How to Manage Multiple Projects and Establish a Timeline for your Practice

I can’t over-emphasize how important time management has been to any success I have had. Between the orchestra’s schedule, my own personal projects, chamber performances and my personal life; I have a lot to balance! And I know I am not alone. Keeping all of those balls in the air is tough, but having a plan helps.

A common frustration I hear from students is how to prepare and be ready when they have so many projects going on at the same time. Today, as a part of my Process Series, I’m going to explain how I build a timeline so that I can accomplish my goals on multiple projects and not let anything fall through the cracks.


The first bit of advice I will give is to write those goals down. It is one thing to have them in your head, but it is another to see them on paper. It makes them concrete. I write mine on a dry erase board in my studio. I’m forced to see them every time I walk into the studio. They can be small goals like bumping a solo up 5 clicks, or big goals like learning a 15 minute contemporary solo. No matter how big or small, writing them down gives them importance. This will hopefully translate into the importance you give them while actually practicing.

For planning purposes, I divide goals into 3 categories: Daily Goals, Weekly Goals, and Long Term Goals. This helps me have realistic expectations for each time period. If I break down my long term goals into smaller steps (weekly goals) I am much more likely to achieve them. I then look at my weekly goals and figure out how I can accomplish them in the time I have over the week. It almost becomes a game of Tetris, trying to fit tasks I need to accomplish, into the available time I have during the week.

To establish a timeline for all of these goals, the first step is to establish deadlines or dates I want to accomplish those goals by. Sure it would be nice to learn the entire G minor Sonata, but it would be even better to learn it in time for you recital! It is no fun to realize a week or two before a big performance that you aren’t at the point you need to be at. The first step in fighting that is writing down your “due date”.

To make sure I hit my goal date I plan backwards from that date to the present. This also can also serve as a a quick reality check to see if that goal is even possible. See my previous post How to Go About Choosing and Learning a New Piece for some tips on how to set yourself up to succeed. Assuming the work I’ve chosen can be learned in the amount of time I have, I can break down the work to accomplish that into manageable weekly goals. Visually seeing the progress on a sheet of paper is very important for me. Especially when I am frustrated in the practice room. It allows me to struggle with something in the moment, knowing that I don’t have to solve every problem today. Only the one I am currently facing. Without the timeline, it is easy to stress out today, about a goal that really doesn’t need to be tackled for another 2 weeks. There are 500 hundred things you will probably struggle with over the course of learning a piece. However you can really only solve one at a time.

Two very important aspects of this method of planning is to regularly reassess your progress and adjust the timeline when needed. The benefit of being able to see the timeline written down, is to trust that if you do everything you set out to do, you will be ready! If you fall behind your timeline, don’t get upset, be glad you realized it so you can allocate more time to what is taking you longer to accomplish. Think about the scenario if you had not made this timeline. You would keep progressing at the slower pace, not realizing you weren’t going to meet the performance date. Not good! Every week you should re-evaluate the coming week’s goals and allocate your daily practice goals accordingly so you will be on track for the next week.

So let’s make a mock timeline. In this scenario I have 2 ensemble parts to prepare, 2 solos to prepare and 2 chamber music parts to prepare. In all scenarios lets say that the “A” piece is the hard one and the “B” piece is more manageable. First I establish when the concerts or “due dates” are.


Next I work backwards to establish when those final steps before the performance should be done.


I want to establish when I should be ready to play for people, even if it’s not 100% ready and when I should have works close to tempo.


Then I establish when to start some works to keep my overall workload manageable. This can be really important! If you know there is a time period that is incredibly busy, do as much preparation when you can on more straightforward things so you can be focused on the tough stuff when your schedule is tight. For instance I have a recital the week before a straightforward chamber piece (B). I don’t want to be worried about the chamber work in the lead up to my recital so I did some early prep in April so I could put it away around the recital.


Finally I fill in all the “along the way” goals such as when notes should be memorized even if very under tempo. Where key points are. Some works need more goals along the way and some simply need “notes learned” and “notes up to tempo” checkpoints.

Obviously this mock scenario is very vague, but I wanted to leave a lot of room for personalization as everyone prepares differently. Some players really struggle with memorization so they need more time for that. Some memorize very quickly but have trouble putting it all together. A lot of players need significant time to walk through technical challenges. Everyone has their quirks. If a reasonable plan is laid out though, it is much easier to trust. This is INCREDIBLY valuable to me when practicing as it allows me to struggle with something in the moment, knowing that I have the time to fix it and the overall plan will still work. I hope some of these tips can help you manage your time and be ready to play your next performance!



Practice Goals – Hour Time vs. Calendar Time


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.