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Practicing II: Time Management

One of the chief adjustments that many new college guitar students struggle with is the requirement to play numerous pieces at once. It seems common that the year prior to college auditions is spent playing solely the works slated for use during auditions. As this is usually two pieces, sometimes three, and the wind-up can last as long as a year, it represents an especially long time to stay focused on a small sliver of repertoire. As a result, some students reach a level of control over the audition pieces that belies their general playing level. I've sometimes been startled to find an auditioning student who plays fairly well but, say, can't really read music, or knows no other pieces. 

As a consequence of this type of training, the sudden immersion in new works, an inevitable right-of-passage (my) freshmen all face, can seem daunting. At the end of their first lesson, they stare blankly at the list of works they are now, newly responsible for--for instance, a classical period variations set, a Latin American work, maybe a Bach suite, a Spanish piece, etc. This approach is partly culinary: who wants to eat nothing but potatoes for three months? A little salad, maybe some chicken piccata, a slice of Boston cream pie, etc., go a long way to keeping life interesting. 

But it's also born of a compelling pedagogical imperative: we learn different things from different styles of music. Plus, we are held to a high standard as far as understanding different styles is concerned. And so, to accomplish all three goals--establishing a broad-based learning experience, addressing the subtleties of style early on, and keeping the musical diet interesting, I always recommend a full range of pieces, right up front. 

Of course, it's my intention that these works take several months to master, and each will be taken at a manageable pace. But the expectation is that the student will master, essentially, a concert program's worth of material that (and every) year. (See my post on Playing More Recitals). 

The music itself should all be level-appropriate, and there will be plenty of help in determining exactly how to play it, from fingerings to phrasing, and so on. The problem is the new challenge of managing so much material. 

I spend a fair amount of time in lessons talking about time management. A reasonable place to start is to assemble a list of current activities. They might be categorized as follows:

1) technical exercises
2) studies
3) new solo repertoire (brand new)
4) in-progress solo repertoire (all or partly-learned but needing attention)
5) performance-ready solo repertoire
6) chamber music/ensemble repertoire
7) sight-reading

Assuming, for discussion's sake, three hours of practice in a given day, I'd recommend the following distribution: 
75 min   technical exercises and studies
35 min   new repertoire
35 min   in-progress repertoire
10 min   chamber music
15 min   performance-ready repertoire
10 min   sight-reading

If you have five hours to practice, it might look more like this:
75 min   technical exercises and studies
60 min   new repertoire
90 min   in-progress repertoire
30 min   chamber music
30 min   performance-ready repertoire
15 min   sight-reading

I'll refer to the 3-hour scenario for this next breakdown. Looking at a 75-minute chunk of time, and knowing it has to be filled with technical activities and studies is a great launch. But further reduction can help a lot. Let's say you are currently working on the following specific technical activities and warm-ups: tone, arpeggio, tremolo, ascending and descending slurs, LH independence, i-m velocity, scales and a couple of Sor studies. So, you're left with something like this (links go to prior posts describing the activity in detail):
5 min   tone
10 min   arpeggio -Giuliani (or arpeggio -Carlevaro)
10 min   tremolo
5 min   ascending slurs
5 min   descending slurs
5 min   LH independence
10 min   i-m velocity
15 min   scales
10 min   studies (5 min each for two)

It is challenging to stop playing something like an arpeggio exercise after ten minutes; it could easily be done for 30 minutes. One needs discipline to switch gears on a schedule like this. But the long-term payoff is significant. (I should note that in the formative stages, I encourage students to immerse deeply in each technical activity, doing the particular arpeggio routine for, say 30-40 minutes each day for a few weeks, until it is well-established and the hands are doing it correctly and consistently. This immersion comes at the expense of other activities which are temporarily put on hold. Then, dipping into the exercise for ten minutes each day effectively reminds the hands about the technique, offers opportunity for improvement, and warms up the muscles.)

The true payoff here is that every "muscle group" gets attended to by the end of every day. I've seen exercise routines at gyms in which one moves from station to station, working on abs here, pecs there, biceps here, triceps there, etc., each activity taking place on a different piece of specialized equipment. We want the same universal result on the guitar. Who wants killer slurs if you can't predictably execute a scale or arpeggio? I recommend alternating left hand activities and right hand activities to prevent fatiguing one hand. 

When it comes to that long list of repertoire items, here again, break them down. Prepare a list of all your repertoire, indicating each movement (or variation) separately. 

It might look something like this:

Bach Prelude
Bach Allemande
Bach Courante
Bach Sarabande
Bach Gavotte 1
Bach Gavotte 2
Bach Gigue
Sor Introduction
Sor Theme
Sor Variation 1
Sor Variation 2
Sor Variation 3
Sor Variation 4
Sor Variation 5
Sor Variation 6
Merlin Evocacion
Merlin Zamba
Merlin Chacarera
Merlin Carnavalito
Merlin Joropo
Brouwer Elogio-Lento
Brouwer Elogio-Obstinato

If you place the individual movements in a column like this, then it invites the creation of a spreadsheet-style chart on which you can easily track your progress. In a horizontal column across the top, you can put dates, then in the resultant boxes, you can record either a simple check-mark, or the actual number of minutes you spend on each piece each day, or some other pertinent info. For instance, you can create a key for relative level of preparedness. It might look something like this:
1.  Untouched
2.  Read and assessed
3.  Fingered
4.  Partially prepared
5.  Playable, but under tempo
6.  Memorized
7.  Concert-ready
Then, simply put in the corresponding numbers on your spreadsheet. It'll be easy to tell, at a glance, what kind of progress you're making. You might feel more motivated, as you gradually raise the number level on the chart, for each piece, with each passing week.

The dilemma most students fall into is that the challenge of learning new music can lead to the abandonment of repertoire already prepared. There's a great slapstick scene in the film "The Gods Must Be Crazy" in which the lead character is trying to pick up a pile of gourds. He can hold several, but each time he bends down to add another, two fall out of his grip. He keeps trying and trying, each time, picking up some and dropping others. It's hilarious. We need to find a way to add pieces to our existing pile without dropping the ones we're already carrying. The best way, in my view, is to keep playing them. That's why I include on the list above "performance-ready repertoire." It doesn't stay performance-ready if it is abandoned for weeks or months at a time. Ideally, playing through the pieces you already know how to play (once!) should be your reward for a day's work on newer material. You can play them, alternately, from day to day, at full concert tempo and intensity, or slowly, or quietly, or with a metronome, or any of a number of other ways, each of which will add to your confidence and security with those pieces. And in doing so, prevent them from falling out of your grip, and landing back in the pile of "in-progress" pieces.

Time-distribution plans like those above, are necessary default frameworks for daily work on the instrument. They can't be rigid, though. When a new piece or study is introduced, it is fine for it to take more of the day's time than such a plan would normally provide for. But after the initial immersion phase passes, and the piece enters the repertoire as an "in-progress" work, the time distribution settles back to normal, allowing more time for exercises, chamber music pieces, sight-reading, etc. The same is true for performance preparation. In the days immediately before a performance, it is natural to favor the piece or pieces featured in the performance, and allow the time allotted to the remaining activities to be reduced.

There are other elements of time management we need to consider. Do we practice all in one session or spread out our work, throughout the day? In my experience it has always been better to set up several sessions each day. Ideally, you would begin the day with a 1.5-2 hours of technical work, interspersed with some other items from your list. This type of start guarantees that you'll go through your whole day feeling like a "player," and that later, when you get another chance to practice, you'll already be warmed-up. A second session, sometime in the afternoon, is the perfect time to address the most difficult new challenges you face, whether fingering new scores, memorizing, or overcoming special difficulties in your pieces. A third session, maybe later in the evening, is a good time to do some sight-reading and run through your concert-ready works, as well as reviewing the day's accomplishments and new material. Not every day will offer blocks of time like this, so you have to adjust how you manage the material each day. We are constantly barraged by distractions and opportunities to do other things. Determining when to stay focussed on the guitar and then doing so is one of the signal challenges we face. 

Another time-related question, is simply, how much should we practice? The simplest answer is: more! But there are shades of grey. It is better to put the instrument in the case if you are too fatigued or distracted to accomplish anything of value. Sometimes other things need to take precedence. We need to know how to prioritize. One of the easiest things a teacher can say is "practice more!" But really, the better advice is to practice better. I find I can generally accomplish more in ten minutes than most of my students seem to accomplish in a day's work. This is so because I know exactly what I need to do, and can give the specific item a laser-like focus. We need to constantly look for ways to make our practicing more effective, more efficient, more productive. The better we get at practicing, the less of it we will need.

(See also Practicing I: What To Do In The Practice Room and Practicing III: Hints and Tips)
Oberlin Receives New Concert Guitar

Oberlin Receives New Concert Guitar

Practicing I: What To Do in the Practice Room