Finding time to practice...
I’ve been adjusting to this new/old routine for a few weeks now, and so far it is feeling pretty good. The sense of the familiar is returning, and already I get a sense of forward momentum in the progress of my students. Definitely an improvement over the virtual lesson slog of last year! But with the return of the on-campus routine, there is also the return of the age-old problem: finding time to practice my own stuff! The days are incredibly busy, and it is so easy to just keep putting it of until the end of the day. And then when the day IS over, you certainly don’t feel like sticking around the practice room to do more work. Once you get home it’s time for dinner, and then you need to unwind a bit, and before you know it...you go to bed without working on any of the music you planned on practicing. And then the next day, the cycle begins to unfold anew.
The practice routine is probably one of the hardest things to balance when you are both a working performer AND a full-time voice teacher. And that’s even before you consider other wrinkles like vocal fatigue. At the moment I’m just working on a few arias, but I do also have some music to learn for my third gig: accompanying choirs. Needless to say, it’s a lot to juggle. I often tell my students to practice in small chunks of time where they can be extremely focused for those short periods. I also tell them to write out their schedules in a spreadsheet (or some other visual format) so they can see what pockets of time are available to practice. Funnily enough, if I only follow my own advice, I find that I can generally get my work done pretty efficiently. Once I’ve identified the windows of practice time that I can use throughout my day, I just have to make the decision to use those windows and actually get the work done. It is amazing how much can be done in a half hour break between lessons. All you have to do is commit to doing that work.
It’s not enough to schedule the times though. I find that I also have to be very intentional about what I want to accomplish in any given short practice session. This piece of the puzzle came from William Westney’s fantastic book, The Perfect Wrong Note. Seriously, if you are looking for a book on practice philosophy and musical preparation, it’s an excellent resource. It seems so simple and logical, but most of us sit down at the piano (or other instrument) and we don’t have anything more than a vague idea of what we want to do. “I want to work on Figaro.” “I’m going to...practice an hour because my teacher told me to.” “I have to prepare that piano concerto for the upcoming concert.” Once you get in the habit of being intentional and setting specific goals for each practice session, not only does the work become more efficient and focused, but it feels like progress comes more quickly. For example, in a 15-minute session, I might choose to focus on 1 aria, and within that time I’d give myself the goal of working through the text/translation in sections, working through a tricky passage in the vocal line, and perhaps explore how the text declamation can be used to help the melody. It doesn’t really matter what, as long as the goals are specific and not overly large.
Once my time for that session ends (and you can absolutely set a timer), I go about my business, doing some other work, perhaps teaching the next voice lesson of the day, or if I’m feeling motivated by my first practice session, I do another! By using these little “power practice sessions” I can fit them in and around my other lessons, and then I don’t have this mountain of work to do when I get home and my brain goes off the clock. It’s also important to note that when I build my schedule for the year, I do try to have at least SOME windows of time built in. It isn’t always possible to get all of that practice time every day, but having a few pockets of time available is essential.
Life is never just going to sit quietly and let you have all the practice time you could ever want. You are always going to be busy, with many demands on your time, and it can seem impossible to work on anything at all when you really start looking through the endless to-do lists. But if you can commit to these little bursts of focused activity and schedule them into your days, you might be surprised by just how much you can accomplish. The quest for balance in work and life is an ongoing one, but it IS possible to be both a dedicated voice teacher and an artist who still works on creatively fulfilling projects. You just have to get a little creative with how you use your time!
I just finished my first week of teaching voice lessons back on campus after a year and a half of virtual lessons. I wasn’t sure how it would be, going back to work in-person after so much time away. Without a doubt, I was ready to go back. I have been so incredibly blessed with my students and the ability to teach them virtually throughout the pandemic, but...enough is enough. There is no real replacement for that in-person interaction–lessons are just so much more efficient and more fun! That being said, there were many unknowns. Would I have a full studio? Would I be able to adjust back into the regular routine? Would the students be excited and engaged? So far, the answer to those questions is a resounding yes.
In the crazy pre-COVID times, my studio that year had 73 students. Which is insane. I have no idea how I handled that plus opera and my church job. And accompanying choirs for concerts and contests. That workload (which had I had maintained for a few years) was not sustainable. So right before COVID, I had made the decision to reduce my studio size to a more manageable level. It was either that or give up doing anything else but teaching, and I was not about to stop doing opera! Then...the pandemic happened. It definitely helped hold me to my plan to have a smaller studio size! As we approached this new school year, I set a goal to have a full but manageable studio size, one that would allow me to have Fridays off, and would allow me to maintain my other work without absolutely losing my mind. But as I said, I had no idea whether the studio would be full, waaay overfull, or full of vacancies. As luck would have it, I hit my goal number and am actually 1 over (the goal was 50, in case you are curious).
Knowing that I had a full studio was a tremendous relief, and once I figured out the jigsaw puzzle of putting everyone into the schedule, I just had to wait until lessons began. I wasn’t expecting to have any particular emotional reaction to this school year. I figured it would just be business as usual, and thankfully, returning to my more normal routine. What hit me, overall, was a profound sense of happiness at returning to the schools. I was driving to the middle school, before I even had a definite schedule of students, and as I came over the hill and pulled into the teacher parking lot, I found myself smiling. I’m not an overly emotional person most of the time, but I absolutely had some feels as I walked through the school on my way to the choir room. The same thing happened upon my return to the high school–despite so many questions, I was just happy to be back!
That was all before I had taught even one lesson for the school year. This week was the real test–how would I handle a full schedule of in-person lessons? The short answer: It. Was. Great. I’m not gonna lie–every day this week I was exhausted when I got home. When I’m teaching in person, I find that I give so much more energy, and when I’m on campus, I don’t have nearly as many breaks in between lessons. My voice felt a bit tired by the end of the week as well–between all the talking of going over studio policies, extensive modeling for new students, and being in louder spaces in general, I’ve got to get the daily stamina back up. It’s also not my favorite thing to lug my air purifier with me every day, and teaching in a mask is THE WORST. However, in spite of the exhaustion and the annoyances...I have felt so much more fulfilled, so much more joyful, and so much more...myself. It is only the first week, so I’m sure this joy will be tempered by the daily grind of the work, but I am so happy to be back with the students, and they seem thrilled to be back as well.
It is amazing how much we all take for granted in our daily lives, and how much we don’t appreciate the little moments as they happen. We tend to reflect on them once they are gone, and really only appreciate something when it is lost to us. This week has reminded me all over again how important it is to recognize what I am doing NOW. You can’t ignore the past, and you certainly have to prepare for the future, but the only moment you ever have is the one you are currently living.
There is a long school year ahead, and I don’t know how it will go. I’m sure there will be peaks and valleys, and I’m sure that at some point I will be griping to my fellow voice teachers about the latest frustration. And yet...I’m thrilled with these challenges, both the familiar and the new. I am looking forward to experiencing this year one moment at a time and really living in it, rather than barreling through it like a freight train as I have done in years past. I hope that this year I am able to be fully present in each moment, connecting with my students and sharing my newfound appreciation for the simply joy of singing together in the same room.