The Practice Room — Part 1: Planning

I've been thinking about practice a lot lately. That's not to say I've actually been practicing a lot lately. Just thinking about it.

In full disclosure, I write this in the midst of launching a new practice journal for musicians. The Liquidrum Practice Journal, to be specific. But I thought it would be nice to piggyback on this recent endeavor and put down some thoughts about practice. You know, how we go about doing it, what we tend to get right, and what we sometimes get wrong.

This is the first of three blog posts, each of which will address a different stage of the practice process. Part 1, this one, is dedicated to the planning stage.

Ok, maybe you're already bored. Practice planning? Really? You're gonna write 1000+ words on how to plan your practice session? Yes. And if the topic is a turnoff it probably means you don't think about it enough or do it very well. So stay with me.

Practice planning comes in all shapes and sizes from short-term, session to session planning to long-term, big project planning, and everything in between. And while we might think we're knocking the planning stage out of the park, most of us are probably just working off of vague ideas that swim around in our heads — nondescript, non-definitive, and therefore non-actionable. In the end, this non-approach produces something that is, well, unproductive. Or at least less productive than it could be.

Let's look at a concrete example or two and see how we might better execute intentional, effective practice planning. 

Let's say it's late summer or early fall and you have a long-term goal of winning a spot in a drum corps or summer orchestral festival for the following year. The planning process would go something like this. . .

We start with the big picture, guiding vision or principle. Either one of the aforementioned aspirations would be your long-term goal, in this case. That goal must be followed with specific, measurable, and actionable objectives. These objectives become the action plan for achieving the goal.

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Example #1

Goal: Win a position in the front ensemble of the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps for summer 2019.

Goal set date: September 1, 2018

Objective 1: Thoroughly immerse myself in the history, flavor, and aesthetic trends of the Cavaliers, past and present, by digesting recordings/videos and by connecting with current and former members of the group.

Objective 2: Secure the audition packet and implement an intentional learning regimen for all audition materials.

Objective 3: Perform the material for teachers and friends periodically throughout the practice process and self-record frequently.

Objective 4: Evaluate and assess constantly, especially following mock performances for teachers/friends and after self-recording.

Objective 5: Plan and book travel, well ahead of time, for all necessary camps and audition weekends.

Objective 6: Attend camp(s), win a position.

Goal completion date: January 15, 2019

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Example #2

Goal: Win a position with the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra.

Goal set date: September 1, 2018

Objective 1: Research PMF by thoroughly absorbing all printed information on the website and talking with past attendees. 

Objective 2: Secure the audition repertoire list making note of any required excerpts that are unfamiliar.

Objective 3: Create a repertoire/excerpt folder specifically for the PMF audition.

Objective 4: Structure a practice and learning regimen for excerpts that have previously been studied and those that are new, including intentional rep listening sessions.

Objective 5:  Perform mock auditions for teachers and friends periodically throughout the preparation process and self-record frequently.

Objective 6: Evaluate and assess constantly.

Objective 7: Plan the audition recording process and execute mock versions of this process weeks in advance of the submission deadline.

Objective 8: Submit a successful audition and win a position.

Goal completion date: March 15, 2019

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For sake of clarity and illustration I've listed more objectives than typical in these examples. Depending on your familiarity with the process, several of these steps may be implied and therefore unnecessary to script out, at least with this level of detail. The point is you come up with clear, actionable objectives that serve to accomplish the goal.

But it obviously doesn't end there. The goal + objective process is just the beginning. It's the broad framework within which you will enact your practice + work regimen. It's time to drill down. We're going from big to small.

Looking at your timeframe and articulated objectives, we need to specify actionable weekly and daily practice plans. Personally, I like to think of the weekly plans as 'Assignments'. Many of these are mid-term plans that will be achievable within a week or two or three.

If we look at our Cavaliers example above, we can build the following Assignment encapsulating a few of the initial objectives.

Week of Sept 3, 2018:

  • Daily listening sessions of past 5-10 yrs worth of Cavaliers shows
  • Set up phone conversation with former teacher who marched with the Cavaliers asking specific questions about the audition process
  • Download audition packet/materials
  • Do broad overview practice sessions of the full audition packet to identify strengths and weaknesses and where to put practice emphasis going forward

And to keep things even, let's do the same with the PMF example.

Week of Sept 3, 2018:

  • Read the PMF website top to bottom to get a feel for the festival, including background on the conductors, faculty, proposed repertoire, environment, etc.
  • Set up phone conversation or meeting with friend who participated in PMF the previous year, asking specific questions about the experience
  • Print audition rep list and assemble a PMF audition excerpt folder
  • Daily listening sessions for all required repertoire
  • Initial note learning of unfamiliar excerpts

Again, I'm being intentionally wordy with these illustrations in order to give clarity to the process. You can script this out in shorthand as long as it is clear and comprehensible to you, as I've done in the above image.

The final stage of the planning process is the daily, short-term stuff. This is usually the part of the process that most of us do a decent job at, or at least think about the most. The problem is we are usually doing this without the previous steps of articulating the long and mid-term plans. Now that we have those set, our daily plan can be super specific and super effective.

Take a look at what an initial practice + work day of Cavaliers audition prep might look like. Remember, this is the practice + work plan, scripted out before the day begins. This is not the after-practice documentation of what was done (that will be covered in a later post).

Date: 9/3/18

Times and to-do's:

8:30-9:30AM — Listen to and watch 2017 and 2018 shows

10:30-11AM — Phone convo w/ old teacher

1-1:30PM — Download, print, organize packet

2:30-4PM — General read-thru of packet

And the same for an initial practice day of PMF audition prep:

Date: 9/3/18

Times and to-do's:

10-10:30AM — Read PMF website top to bottom

10:30-11AM — Phone convo w/ past PMF attendee

1-2PM — Print audition list, gather excerpts, build folder

3-6PM — Rep listening incl. multiple recordings followed by initial note learning

The daily practice + work plans will inevitably get more and more specific and detailed as you continue through the process. What is outlined here is a rather general, first-day-of-practice plan of attack. 

We've now built an intentional framework within which to practice and work. We've defined long-term goals, articulated specific, actionable objectives, translated these into weekly assignments, and drilled down further to produce a daily practice + work schedule. The structure is solid and the plan is clear.

The next blog post will focus on the second stage of practice which I call implementation. This is the work we actually do in the practice room, the stuff we call, well...practice. See you on the next post.

*If you would like to grab a copy of the newly-released Liquidrum Practice Journal, visit us here.

Todd Meehan is the founder of Liquidrum. He currently serves as the Associate Professor of Percussion and Division Director of Instrumental Studies at the Baylor University School of Music. Todd has performed as one half of the Meehan/ Perkins Duo since 2006 and was a founding member of So Percussion.