Making Time

Over the years I’ve worked with students from every “walk of life.”  I’ve taught working folks with families, children, retirees, people with disabilities, professionals, homemakers, and everything in between. Besides an interest in playing guitar, one thing all of my students (and I, too) have shared is the challenge of finding practice time. Everyone is busy.

Often people are told to practice a certain amount of time every day. There seems to be a commonly agreed-upon 30 minutes a day for the beginning student. I don’t know where this idea came from, but it is very pervasive. It’s really not a bad idea, I just think it maybe puts too much importance on the amount of time one should practice. When a student becomes unsatisfied with the quality of his practice, very often there is an automatic response to try and increase the amount of time to 45 or 60 minutes. Again, this might not be a bad idea. However, most often a student is not able to meet the goal of the 30 minutes per day anyway or she is simply not using that time very effectively. Increasing the amount of time practiced per session really won’t help.

When I first started teaching professionally, I had been in the habit of being able to comfortably and consistently practice 4-6 hours every day. That was the schedule that was offered to me by being in music school. After I graduated and started working, I found that I didn’t have that kind of time available anymore. I would think about needing to practice then tell myself, “Well, I don’t have a couple of free hours here, so I don’t have the time.”  Over months of this, I ended up really not practicing at all, and of course, the quality of my playing suffered. It seems so simple, but I had to get to the point where I was so desperately unhappy with my playing that I resolved to pick up the instrument whether I had an hour or 5 minutes. I did alot of my practicing during times when a student had canceled a lesson, or when I was preparing to leave for an appointment and maybe had 10 or 15 minutes before I had to depart.

I learned two very important lessons during that time. First, I learned that any amount of time put into my work was a positive step. I was able to learn a good deal of new music and address some important technical issues during this time, and it was rare for me then to be able to sit down for more than an hour or so at once. Second, I learned that when I only had a short period of time to work, I really made the most of it. I would speculate that given 15 minutes or an hour, most students would get the same amount of work done. There is a much clearer sense of efficiency with shorter periods of time. If you only have 15 minutes, you will feel a stronger need to make the most of that time, whereas given an hour, you might only really make good use of 15 minutes.

The other big issue in planning practice is that the consistency of practicing day to day is far more important than the amount of time spent in an individual session. I think that most students should set a goal of practicing 5 days each week, for any amount of time.

When you have trouble finding time to practice:

  1. 1)Understand that picking up the instrument in the first place is the hardest part of practicing. Keep your instrument somewhere where you can see it often. This will inspire you to pick it up.

  2. 2)Set a goal of practicing 5 days a week. After you are in the habit of giving yourself that time, then concern yourself with what to practice and how long you should spend at each session.

  3. 3)Write practicing into your calendar, PDA, etc, as you would any other appointment. Some students find it especially helpful to practice at the same time each day. Try getting up 15 minutes earlier or going to bed 15 minutes later each day to “make time.”

  4. 4)Commit to the long term. Real growth doesn’t take place quickly, nor does it fit nicely into 7-day segments. Have faith that after months or even years of consistent work, you will build your playing.

  5. 5)Be realistic. Accept that you are only able of doing what you can do, and enjoy the process as it develops.

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