One process to structure an effective study/practice regimen

When I’m giving private lessons, I’m always in the position of giving my students homework on things I feel they need to work on. However, it’s tough for all of us to keep a practice regimen, so I take an extra step: I give them a process for structuring each practice session. Then, their homework is given to them using this structure, so both parts (the homework assignments and the process) support and compliment each other.

So the structure is this–break each practice session down into three sections: work, listen and play.

The work part of the process might seem obvious, but it’s here for a reason. Many musicians, when they ‘practice’, only play things they know how to do already. That has an important role in a practice session (see ‘fun’ below), but you don’t get things done or make progress on the instrument without getting some work done. And, if all you’re doing is playing you already know how to do, you’re not making progress.

Next up is listening. This is the part of practice session that almost always tends to get left off (me included), but it’s critically important to musicians. I’ve said before that I’ve played with great musicians, and within that group, there is a wide range of technical ability, or ‘chops’. Some have great technique, others less so. But, the great musicians I’ve played with all have one thing in common: they all have fabulous listening skills.

Listening homework for a beginning student might be something like ‘listen to a song and figure out what the drummer is doing’. For a more advanced student, that assignment might include questions like ‘why did the drummer made the choices they made, and how might you do it differently while still being true to the song’.

The last, and for many the most important part of the process, is fun. Now, an idea like this might seem counter-intuitive (especially given what I said above about ‘work’ homework), but it’s super important because it’s designed to keep you on schedule and inspire you to practice.

They way I think about it is this: fun is about inspiring you to practice regularly–you anticipate having fun at the session, and that makes you more likely to actually practice. It’s also about reminding my students that we play music, we don’t ‘work’ music. That sense of aliveness, of joy that you get through “playing” is critical to effectively performing any type of music. The fun for a drum practice session might be playing along to songs with your iPod on shuffle (my favorite). Or, it really could be anything, as longe as it involves playing your instrument somehow.

So, how does this relate to the bigger world out there, the world beyond music? Here’s one way to think about it:

First off, this relates to improving your skills at work, not so much simply doing your job. Given that, I think of the “work” part of the process is an important part of developing or expanding your skill set. Whether you’re an accountant, a researcher or a nurse, we all need to be developing our skill set or acquiring new skills if we want to keep our jobs long-term. And, just like in music, you don’t make any progress if all you’re doing is repeatedly doing what you already know.

The listening part of this process is pretty unique to music. But, the big idea transfers to other areas too: make sure your working on the highest level function(s) that you need to acquire in order to do your job at the highest level. (Remember that, as a musician, the highest level of function is not what your hands and feet are physically doing, it’s how you hear things, and the decisions you make as a result – basically, your listening skills.)

For an accountant the highest level of function might be things like “bedside manner”. You’re not simply providing accounting services, you’re also providing peace of mind to your clients that they don’t have to worry about their finances in some way shape or form.

The last thing I mentioned is fun, and I think it’s also relevant to folks outside of the world of music.

All of us need inspiration when were working on things that are above and beyond our day to day tasks at work. (Remember that fun is the inspiration to keep musicians practicing on a regular basis.)

So, if you’re an accountant and you’re working on a new skill set that’s not currently part of your job, then you need inspiration to keep going after that. That’s because it’s likely that all this work is happening outside of or on top of the regular part of your 40- 60 hour work week. And incoroorating fun into your outside-of-work study can be a very effective way of inspiring you to keep up on all of this on top of your regular work. (Another way to do this is to give yourself some type of reward, but hopefully you get the idea I’m trying to get across here.)

So there you have it–a process to make your studying and practicing more effective and more frequent. What techniques do you do to keep this happening in your life and your work?

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