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Life Blog

Pomodoro Practice

Hannah Murray

by Hannah Murray, Oct. 25, 2018

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Practice time is one of those problematic topics for musicians. We're always complaining, or bragging about how much we’ve practiced, how many hours we’ve shut ourselves away working on music for upcoming performances, or auditions or lessons. Teachers and performers regularly discuss what they consider to be the ideal amount of practice time. 

How Much Should I Practice?

Renowned violin pedagogue, Kurt Sassmannshaus clearly outlines practice time guidelines on his website as follows: 

 If you play for fun

·Age five: 30 minutes

·Age eight: 45 - 60 minutes

·Age ten: 60 - 75 minutes

·Age twelve to adult: 90 - 120 minutes

If you want to be a professional

·Age five: 30 - 45 minutes

·Age eight: 90 - 120 minutes

·Age ten: 2 hours

·Age twelve: 3 hours

·Age fourteen to eighteen: 3 - 4 hours

·Violin major in college: 5 hours [1]

According to Noa at Bulletproofmusician.com, Rubinstein once stated in an interview that nobody should have to practice more than four hours a day, explaining that if you needed to practice more than that, you probably weren’t doing it right. Violinist Nathan Milstein is said to have once asked his teacher, Leopold Auer how many hours a day he should be practicing and Auer responded by saying "Practice with your fingers, and you need all day. Practice with your mind, and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours." 

Noa goes on to say that Heifetz, one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century supposedly believed that excessive practice is "just as bad as practicing too little!" He claimed that he practiced no more than three hours per day on average and that he didn't practice at all on Sundays. [2]

 There are numerous studies about how much practice is too much;

 “Studies have varied the length of daily practice from 1 hour to 8 hours, and the results suggest that there is often little benefit from practicing more than 4 hours per day and that gains actually begin to decline after the 2-hour mark. The key is to keep tabs on the level of concentration you are able to sustain.”[3]

 But what exactly are you supposed to do with all of those hours of practice, and how are you supposed to sustain your level of concentration and focus? Do you just practice until, as a former colleague of mine put it, “you can’t feel feelings anymore” and hope it pays off? How do ensure that you are reaping the maximum benefit from your hours of practice? How do you avoid distractions and stay mentally alert? 

Late night practice IS possible in small doses.

Late night practice IS possible in small doses.

Practicing habits, and the amount of time one needs is a difficult subject to cover, mainly because of all of the variables in life including age, ability, available time to practice, amount of music to learn, professional demands, injury, space, personal limitations and needs, etc. that all play a part in our practice expectations.

I’m one of those people who used to (and still do sometimes) practice for four or five hours in a day. I love the sense of accomplishment at the end of a full day of practice; I can look at the big stack of music that was either assigned by my teacher or demanded by my profession and think, “I played ALL of those notes!” then reward myself for a job well done. In the past, my practice time was loosely structured; Most of the time I started with scales, technical exercises, and etudes before moving on to repertoire but there was no hard and fast rule. The only thing I consistently did was follow the principle referred to as a “Galamian hour of practice” which consisted of 50 minutes of practice and a 10-minute break. This worked pretty well, especially as a student because it gave me time to grab a snack, chat a little bit in the hallway, use the restroom, or maybe check a few emails before getting back to work. It also organized my time into concrete blocks that looked something like this:

 Practice Block 1 - scales, arpeggios, broken thirds, diminished and dominant 7ths, double stops, shifting exercises, bowing warm-ups, and etudes like Schradieck and Sevcik.

  • Break

Practice Block 2 - Etudes like Kreutzer, Rode, Gavinies, Dont, etc.

  • Break

Practice Block 3 - Orchestra Music and Excerpts

  • Break

Practice Block 4 - Solo Bach, and Caprices, character pieces, and miscellaneous violin repertoire.

  • Break

Practice Block 5 - Concertos, Sonatas

 Ta-Da! That is a taste of my five “Galamian Hours of Practice.” 

 When looking for references online for the “Galamian Hour of Practice,” I came across Todd Ehle’s website, where he explains it as follows: “Ivan Galamian used to ask students at the Meadowmount School to practice for 50 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of rest, repeated from 8:00 a.m. until 12:00 noon, then again from 1:00 - 1:50.  Resting each hour allows you to return to your practice with more focus and stamina.”[4

As an “adult” (or maybe working professional is a better term), I found this way of managing my practice time more and more challenging the further from school and student life I moved. Sometimes I didn’t have a full hour all at once to practice. If I was in between rehearsals and concerts, or students with less than an hour of time but plenty of things to practice. How was I supposed to structure that time? Also, one full hour of time can still feel overwhelming when you feel stressed and fatigued, or you are trying to practice at the very end of your day. How do you practice for less than an hour? Sometimes, when life is so busy and jam-packed full of responsibilities, focusing for extended periods of time feels next to impossible and I was easily distracted by my phone. Then the next thing I know, the time I have set aside for practice is over, and I didn’t accomplish anything. I know I can’t be the only one who struggles with this. I know that our phones are a constant distraction, that being a professional musician consumes many hours of the day, and that we all suffer from fatigue, lack of time, and low levels of motivation from time to time.

 So how do we get anything done in the practice room? 

 I struggled with this for a long time. Not just with practice time, but also with computer work too. I’d sit and stare blankly at my dissertation, and then mindlessly open a browser tab and start scrolling through social media, videos, articles, blogs, recipes and that segment that should have taken two hours to write suddenly took four or five hours or that invoice which could have been completed in 20 minutes suddenly took an hour. Then I found out about the Pomodoro Technique, and it totally changed my approach to time management, especially in the practice room.

 The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s/early 90s to help him get more studying accomplished in college. The concept is pretty simple: set a timer for 25-minutes and work on one task for that long. When the timer rings take a five-minute break, walk around, relax, do something not related to your task, and when the five minutes is up, set the timer for another 25 minutes and get back to work. After 4 segments like this take a 15-minute break.

 Life Hacker writes it out like this:

 1.    Choose a task to be accomplished

2.    Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is the timer)

3.    Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper

4.    Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)

5.    Every 4 Pomodoros take a more extended break [5]

 

It is that simple! If you’re like me, a serial procrastinator with the attention span of a goldfish, this will be a time management and productivity game changer. Sometimes, especially when I’m tired, I don’t want to get my violin out of the case, and I feel so overwhelmed with all of the music I’m supposed to practice that I'd sooner not even get started. BUT, if I say “its only 25 minutes Hannah, you can do that” all of a sudden it seems achievable, and when the timer goes off, I feel like I could keep going. 

 I love the simplicity of this time management technique and it sort of fits in with “Galamian’s Hour of Practice.” I like that I'm able to get moving on the work that needs to be done, that 25-minutes feel doable whether I'm working on orchestra repertoire, or solo pieces, in the morning, between commitments or after a long day of rehearsals and teaching. PLUS, at the end of the 25-minute segment I usually feel ready to keep going. It also keeps me from mindlessly staring at my phone because I know that it is only a matter of minutes before I get a break and can check for updates. 

 Here is a typical layout of my practice time (when I’m not preparing for something specific) using the Comodoro method (so each segment is only 25-minutes long):

 1.     Warm up materials, including scales, thirds, 6ths, arpeggios, octaves, dominant and diminished 7th, broken thirds, chromatic scales, fingered octaves, 10ths, scales in harmonics

  •  BREAK – stretch/rest/phone time

 2. Skill Building exercises like etudes and caprices or tricky passagework isolated from the repertoire

  •  BREAK – stretch/rest/phone time

 3.     Review and refresh. I use this segment to review portions or movements of solo Bach, Mozart concerti, and smaller passages from challenging repertoire that I am teaching or performing. I also include shorter pieces that I know but want to continue to improve and refine (Kreisler pieces or Heifetz encores for example).

  •  BREAK – stretch/rest/phone time

 4.     New Repertoire – right now I’m working on two romantic concertos that I haven’t played before but have always wanted to learn. When I feel pretty confident about these, I’ll move them to the third practice segment. I’ll pick something new to work on OR swap it out for whatever needs to be learned for upcoming concerts or auditions.

  •  LONG BREAK – get a snack, walk my dog, return calls or emails, etc.

 That is two hours of practice complete, which, according to the studies cited above on bulletproof musician, is the optimal amount of practice before a decline in concentration and focus begins.

 After that, I do something else like writing, research, workout, teach lessons, workout, get ready to go to work.

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 But what if I have more to practice?

That’s easy! I come back to practice later in the day and set my Pomodoro timer again. If I'm prepping for an audition, for example, hours and hours of excerpts can be really draining. I lose motivation, I can't focus, I get bogged down, and so splitting my practice into two larger segments that are then divided into smaller ones (2 hour segments that are split into 4, 25-minute blocks) works really well for me. I stay more mentally awake, I can focus, my body isn't as tight from four or 5 hours of continuous practice, and I can tick a few other things off of my daily to-do list. If it is an extra busy time, and I don’t have time to do 2 hours of practice at once, setting the Pomodoro at different times throughout the day means I am still getting things done, just in smaller doses.

But just to clarify, if I'm crunched for time I never ever skip the first segment of warm-ups. That one exists no matter how crazy my day is, even if I do 25 minutes of technique in the morning and then have no time to practice until 10 pm at night, the warm-up segment is crucial for me. I might skip everything else, or jump straight to excerpts if there is an upcoming audition, but that first segment, is like brushing my teeth: it has to happen every day whether I want to do it or not.

 Why the added stretching?

I’m so enthusiastic about this that I’ve taken the Pomodoro technique a step further in my practice for even better results. Mr. Cirillo doesn’t say anything about stretching so why do I add it? Don’t I want to check out and play with my phone? Yes, oh yes, sometimes the temptation to scroll is hard to ignore but four or five minutes of movement will feel better than any video you might see online (except maybe the cute animal ones). Practicing any instrument puts your body in one position for a set amount of time. Even though 25-minutes isn't an enormous amount of time, I still feel the effects of playing my instrument, and I find that if I spend my small break sitting and scrolling I get tighter and tighter and tighter so after 2 hours my body does not feel fantastic. I also wrote my dissertation about using yoga to enhance violin playing, so having yoga and movement built into my day is essential to me, and I find that adding it directly to my practice routine enhances my mental focus, physical well-being, and overall endurance. 

 What if I don’t have a timer?

 Easy! I use an app on my phone called “Focus Time” that logs my Pomodoros so I can track my work. You can even set up different categories so you can really see where your work time goes. I have a category set up for practicing, writing, research, accounting, Active Violinist, and corpßonore so that I can account for my time in these categories.

Leave a comment below if you use this time management technique or have any questions.



Sources:

[1] Kurt Sassmannshaus, “How Much Should I Practice?,” Violin Masterclass http://www.violinmasterclass.com/en/practice-schedules/how-much-should-i-practice

[2] Noa Kageyama, “How Many Hours a day Should I Practice?,” The Bulletproof Musician. https://bulletproofmusician.com/how-many-hours-a-day-should-you-practice/

[3] Noa Kageyama, “How Many Hours a day Should I Practice?,” The Bulletproof Musician. https://bulletproofmusician.com/how-many-hours-a-day-should-you-practice/

[4] R. Todd Ehle, “Practice Tips,” Todd Ehle. http://www.toddehle.com/id2.html

[5] Kevin Purdy, “The Pomodoro Technique Fights Deadline Anxiety with a Timer,” Life Hacker. https://lifehacker.com/the-pomodoro-technique-fights-deadline-anxiety-with-a-t-30951587