A girl with her instrument spread before her: those eighty-eight keys of dark and light that blend to compose melodies in hues of every color seen and unseen. Each day, they meet in their ritual to slow the busy day at its close and get a jump on the next one.
Sometimes she wonders why she comes back. Her companion, affectionately called “Clive,” learns everything about her: her touch, her frustrations, her freedoms. He anticipates her. Yet, after years, she barely knows him. Hours spent learning just one of the patterns rumored to make him sing leave her in tears.
“Why can’t I get this?”
Her undivided focus hones in on the single passage: four measures as slowly as she can muster. Time passes, and the night grows full. It’s like this every night. Meanwhile, the stack of other music to learn sits beside them and collects only dust, no memories.
“Why didn’t you practice the rest?” her teacher asks.
“Do I even know how to practice?” she counters.
“You do. Just practice it all. Don’t be lazy.”
There she sits with Clive again, hands trembling after hours of trying to make one passage. “Don’t be lazy” reverberates in her mind.
“What am I doing wrong?”
Many musicians grow up thinking they’re not practicing hard enough on single passages and stress when they have to hit deadlines on many pieces of music. Until recently, I felt that. Even after getting a degree, I still felt like I was missing something with practice. And at the risk of sounding like an infomercial, I’ll tell you about the product that changed the way I practice.
The kitchen timer!
For less than a dollar, you too can own your very own timer that will revolutionize your practice sessions.
I first learned about it from a Juilliard Viola student, known on Youtube as “That Viola Kid” (a.k.a. “TVK”). This is the video that made me stop to think about the way I was practicing:
For those who don’t want to watch the video in its entirety, he talks about practicing in shorter bursts. He practices no longer than fifty minutes at a time. Within that, he picks one phrase from a song and practices it for seven minutes. Then he moves onto a completely different song and does that for seven minutes. He cycles through three or four songs, so that they each get at fourteen minutes by the end.
I was skeptical, so I let myself grow disgruntled every time the seven minutes ended. After two days of trying, I gave up and dismissed it as stupid.
A month or so later, I began an online course with Juilliard called, “Introduction to Performance Psychology.” Imagine my shock when the first topic was practicing in short bursts. Turns out, true learning isn’t just about the amount of time you spend on something, it’s the number of times your brain stops thinking about it and then comes back to it.
The professionals leading the course suggest the same thing TVK does by setting a timer. Their rule of thumb is to look at the amount of time you would normally spend working on a section and divide that by nine. Thus, if you would ordinarily spend an hour on a passage, you should now set your timer for about six or seven minutes. They even suggest that as you get used to practicing in short bursts, you set the timer as low as two minutes.
Again, I was skeptical, but I gave it a fair shot and kept at this method for a week straight. What I learned is that for this method to be effective, goal-setting is paramount. You have to decide how much you’re going to learn through the course of the week and then break that up into small sections for each day.
Going week-by-week is perfect for those taking weekly private lessons, and the teacher can help with this kind of goal-setting, but it is up to the student to figure out the day-to-day goals.
Keeping a journal of what I accomplished help me keep track of my progress.
The overall result was that instead of learning part of one song, about a page maximum, per week, I learned a part of four different songs, about a page each. That’s three more pages than I was learning before. The best part is that these sections were pretty much memorized by the end of the week, so there’s definitely something behind this “leaving and coming back” strategy.
It works for learning any other skill, like languages or mathematic formulas. The only downside is that it forces one to be a little more organized, but is that really a bad thing? Musicians could definitely use the help being organized.
You don’t even have to go out and by a kitchen timer; I just found it was less distracting to use that instead of my phone. Seeing a text notification distracts me every time the timer goes off, so I silence my phone during practice and use a piece of really outdated technology.
Any other practice tips? Help us learn by commenting below!
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.