Use a Stopwatch, Not a Timer – Practice Tips for the Modern Musician Part 1

This is the first of 3 posts on “Practice Tips for the Modern Musician.” The link to Part 2 is at the end.

In my years of teaching and playing, I have watched the landscape of distractions and attention grabs increase exponentially. Can we just agree on something? Smart phones are a problem.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPhone and I have to be careful not to delve into full-blown idol worship over Apple Products. Hmmm, I wonder if there’s an app for that?

My point though, is this: smart phone or no, the world has become an increasingly louder place with more people, organizations and technology all vying for your time, attention and loyalty. The practicing musician and especially student musician can fall prey to this and the number one place we watch this culture of distraction lead to our detriment is the loss of time and quality of our personal practice.

Nothing is more sacred to a musician than the quiet room, the instrument and time to woodshed. How else are you supposed to work out those scales and arpeggios, crank up the metronome and hone your timing, and of course, develop a beautiful, mature sound? Music is a slow-cooker or crockpot. It’s a microwave popcorn world and yet that doesn’t work for our craft.

So in this series, walk with me through three steps that will help to not only communicate tangible advice for the student musician in your life, but also help them to learn that there is no substitute for patient, hard work. This gift that you give to your students is one that will assist them more in their lives than any scale sequence or rhythm study ever could.  Here is the first step:

  1. Use a Stopwatch, not a Timer!

Before we begin this tip, I need to confess: I am a terrible parent when it comes to making my 9 and 7 year old children practice piano. Yes, I am a music teacher and yet, I have the same struggle as every other parent in the galaxy: how do I make my kids practice?!

Recently, both of my children were (rightfully) admonished by their piano teacher. Instead of a manageable ten to fifteen minutes of practice per day they were hardly logging any time at all. As a musician, I understand the need to have that physical and mental sharpening that can only come from practice. But somehow, we were falling into the rut of demanding quantity instead of stressing the need for quality. My children, of course, pushed back and didn’t want to practice.

The whole experience made me remember a strategy that I have seen work with my students in the past: Set a Stopwatch, not a Timer.

Practice Tips for the Modern Musician

When we assign students practice records or tell them to practice for a certain period of time, we have the best intentions, but we don’t get the kind of focused attention to quality that truly develops a musician. Instead, we get the sort of work ethic that is found in the ordinary minimum wage shift worker: an employee who focuses on when the end of their shift is rather than the quality of their work.

If we’re not careful, we’ll stress quantity over quality. The unintended consequence is that we teach our students that “practicing is a chore and you only have to do it for twenty minutes. So, yes your medicine tastes gross, but you have to take it. Or else…

Instead, let’s focus on helping our students set goals. We need to give them clear objectives. For example, rather than saying, “go practice your Bb major scale and arpeggios tonight,” we should be framing these instructions more clearly: “Practice the Bb scale and arpeggio with your metronome set to 92 beats per minute. See if you can do it five times in a row with no mistakes. Also be sure that your tone and rhythm are as smooth and beautiful as possible.”

We not only see clearly-stated instructions, but also a larger goal of playing five times in a row without making a mistake. It also stresses the use of a metronome (which should be present in virtually ALL personal practice, even if the music is not particularly rhythmic in nature) all while striving to produce a desirable, mature sound.

So, who cares how long that takes the student? Instead of an arbitrary period of time, we should simply set the stopwatch to see how much time they practiced. A timer suggests that our singular goal is to complete the time we’ve been assigned. A stopwatch suggests that the goal is to accomplish our tasks with quality.

Now back to my piano-playing kids: When I’ve applied this strategy with them, I’ve noticed that they practice much longer while achieving better quality. They also enjoy the process. Many times, their daily ten minute minimum easily exceeds 20-30 minutes. Each time we focus on the stopwatch over the timer, we also reinforce an important life skill: To do the job as well as you can and to take your time.

Yes, this will make us have to think out of the box: We will have to choose our words carefully and encourage our students to be goal-oriented by giving them a plainly-worded set of expectations they should be committed to achieving. It’s possible, but it will take our diligence and intentionality in guiding our students to higher quality practice time.

This was post 1 in this series of “Practice Tips for the Modern Musician.” Read Part 2 of this series here.

Eric Rath is an active educator, clinician, adjudicator, arranger, and composer. He has served as a band and orchestra director as well as a percussion specialist at the middle and high school levels. He and Ralph Hicks are the co-authors of the percussion ensemble collection, “Beyond Basic Percussion” and the snare drum and keyboard fundamentals book, “Five Minute Drill” (Tapspace Publications). Recently, they launched their latest book, “The Golden Age of Ragtime,” which features five ragtime piano pieces transcribed for xylophone soloist and marimba ensemble or piano accompaniment. ericrathmusic.com

Related Reading:
Part 2 of this series – Practice Tips for the Young Musician
3 Quick Ways to Check Your Percussionists Grip from the Podium (Eric Rath)
Selecting Band Music for Contest (Specific Qualifications)
Should You Be Practicing Right Now? (Free Image)

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