Practice Planning

A couple of lessons ago, my harp teacher gave me a music goal worksheet and a practice planning worksheet that I’d not seen before.  (You can download them for free at www.essential-music-practice.com, along with instructions on how to use them.)

I’ve not ever been enough of a linear thinker to find the whole “Where do you want to be in 5 years?” exercise very useful. Making a list of step-by-step actions to complete or accomplish to attain something so distant does not appeal to me.  I mean, I’m still operating under the childhood conditioned threat of nuclear annihilation, after all. And any time I’ve succumbed to answering the five-year question, it’s turned out that who I was and what I was actually doing five years later was totally unrelated to my answer, and was much more amazing and wonderful than anything I’d written five years before. (Perhaps I have a serious failure of imagination when faced with looking into the future.)

This worksheet asked that you write your music goals for ten years from now. I’ve not ever been asked to think that far ahead. My response was along the lines of “I just hope to still be alive and playing as much music as possible, hopefully with lots of other people.” Hard to make a ten-year plan based on that sparse amount of detail. But then, I’m not hoping to be admitted to a conservatory or planning to launch a concert career in 10 years, so maybe just hoping to be alive and still playing music is goal and detail enough.

But the second worksheet, titled “Practice Session Targets” has totally changed my harp practice over the last two weeks.  I am practicing more efficiently and seeing results from practice more quickly, much to my surprise. It’s not that I didn’t plan what I was going to do during practice before. I always had an idea of what I was going to work on each morning. I wrote down assignments from each lesson, so I knew over the course of each week what I was supposed to do. And I’ve been using a practice planner (www.moltomusic.com/musicians-practiceplanner.) But instead of using the planner to actually plan my practice before I started, I’ve used it to keep track of what I worked on after practice was over.

With the new worksheet I start by listing my targets for the week, i.e., the things that either I or my teacher wants me to accomplish by my next lesson. And then comes writing each day, before ever putting hands on my harp,  “This is what I’m after in this practice session:”

Somehow, this cue to figure out ahead of time what I need to accomplish at each practice session in order to reach my weekly targets has changed my whole approach to my practice time. No more am I sitting down thinking, “Ok, I’m going to work on page one of Grandjany’s Reverie.” Instead, I’m writing “Review measures 1-6 once; play measures 7-9 fluidly with dynamics as written at tempo 10 times.” Because I figured out after my lesson that with six days to practice, and one planned day off, if I master three measures each day, review and connect what I’ve worked on the next day before starting the next three measures, and review them as a whole on day six, I’ll be able to play page one at my next lesson.

Once my daily Reverie measures are done, I can move on to the day’s practice goal for the next piece or technical exercise or etude, such as “Learn correct notes/fingering for first 8 measures of ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, and play thru with all notes correct, gaps allowed, 5 times.”

For the last couple of years I’ve felt like I am always working on too many things at the same time. Trying to work on technical skills and learn multiple new pieces while keeping old pieces fresh enough to play has boggled me. I’ve never seemed to have enough practice time to keep up a current repertoire. The pieces that I’ve slaved over for weeks, once played for whatever event that inspired my learning them, gradually fade away into the dim recesess of my brain. So all I’m left with are the pieces that I’m learning, that I can’t really play yet. When someone asks me to play my harp for them, I can’t think of a tune that both my brain and my fingers remember.

Over the last two weeks of setting and sticking to my practice targets, I’ve had time to play through one or two old tunes on my repertoire list each day. And I’ve gone back to one of my “big” tunes from past lessons and relearned it so that I have something to play when asked. Amazingly, it hasn’t felt like “too much” to work on four ensemble tunes, work on my solo piece, review old favorites, and do new daily exercises to convince my suddenly misbehaving third finger to stay closed and relaxed while doing fourth finger cross-unders.  And instead of feeling overwhelmed and drained after practicing, I feel energized and encouraged about what I accomplished.

So, I’m off to practice…..measures 29-31 of Reverie await!

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