I’m excited to move on to the next segment in this series about setting up your practice studio with the right tools. We’re gonna talk about one of the most powerful learning discoveries ever made. And how you can use a simple, dare I say boring, everyday kitchen tool that you can use to tap into it. So you can maximize the time you spend practicing.
And what tool do I speak of? A Handy Dandy practice timer of course.
Okay, now a practice timer might seem kind of boring. It might even seem kind of square. But hang with me for just a second and you will see just how powerful it can be to help you become a better player.
First of all, there are 5 main ways that you will benefit by using a timer.
- First: By using the strategies I’m about to share you will automatically be applying something called The Primacy/Recency Effect. The benefit to you is that you will learn and assimilate music more quickly.
- Second: You’ll automatically be practicing at ‘The Edge of Your Stamina’. You’ll stop wasting large amounts of time during ‘learning downtime’ and spend more time in active learning mode.
- Third: By using these strategies you’ll be benefiting in the same way Ernest Hemingway did with his writing process. You’ll come back fresh & inspired for your next practice session. And you’ll know exactly where to pick up.
- Fourth: Using these strategies, you will actually get through your entire practice routine including all the topics on it. So you’ll be progressing in all of the areas that are important to you. And you won’t have any of those stalled out items at the end of your routine that you never seem to have time for.
- Fifth: And finally this approach to practice will ensure that you bring the highest level of concentration and mindfulness possible. Which of course translates into the most progress possible during your sessions.
There are three basic techniques that I use when practicing with a timer.
Technique #1: Micro Sprint.
The idea is quite simple. We’re trying to find the edge of your practice stamina. We’re trying to find out exactly how long you can practice before you get distracted and before you lose concentration. And you’ll do this by using short timed practice sessions I call sprints. If you’re brand-new to playing this literally might be five, ten or fifteen minutes.
We’re looking to find your realistic upper limit. And practice at that limit. Not at your ideal practice time. So, if you can only practice for 10 minutes before losing concentration that’s where we’ll start. Get clear about what you’re going to practice and what you hope to accomplish. Set your timer for 10 minutes and get started.
Do this for a few days or week. Then push the limit. Set your timer for 15 minutes and see how that feels. In this fashion you gradually increase the amount of time that you can practice in a mindful and present way. There’s no point spending 4 distracted and mindless hours wiggling your fingers and day dreaming. You’ll find that you get more benefit from 20 focused minutes, than 2 hours of distracted noodling.
Technique #2: The Pomodoro Technique
The second technique is called the Pomodoro Technique. It’s named after those kitchen timers that actually look like a tomato. Pomodoro, of course, comes from the Italian word for tomato.
This is a very popular productivity technique. And it’s quite simple really:
Set your timer for 25 minutes and get to work on your practice routine. When the timer goes off you stop , reset it for 5 minutes and take a short break. Get away from your practice and your instrument. Stretch, get a glass of water, meditate, take a walk, whatever.
When the 5 minute timer goes off you set it again for 25 minutes and you do the next phase of your practicing. In this way your interjecting little bits of rest in between your learning sessions.
By doing so, you ensure that you are tapping directly into the Primacy/Recency effect. I’ll explain that in a second. But this technique ensures that you will learn more effectively, remember more of what you working on, and assimilate the material more thoroughly.
Now, you might do just one of these Pomodoro cycles per day if that’s where you’re at with your stamina and your schedule. You could stack two or three or four of them in a row. Or you might do 2 of them in the morning, go about your business for the day and do 2 more of them at night. Thus giving you about 2 hours of practice throughout the day. There are many ways to organize your practicing throughout the day and ultimately the goal is to find a way that works best for you.
Technique #3: The Double 50/10 Cycle
The third strategy is called the double 50/10 cycle. It’s really just a slightly more involved version of the Pomodoro Technique. But it works like gangbusters.
Here’s how to do it:
Obviously, get clear about your practice goals and targets for today’s session.
Set your timer for 50 minutes and get to work. During that fifty minutes you aim for zero interruptions. When the timer goes off you take a 10 minute break. Again, stretching, walking, using the bathroom, getting a drink, etc.
Then you do a second 50 minute practice session. Followed by a 10 minute break. During the second 10 minute break I like to reflect on what I just did and take a few notes so I know where to pick back up in my next session.
Now it’s time to take a more substantial break. Take 30 minutes off and go take a nap, get a bite to eat or do anything you want during that 30 minutes. Ideally you’re just not doing anything that’s too difficult or challenging for your mind or your concentration. So, again, you’re doing two 50/10 practice sessions followed by 30 minutes off. This might be all you have time for. Or you may put in another full double 50/10 cycle.
At that point you will have practiced for about 4 hours. With some downtime to recharge and kick in the Primacy/Recency effect.
If you did this every day it would be some of the most productive practice of your life.
Now let’s talk about the underlying principles and concepts.
During practice you are learning & developing new skills, musical memories and habits. This is all coded in your brain in the form of neural pathways and connections. And that’s all going on ‘under the hood’ while you practice. But it’s not happening at a consistent level. Studies on human learning have revealed a few interesting things.
1. Studies have shown that memories are more easily and thoroughly formed during the beginning of a learning session.
2. After about 20 minutes or so there is a drop off in learning when our brain gets fatigued and distracted. This is called ‘downtime’. (Note the graph from a paper by David Sousa)
3. The material learned and studied towards the end of a session will be most available in your short term memory so you can easily pick back up with it in your next session. It will still be ‘fresh’ in other words.
To some that up you will best learn what you practiced first (primacy), what you practiced most recently (recency). And there is a point of diminishing returns after 20+ minutes.
Now, these studies were done mostly with children. And I think children on the whole tend to have a shorter attention span than most adults. It’s possible for many adults to focus and concentrate for up to an hour or more without a break. But an hour seems to be the sweet spot.
In a nutshell: Create more beginnings and endings to your learning/practice sessions and avoid downtime as much as possible. How do you avoid downtime? Practice at the edge of your stamina. Through self-experimentation find out how long you can practice before totally losing steam and concentration. And design your practice around that reality. Then, slowly push yourself to expand your limits, up to the full 50 minutes of the ‘double 50/10 cycle’.
These strategies will maximize your learning during your sessions and get you the most bang for your buck.
The Hemingway Strategy
From what I understand, Ernest Hemingway had a very specific approach to his daily writing practice. As Hemingway completed his daily writing each day he would consciously leave his work unfinished. He would literally stop in the middle of a chapter, paragraph and or even a sentence.
One of my music teachers, Bob Gulotti, taught me to do essentially the same thing. He had all of his students go through his ‘program’. He would give you a practice routine with maybe 4 or 5 different topics and goals. And he would tell you to practice each topic for 20 minutes. And then STOP. And go on to the next topic on the routine. Whether you were done or not. Whether you were in the middle of something or were really into it or not.
Why? Why would he tell a student to do that? We’ll basically he was looking at the big picture. He knew that developing serious skill as a jazz musician happens over the long-term. And in order to acquire that skill and sustain your practicing on a consistent basis over the long-term you had to keep momentum going day after day. So what happens today in the practice room was not as important as what happened over the long-term.
And by stopping in the middle of the work you would avoid burn out, you would anticipate getting back into it tomorrow and you would know exactly where to begin – since you weren’t beginning fresh, you were picking up where you left off.
No Neglected Topics
And of course this strategy also ensures that you get through all of the items on your practice routine without running out of time. It’s very common for many cats to start practicing and to get caught up in the first couple of topics on their routine and simply run out of time. And then you end up with a few things on your practice routine that just never get the attention that they deserve.
Now, here’s the thing:
If those things are not important remove them from your practice routine. But if they are important enough to put on your practice routine then you should be making progress with them every day. Which means you must manage your time appropriately. In order to make sure that you move forward in each of the areas that you choose to put onto that precious practice routine.
Which Tool Is Best?
There are many options available: your smartphone, your computer, google, stopwatch, alarm clock, kitchen timer, etc. It doesn’t matter. Just pick one and use it.
At this point you might be thinking:
“Does this mean that I can never ever deviate from the timer?”
No. On occasion you may be so absolutely inspired that you must continue to create. If some super hip creative idea is just pouring out of you and your writing like the best song you’ve ever written in your life then you turn your timer off and keep going. This is not meant to be rigid or to block you and lock you into a box or a trap.
But most of the time that isn’t the case. Most of the time doing the work, putting in the practice and staying consistent with it is what’s going to get you the chops and unlock your creativity.
Another great thing to do besides would be to work some unstructured time into your practice. Maybe a few minutes a day, maybe an hour, maybe one whole day per week.
You might listen to records, you might pick up your instrument, you might improvise, and so on.
This can actually be a really important part of your development. But for some of your practice keep it structured, use a timer and use these various Pomodoro techniques and Cycles to maximize your practice sessions.
The more quality learning you can eke out of your precious practice time the faster you will improve as a musician. And you might as well use tools to help you do that even faster .