, or just the phone number of a good teacher. Musically, taking stock involves being painfully honest with yourself about your current abilities. How many scales and arpeggios do you know (Not almost know), how quickly and cleanly can you articulate, what is your range, how is your sightreading? This list is for your own personal use, so don’t fudge any of the data. Don’t estimate sit down and figure it out! Write down the information and include the date. The exercise is valuable in and of itself plus you now know your starting point. How else will you know whether and how quickly you are advancing to your destination?
Once you have a destination in mind and have completed your pre-flight checklist, you can draw up a flight plan. Let’s use scales as an example. Once you have determined which scales you need to know (chromatic, major, all forms of the minor, possibly whole tone, blues or ethnic scales depending on your destination), you can compare that list to the scales you already know and set concrete goals for filling in the gaps.
Let’s say you know all of the major scales, but need to know the three forms of the minor scales. First, if it’s not already for a dated assignment, pick an end date. “In six weeks, I will be able to play all twelve harmonic minor scales at 120 beats per minute in sixteenth notes by memory for my teacher. Notice the clarity of this goal. “I want to get better at my scales” won’t cut the mustard, although why you would ever need to cut mustard or any other condiment for that matter is beyond me. But I digress. Again.
In order for your goal to be effective and attainable, it should have a number of features. It should have an end date “In six weeks”. It should be stated in a positive fashion “I will”, not “I hope to,” not “I should,” and not “I’d be really sweet and chicks would dig me if I could,” although if the last one were true more guys would learn their scales.
Finally, including “all twelve harmonic minor scales at 120 beats per minute in sixteenth notes by memory for my teacher,” provides the specificity necessary for a measurement of success. Here, I’ve included the type of scale, the speed it will be played and for whom. The last piece isn’t mandatory, but provides a little added incentive to accomplish the goal.
Once you have completed the flight plan, all that remains is to get moving. With a starting point, and end point including the date and the destination clearly stated, you can set up guideposts along the way to track your progress and make any needed adjustments. For instance, you may need to increase your practice time in order to make the date. If you get through the first week and only learned one scale, you need to put in extra effort to get the two scale a week ratio needed to learn all twelve scales in six weeks.
You may find that you have set goals that are too aggressive or easy. Don’t sweat it. Learn from that and make adjustments. To mix travel metaphors for a moment, when driving, you make countless adjustments to your speed and direction while on your way to your destination. This is normal and expected. Keep things simple. If the goals are too aggressive, extend the deadline or adjust the plan. If it’s too easy, set a new, more challenging goal. You are in control of the process.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD
Here’s where the flight metaphor really breaks down. Unlike a flight, our journey as musicians has no ultimate end point. There are always new skills to be developed, new pieces to learn and new opportunities to explore. I guess that’s both the good news and the bad. How much you enjoy the journey and how far you will travel is up to you.
So now, please bring your seatbacks forward and return your tray tables to the upright and locked position. I hope you enjoy your flight.