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!