3 (Small) steps to healthier practicing

It’s so easy to decide how I want my semester to look while I’m curled up under the Christmas tree in my fuzzy socks. I love to journal, set goals, create action plans, design a fancy bullet journal spread… But when classes start again and I’m thrown back into the world of real socks and fluorescent lights, things don’t ever unfold as planned. The goals that I meticulously set in December shift on my list of priorities, as they must.

In the past few years, I’ve made an effort to turn my goals into bite-sized daily choices. Instead of working to establish world peace, for example, I may choose to be smile at someone in the hallway. Or instead of reading 20 books in a year, I may choose to read a few pages instead of scrolling on my phone as I drink my coffee. Thinking of my goals in this way - in easy-to-make, guilt-free choices throughout my day - has really helped me to stick with them.

This year, it occurred to me: Could this apply to practicing, too? What if I entered the practice room with the intention to make a series of beneficial, small choices to support my wellness and productivity?
And then, like all type-A people do, I made a list. Here’s what I came up with, friends:

1. Set goals. Accomplish them.

In the beginning of my undergraduate career, I remember listening to my fellow musicians brag about how many hours they’d spent in the practice room. My jaw often hung open, in disbelief that someone would spend SIX hours in a tiny room fluttering their fingers around. I thought to myself, “This is how I become good!” I skipped into my practice room, determined to spend at least four hours working, becoming good. Two hours in, I thought my eyes were going to bleed. I looked at my phone. I stared at the mirror hanging on the wall. I sighed a lot. And I pushed through MANY unfocused, unproductive practice sessions like this.

One of my biggest musical lessons in the past few years has been this: Efficiency matters more than hours logged.

Maybe it did take those musicians six hours to learn a passage, but if I could do it in two, why wouldn’t I? Making a choice to reframe practicing in this way has allowed me to celebrate small victories as I check each goal off of my list. Having a specific goal in mind increases my focus, decreases “what-should-I-do-next” time, and prevents strain on my body by minimizing long hours.

2. Take breaks.

Jolene Madewell’s blog, Practice Room Revelations, was my introduction to the Pomodoro Technique of productivity. Jolene explains the method flawlessly (click right here to read!), but here is my summary: Set a timer for 25 minutes. Focus only on the task at hand until the timer goes off. Take a little break. Set another timer.

This method works hand-in-hand with my first point; most of my goals are easily accomplished in the 25 minutes allotted, and if they aren’t, I have a moment to breathe, readjust, and set another timer. Even better, it’s completely cured my phone anxiety. When I disappeared into a practice hole for four hours, I often worried that my mom would call about something important, I’d miss her call, and she’d think I’d died (any other only children out there?). Practicing in super-focused chunks allows my mind to rest: Whatever might come my way can (probably) wait 25 minutes.

The Pomodoro Technique is also perfect for sprinkling movement in to your practice time (cough cough - Practice Room Yoga videos!!!!). When my timer goes off, I set my flute down, stretch, go for a walk, do the dishes, set my next goal, drink water. It’s a reminder to check in with my body, mindset, list of intentions, and … phone. Ha!

3. Move your body every day.

Minus the gym membership and the body-image baggage that often comes with intentions like this. I don’t mean work out - I don’t even mean get sweaty. Just. Move.

Have you ever considered what a still profession we are in? We wake up. We stand in the practice room. We sit in ensemble rehearsals. We sit in classes. We go to sleep. Maintaining one (often asymmetrical) position for many hours of the day can cause stiffness, discomfort, and, for some, eventual injury.

I am here to tell you that mindful movement can be comprised of small moments in your day. Here are some suggestions:

  • Watch a 10-minute yoga video first thing in the morning or right before bed.

  • On a practice break, walk a lap around the building.

  • Squeeze in a 10-minute walk after lunch.

  • While playing scales, walk to the beat.

  • Stretch or roll around on the floor while watching Netflix.

  • Turn on your favorite song and dance in your room.

  • Watch a Practice Room Yoga video on a practice break ;)

Moving your body enhances body awareness (and blood flow). It helps you tap in to the physicality of your existence - you know, the big skeleton covered in muscle that holds your instrument up. Connecting in this way gives me an opportunity to ask my body what it needs, how I can move in a way that supports that need, and most importantly, how I can practice in a way that creates the most ease.

Friends, I hope this brief list of small changes can impact your practicing and your day. Do you have anything you’d like to add? Any ideas about any of my suggestions? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!


EDIT: If you’d like to listen to this blog instead of read, click right HERE for a SoundCloud link, read by lil ole me!