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.

Timemanagement

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.

Timeline1

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

Timeline2

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.

Timeline3

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.

Timeline4

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!

WJ

 

Shaking Off the Cobwebs of Summer

I’m back! Is the summer really flying by this fast? Thanks to my regular readers for being patient while I took July off. I was quite busy but took a much needed break from the musical world. Possibly the longest I’ve taken since high school! Now I am back and energized to practice, get ready for the season, tackle new projects, get better and write some blogs! The focus of today’s blog will center around exactly that. How to get back in gear after a much needed break. I encourage all of my students to take a week or two off in the summer as all the hard work done during the year can be exhausting and eventually wear on you. See my blog on when not to practice. Today I will focus not only on practice techniques to get back in shape but also on ways to get organized and set goals so this coming year can be your best!

dog-shake-120814

I know this isn’t a picture of “shaking off cobwebs”, but thought it was much cuter…

I love music, but it sure can be nice to get away from it for a while. Sometimes when I come back however, I feel a little lost. My routine is gone and the whole process feels foreign. My hands feel terrible and I start to worry how long it will take me to get back in shape. I’m sure many of you have experienced similar feelings. While you may be motivated to get better and conquer the world, sometimes it’s tough to know where to start. Everyone is different but here is how I shake the cobwebs off and set myself up for a great year.

First I establish goals. This may seem very high school councilor of me, but it works. It makes it tough to improve if you don’t know what you are trying to do. I encourage young students to do this especially. It may seem that you should just follow what your teacher tells you to do, but you should be involved in your own education. Communicate with your teacher and discuss options and your own thoughts on what you want to do. There may be times where your teacher strongly pushes you in a direction because they feel it’s what is best for you. They are probably right for doing that. However, they should also listen to what YOU want out of lessons and music study. After you have talked to your teacher and spent some time yourself thinking; write down some goals. They could be areas you want to improve. Pieces you want to learn. Styles of music you want to dive into. A new instrument you have never spent significant time on. An aspect of your playing that you feel really could use improvement.

Once you have these goals you should give them a timeline. When you want them done by. A lot of this timeline is probably predetermined based on your school or professional schedule. Say you know you have a recital in November. A lot of your Fall goals are going to be focused on getting ready for your recital. Then, maybe you have some auditions in February. Most of your winter goals will focus around getting ready for those auditions. Maybe there is a pocket of time where you feel you don’t have anything immediately pressing. That is my favorite!! Take advantage of a 2 week or even month long span of time to dive in and improve something very specifically. It’s really hard to dissect a skill and take a few steps back to fix something when you have a recital, audition, or big performance coming up. Try to find periods of time in your year where this can happen.

2015-08-01 17.10.41

I set up a very loose calendar of the year with the big events on it and start filling in the gaps. I will work backwards from an event. This helps me place markers of when I want the repertoire to be at certain stages. I can’t stress enough how important this is. I am planning on writing a longer blog on this later, but this sort of preparation is key to being ready to perform when you need to be ready. It also helps to see visually how much time you have to prepare. And don’t forget the little stuff. Make sure you put that percussion ensemble piece that you need to learn. Sure it may only take 5-6 hours to prepare but you can plan for that once it is on your schedule.

Every year I look at one aspect of my playing that I want to make a concerted effort to get better. (maybe I should look at multiple things…) It can be something really small or it can be large. Some examples have been:

large interval shifting on marimba

soft snare drum control (specifically doubles and rebound control)

snare drum roll control

cymbal crashes and consistent angle of attack

bass drum and bass drum with cymbals attached (yes you actually have to spend time doing these things!)

vibraphone pedal control

This year for me it’s my tambourine roll. I’ve never been happy with it. I know I am using an inefficient method for producing my roll, and while it has worked, I know it could be better. Well, it’s going to get better!

Now that you have this giant calendar for the year it might seem a little overwhelming! Well, take a deep breath and relax. Because, luckily you have the entire year to accomplish all of these goals. You don’t have to get started on every single item right now. By doing all of this preliminary work, you will have a much better idea of how to plan a practice schedule for the first few weeks going forward. This will help you decide, “OK, what am I working on today.” I would look at the next month or two and let that dictate where my general focus is for these individual practice goals. I wrote a series of blogs about warm ups and technique improvement routines last year that should be helpful for whatever area you need to focus on right now. I set short term goals, so these long term goals we have made, can happen.

Something I am doing this year, and have done in the past is to look WAY ahead and start preparing early. If you make this sort of long term calendar you can see potential conflicts before they happen. My January this year is going to be pretty nuts. I have 2 major performances of extremely difficult repertoire; Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars and Bob Becker’s Girlfriend’s Medley with orchestra. I also have some pretty major events in November and December, so I know my practice time is going to be limited in the winter. I have played the Becker but not the Messiaen. With all of this in mind I’m planning on learning the notes to the unfamiliar Messiaen this fall. I’ll then put it away, probably around October, so I can focus on other things and bring it back in late November. I just simply don’t have the time to learn it from scratch right before the performance, so I’m starting now. You might find similar situations in your schedule, where you need to do some preliminary work on a future project.

Everyone practices and prepares differently but I believe getting yourself organized and having a plan is a huge key to success. Establishing goals, making a timeline, focusing on weaknesses, and writing out a practice schedule are four great ways to improve your playing. Before you even play a note!

WJ