Increasing Productivity in Practice


For most students, practice recommendations are often given in minutes, since that is by far the easiest way to quantify practice (especially if you are teaching a large ensemble!), but one thing that is often overlooked by beginning and intermediate students is their practice productivity – making the minutes count, instead of counting the minutes!

Right now Freakonomics – one of the many podcasts I listen to – is in the middle of their Self-Improvement series, and put together a neat podcast on how to be more productive at just about anything.

In the Beginning…

In the early stages of playing an instrument, almost every minute you spend with it is productive. Whether it’s learning how to sit, where the notes are, how to hold your instrument, how to form an embouchure, or even how to breath, just about everything is a new skill and it’s easy to see your progress over both a few weeks and over several months.

Once you reach a certain level, though, sometimes the goals can be a bit harder to quantify and reliably self-evaluate. We’ve all probably heard comments from teachings such as:

  • Your sound needs to be bigger/brighter/darker/louder/softer.
  • This slur is not smooth or connected enough.
  • Your articulation is not crisp enough.
  • You are not breathing deeply or using enough air.
  • Etc.

All these comments represent important skills for a musician, but they are not quite as black-and-white as things like note names or fingerings (which are either right or wrong). If you’re not careful, it’s relatively easy to spend many minutes, hours, or even days practicing the skills above without improving at all!

In my own case, my big blind spot for many years was my sound quality. I simply wasn’t putting in focused time listening honestly to myself and working to improve my sound. I did get better at it (at least, I think so!), but it took quite a while and quite a lot of “tough love” from a particularly motivating teacher!

8 Simple Rules for Increasing Productivity in Your Practice

On the Freakonomics episode mentioned above, the podcast hosts talk to Charles Duhig – author of the book Smarter, Faster, Better, which attempts to explore and explain the science of productivity and how people can be more productive.

In the podcast, Duhig mentions eight key skills for improving productivity:

  1. Motivation
  2. Focus
  3. Goal Setting
  4. Decision Making
  5. Innovation
  6. Absorbing Data
  7. Managing Others
  8. Teams

While you can see that not all of them would be equal in a solo practice room session, at least 6 of them are incredibly useful! I highly recommend listening to the Freakonomics episode (it’s free!) or, better yet, buying Duhig’s book. Skills for productivity can have a great impact on just about any aspect of your life!

So, next time you pick your instrument up out of the case – think about what you’re trying to accomplish and how best to accomplish it! While you’re at it, maybe using a practice log can help you keep track of what you do from day to day. Applying just a little bit of thought before you play can do a lot for increasing your practice productivity!


About Colin Dorman

Colin is a freelance horn player and teacher, as well as a fan of tech of all sorts, aviation, and increasingly complex flight simulators. He also enjoys beer, bourbon and fitness - but not at the same time. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, as well as right here at ColinDorman.com!