I find in both my own practice as well as my students, that it is very easy to have unrealistic goals. We all want to build Rome in a day. Wouldn’t that be nice. We might be able to build a few houses in a day, but certainly not the whole city. For this reason, I separate practice goals into two categories for my students. Hour time and Calendar time. Skills that can be learned in hour time are short term goals. Skills that require weeks and months to perfect take calendar time.
Hour time is much easier to manage because we deal with it every day. Reviewing the snare drum part to Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony won’t take very long. Memorizing the last 20 bars of a solo is something you can accomplish today. Learning a small part for a brass ensemble gig would also fall under hour time. These are all tasks that can be started and completed in a few hours, maybe even one hour. If you are having difficulty completing these tasks in a relatively short period of time then we need to examine your efficiency in the practice room.
Calendar time is the time needed to learn and perfect big goals. It is unrealistic to learn Velocities in a week. This takes calendar time. It is naive to think you can perfect your timpani roll in a few days. Again, it’s going to take a while. Calendar time is unique because it not only takes a lot of hours to learn those concepts, but it also takes space between those hours. This is why I call it calendar time.
I’m sure if I locked you in a room with food and water and said you have a week to learn the notes to Velocities, you might be able to get close. But the experience would be terrible and odds are your memorization would be shaky at best. Now take that same 80 or so hours you spent in one week and spread it over 6 weeks and I bet you will yield a much better result. This is because of two reasons. You were more efficient in those hours and there was more time in between for your mind to literally digest the notes. This is precisely why I look at these larger tasks being accomplished over calendar time rather than hour time.
It is easy to understand big picture vs. small picture but isn’t there some space in between? This is the challenge. Big picture goals, like learning a snare drum roll, takes lots of individual practice sessions in which progress is slowly compounded into a tangible result. To do this, we must break the giant task into small steps. If you are learning a solo, concentrate on small sections. If you are learning a skill, like the snare drum roll, concentrate on isolated elements. The kicker is, not to look at the forest when you are working on the trees. If I’m focusing on keeping my wrist stabilized and not bending during my roll, of course my roll is going to sound terrible. I’m concentrating on a very isolated part of the roll. I don’t have all of the elements put together yet. Once I have all the isolate elements perfected, then I can start to put them together and begin to look at the forest.
The best sports analogy I use for this is my golf swing. I get so frustrated on the golf course because I don’t have a Rory McIlroy swing. I know what I’m supposed to do, but it’s so hard to repeat. It’s totally unrealistic for me to think I’m going to perfect the golf swing in a week or so. Maybe even in a few months. I can isolate small parts of it though and concentrate on one at a time. That is way more realistic. I gotta say though, this music thing is really getting in the way of fixing my golf swing…
A large part of this concept is for our brains. We can only practice one thing at a time and we can only do so much in a day. But when we look into the future or look into the past it is easy to get frustrated when skills are not learned in the time frame we would like. Patience and understanding that certain things take calendar time are important to maintaining our sanity. In my own practice I have found much more success when I slow down and really take my time, trusting that the end result will come.
I know I’m late finishing up my Technique and Warm-up Series. Thanks for being patient. The travel and vacation has thrown me off but the last two installments will be up in the next two weeks.