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9 Ways to Build A Sustainable Practice Habit

Flute player in greenery with text: 9 Ways to Build a Sustainable Practice Habit

In my newsletter this month, I’ve been talking about making music-making a priority, and questions to ask yourself to clarify if music even is a priority in this season of your life. 

If music IS important to you right now, we need to find some time to actually make music.

So how do we fit practicing into our busy lives without exceeding our human capacity?

Here are some big ideas to consider before we dig into practical strategies.

  • We need to redefine what consistency means for us within the context of our entire life, not what consistency means for someone else.

  • We must start with the smallest and simplest form of our ideal habit

  • The goal of habits is to support you. We get away from that often by spending time imagining the “ideal” version of a habit.

  • Perfectionism is a spectrum that can prevent us from even starting to build a habit (not practicing at all because we don’t have 60 minutes of free time, when 10-20 minutes would do just fine)

With that in mind, here are 9 ways to build a sustainable practice habit.

1. Find Pockets of Time

A lot of people shy away from practicing when they don’t have a sizeable chunk of free time staring them in the face. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have chunks of free time staring us in the face. Even if we have a flexible schedule, it might get filled up with seemingly more urgent tasks. Because of that, we have to find little pockets of time throughout the day. Some of my best practice sessions were in college when I only had 10 minutes before my next class in the music building. A time limit requires you to focus deeply, practice efficiently, and savor every minute you have.

Where you can find 5-20 minute pockets of time: Before or after school or work, in between classes, in between homework assignments (or use practicing to procrastinate doing homework – guilty!), a few minutes during a lunch break, before or after dinner, while your sibling or child is at sports practice, before you watch TV, etc. One of my favorites is right before and after I teach a flute lesson.

2. Touch Your Instrument Earlier

Something that might work for you is deciding to have a short practice session early in the day as a way to warm up and get out the rustiness of a new day of practice. 

There is something about the first time you touch your instrument for the day that can feel daunting. One of the culprits, other than the fact that starting things is hard, is that we expect to sound good right away, and become discouraged when our first notes aren’t comfortable. To get past this, we have to get the first few minutes out of the way (mindfully, but get ‘em done) so that we can get into the juice of our sound.

Here, it’s best to set a bare minimum and let yourself stick to that. For example: I am going to spend 5 minutes playing from my tone book, whether it sounds “good” or “bad”, and then move on with my day. 

There’s a curiosity that follows you throughout the day when you’ve played once already. When you complete step one (playing the first note), it’s already 100 times easier to go on to step two (keep playing!). It’s always easier to pick up your instrument the second time.

3. Set Aside A Consistent Time

You can also set aside a consistent time to practice, like everyday at 4pm, whether or not you’re in the mood. It reduces decision fatigue about when to practice and helps with consistency, but it doesn’t allow for much flexibility in your schedule or energy levels. This is often the most effective for younger students to help develop a routine.

Another angle is to decide on 2 or 3 days a week when you will prioritize putting in substantial practice time, and let the other days be flexible by looking for small pockets of time throughout the day when you have the bandwidth. While this option isn’t consistent from one day to the next, it CAN be sustainable in the long run, which is the best way to be consistent for YOU. Sustainability beats failed consistency every time.

The Mindful Practice Room is a community practice space for musicians, open every Monday and Thursday; join us here for consistent practice sessions every week!

4. Divide Your Day by Specific Practice Categories

Sometimes the most overwhelming hurdle of practicing is our own mental barrier. When your brain is spiraling about every single exercise and piece of music you need to get to that day, you can get exhausted with decision fatigue before even picking up your instrument. Instead, remember that everything we play contains individual notes, lots of tiny actions, one at a time.

You might decide that in the morning, your only job is to play through one page of warm-ups, without concerning yourself with what else you feel the need to practice later on. In the afternoon, you will practice scales or an etude. In the late afternoon or evening, you will practice your repertoire. You can make the decision based on how your brain works throughout the day to concoct a routine that creates the least resistance for you. If you’re a morning person who likes yoga or meditation, you might enjoy doing tone exercises in the morning to tie in with your other practices. If you like practicing at night but you have to abide by quiet hours, you might save that time for silent technique practice (like practicing fingerings without blowing through the instrument).

In grad school, I found myself practicing different categories depending on my energy levels. Detailed, musical work like solos and excerpts were distressing at night when I was exhausted, but I was able to manage slow technique work and etudes because they were more straightforward and required less emotional energy for me. 

It’s also possible that you’ve been told you HAVE to start with long tones before you can practice anything else, but this causes resistance for you because your first notes of the day are always squeaky and uncomfortable. What if you warmed up with something else first, and then dig into long tones after playing for at least 5-10 minutes? Sometimes switching up your routine is not only more satisfying, but actually more effective than whatever was causing you tension and stress.

5. Body Doubling

Body doubling is an accountability and productivity strategy in which someone stays in your presence while you complete a task, especially one that is difficult or brings up resistance. Practicing with other people, whether in the same room physically or virtually, can be a great way to motivate yourself to practice, get in a substantial practice session, and find deep focus. The hardest part of practicing is showing up, but doing it with community can feel abundantly welcoming.

6. Practice Without Your Instrument

Sometimes practicing without your instrument is the MOST effective way to improve your musicianship. Even though people shy away from these, by taking away your instrument, you’ll be able to give attention to certain areas of your musicianship that you have probably been neglecting.

Here are some examples:

  • Score study: look through your music to notice big themes and small details. Look for patterns, repeating sections, look up words you don’t know, etc. Essentially, get to know your music in a way that you wouldn’t be able to if you were narrowly focused on tone.

  • Listen to the music you’re studying to grasp it from an outside perspective

  • Watch performances of music you’re not studying, either of your instrument or another instrument, to expand your knowledge of repertoire, absorb phrasing or vibrato ideas, and observe the performer’s body language

  • Mental practice: play through the music in your head and visualize yourself playing it. If you can’t imagine the rhythms, pitches, and phrases smoothly in your head, it won’t be smooth when you physically play it.

You can also practice with your instrument but without making sound. 

  • Finger practice: fingering along with scales or music but without blowing, to focus on finger agility and coordination (with the metronome for added precision)

There are a few scenarios where this is the most necessary, including if you can’t make noise (quiet hours early in the morning or later in the evening, or if you have a sleeping housemate), if you’re sick and need to prepare music, but don’t want to blow into your instrument, practicing high note fingerings and coordination without the distraction of hearing your tone, etc.

The times in my life when I have done the most mental practice have been in preparation for my biggest performances and auditions. There is no replacement for deep focus. I’ve also gained a lot of value from silent practicing techniques when my night-owl-self wanted to practice when housemates were sleeping. Don’t discount the value of listening, watching, reading, and imagining as effective and vital forms of music practice.

7. Allow Flexibility In Your Routine

Instead of setting only an ideal routine for ideal life circumstances, decide on a comfortable minimum that you know you can commit to, and create layers of elements that you can add on when you have the capacity. We want to be consistent over time, not necessarily identical day to day.

This will vary greatly depending on your age and goals. Music professionals and training professionals will likely have practicing higher on their list of priorities than other groups, so their daily “minimum” might be higher, but they should still have a comfortable minimum in mind. Just because something is your life’s work doesn’t mean your life conditions are ideal. There’s no right or wrong answers here, just as long as your expectations are possible and sustainable.

If practicing 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week is causing you so much resistance that you avoid practicing at all most days, what would happen if your minimum was 8 minutes a day? (Again, starting is the hardest part!)

8. Let Yourself Veer Off Course

Ignore all advice that shames you into practicing music on every day that ends with “y”. Instead, practice compassion on the days that don’t include instrument practice (and any day that ends with “y”). Whether or not it was in your control to set aside time to play music, some days, it just doesn’t happen. Use this as a way to reflect. 

  • Was there time in my day that I didn’t practice but COULD have, and I wish I did because I wanted to? (Try again tomorrow. There’s always tomorrow.)

  • Are there things in my life that need my attention more than practicing right now? If it is in my control, can I make any small adjustments? If it is not in my control, can I release myself from guilt?

  • Would I have had to skip a basic human need like eating or sleeping, or abandon a non-negotiable priority like caretaking? Do I want to live in a world that would encourage me to skip these, or do I want to build a practice habit that prioritizes my humanity over what I produce?

  • Am I doing my best? (You are.)

9. Rest. (Let Yourself Not Practice)

If you are sick, exhausted, or exceeding your capacity, rest. If you are in a season of your life in which practicing today would place an undue burden on your energy, let yourself not practice. 

The reasons each of us chose to play an instrument are usually emotional. While it’s hard to connect with your instrument if you aren’t playing it, that doesn’t mean that discipline will necessarily lead us back to that initial emotional connection. In some seasons of your life, discipline will bring you what you seek, and in some seasons, it will not. 

Pushing yourself beyond your capacity, first of all, will not lead to a productive practice session, and second of all, will not lead you to a life fulfilled by music. There is a difference between doing the best work you can, and breaking yourself to prioritize your work over your health. 

We were not put on this planet solely to produce. Rest is an essential ingredient for artists.

Bottom Line

There’s no one-size-fits-all way to practice, but your relationship with practicing music can flourish once you find a routine that works best for your specific brand of life.

The most consequential act is showing up.

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