Time Management for the Improviser

One of the most frequently asked questions that we get concerns finding time to practice or improving with a limited amount of practice time. “What should I do if I don’t have enough time to practice everyday? I want to practice more, but I don’t have time to.”

If you haven’t already, at some point you are going to be confronted with a limited amount of time to get into the practice room. Getting busy and struggling to find time to practice is a fact of life. Rather than trying to solve the problem of dwindling time, learn to adapt your schedule to make the most of the time you do have.

We all wish we had more time to practice, but the truth is that we never get as much as we want. This doesn’t mean that we have to give up and settle for mediocrity, however. You can accomplish your goals despite a busy schedule. Here are seven ways to optimize your time in the practice room:

1) Define your goals and make a plan

Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.~Ralph Waldo Emerson

When you have a limited amount of time to begin with, aimless and unfocused practicing is something that you can’t afford. If you’re used to going into the practice room and picking out exercises at random or turning on a play-a-long track and calling it a day, you are going to have to make some changes if you want to see long-term improvement.

The solution is simple: Write down your musical goals and make a plan as to how you’re going to achieve them. Specifically define what you want to accomplish as a musician and figure out which exercises, etudes, and techniques will get you to your goal; these are the things that you should be practicing.

Instead of just spending time in a room with your instrument and feeling satisfied that you’ve practiced for the day, make sure that you’re actually accomplishing something and moving in the right direction.

For example, if you want to be able to hear the chord progressions to common jazz standards, make sure that ear training exercises are part of your routine. Or, if you want to acquire some new vocabulary and play longer lines in your solos, you should be transcribing on a regular basis. Whatever your goals are, make sure that the content of your practice routine is building towards the realization of that vision.

2) Create a schedule

Now that you have defined your goals and identified the specific exercises and techniques that will allow you to achieve those goals, it’s time to figure out how to fit everything into one practice session. This will take some discipline.

One way to ensure that you cover everything when you’re pressed for time, is to create a practice schedule. Let’s say that you have an hour to practice and need to cover five key areas. Creating a schedule with time limits is a good way to ensure that you’ll get in everything you need.

For starters, grab a timer and use it to organize your practice time. Divide that hour into those five key areas and set a time limit for each one. A sample schedule might look like this:

  • Warm-up/Sound – 10 minutes
  • Scales/Chords in all 12 keys – 10 mins
  • Technique/Articulation – 10 mins
  • Learn the melody to a tune – 15 mins
  • Transcribe/Develop Language in all keys – 15 mins

Having that timer going off, is a sure way to keep you on track and focused on each category, ensure that you aren’t wasting any of your valuable time.

Keep in mind that the schedule can change from day to day. You may be able to warm-up in 5 minutes, you might need to spend 30 minutes to transcribe a line, or you may just want to spend a few more minutes on a specific technique. Whatever the case may be, create a schedule before you get into the practice room.

An hour may seem like a relatively short amount of time, but if you are focused and have a plan, you can accomplish everything you need to.

3) Combine different areas of practice

A timed schedule is great for managing your time, however, spending ten or fifteen minutes on one aspect of your practice routine may not be enough to achieve the progress you’re aiming for.

Another way to cover everything you need to when you’re shedding is to combine the technical aspects of your practice with the musical aspects of your practice. This is a good way to practice twice as much in half the time.

Instead of focusing on articulation and fingerings in one part of your practice and the lines you’ve transcribed in a separate part, work on them at the same time. Use that transcribed language as the basis for your articulation and fingering study instead of unrelated etudes. Now you’re developing both your jazz language and technique simultaneously and saving valuable practice time that can be used for other things.

4) Make use of your off-time

One aspect of our day that we often forget about is off-time; time where we are stuck somewhere and  unable to practice. This includes things like commuting, waiting for appointments, and walking around town. Rather than accepting this time as wasted, put it to use by learning to practicing anywhere.

Listen to a tune or solo that you’re going to transcribe and sing along with the record as you drive to and from work. Work out some odd meter exercises as you are waiting to meet your friends. Plan out your practice routine for the day as you are eating breakfast. Visualize lines or chord progressions that you’re working on as you lie in bed at night.

The options are endless and you’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish musically outside of the practice room.

5) Fueling your mind and body

This may sound strange coming from an article about improving your practice as a jazz musician, but how you treat your body is more important than you may think. You body is essentially a machine; if you don’t give it fuel, it won’t function.

To get the most out of your practice time, you need to be mentally at your best. Even though you may not realize it, the way you eat directly affects your mental state. If you make poor food choices, or worse, skip meals you’ll be sabotaging your practice time without realizing it.

During grad school I was working, attending classes, playing in multiple rehearsals, and writing a thesis. Needless to say, finding practice time took some effort. Whenever I skipped a meal or ate low quality food, I would end up mentally crashing. What could have been an hour of productive practice ended up being spent in a mental haze where it was a struggle just to stay awake.

If you have a limited amount of time for practice, you want to avoid mentally and emotionally crashing during the time you set aside for the things you love. Make sure that you’re fueling your mind and body for productivity and success.

6) You have more time than you think

One always has time enough, if one will apply it well.~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Many people claim that they have no time to practice. However, when you take a closer look as to how they use their time, a different story is revealed. Time that could be used for practicing is spent watching TV or thrown away surfing the internet. It comes down to a matter of priorities and discipline. Many times the culprit is not your schedule, rather how you are using your time – in other words, you are your own worst enemy.

You have to ask yourself: Am I using my time effectively? Where am I wasting time and being unproductive? How important is playing jazz to me?

If you take an honest look at your time and you truly want to improve as an improviser, you will find time to get into the practice room.

7) Get into the right head-space

You had a horrible day at work. You got stuck in rush-hour traffic. You missed your train. You got into an argument with your friends. All of these factors add up to a mindset that is not conducive to quality practice. Everyday we encounter some sort of distraction that threatens our concentration as we enter the practice room.

The solution to these mental barriers lies in creating a calm and focused mindset every time you pick up your instrument. The way you create this mental clarity is up to you.

Try some meditation exercises to clear your mind and focus your attention on the task at hand. Something like ten minutes of quiet meditation or relaxing music can wash away the stress of the day and set you up for a successful practice session.

Another method for gaining mental clarity is to exercise. When you feel stressed or frustrated, try working out or going for a run. When you come back, you’ll find that you are in a much better state to be productive in whatever you do.

The method you use to get into the right head-space for practicing doesn’t matter. The goal is to find a space where you are calm, focused, and excited about learning this music.

In a perfect world, we would have as much time to practice as we needed. Unfortunately this is not the case. By using the ideas above, you can use the time you do have more effectively and even find time to practice that you didn’t know you had. The next time you feel like you don’t have any practice time or that you’re not progressing in the practice room, take a look at the seven items on this list – the solution to your problems is closer than you think.