The best practice routine

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Lately I’ve been on a diet that has a weekly “cheat” day. Six days out of the week, my meals are Spartan, but on cheat day I get to eat whatever I want.

My guess is that isn’t the ideal way to manage my waistline. I would be better off eating more regimented meals every day. But I would burn out and quit. The cheat day is a compromise. It cedes a little ground to my sweet tooth, but keeps me going back to lentils and broccoli for another six days.

photo, Dave Crosby
photo, Dave Crosby

Every so often I decide to revamp my practice routine. It’s always ambitious. I plan hours of long tones, a battery of scales and exercises and etudes, piles of classical repertoire, and new jazz tunes. I see myself drilling every aspect of my playing for hours and hours every day.

It usually goes well for a few days, and then fizzles out. I tell myself that I’m not getting my routine done because of a deadline. Or a conflict. Or because I just needed to sleep in a little that day. But the truth is that I’m burned out—I’ve given myself a practice routine that I can’t or won’t sustain.

It’s often said that the best diet is the one you stick to. I think that’s good advice for practicing, too. It would be great to do a super-intense practice routine every day. But if a little lower intensity is what prevents burnout, then so be it.

If you are finding your latest practice routine to be hard to keep up, ask yourself what you can do to make it a better experience. What will bring you back again the next day? Shorter sessions? More frequent breaks? Fewer things to practice? A greater variety of things to practice? More structure? Less structure? A weekly “cheat day” when you get to skip scales and play whatever you want?

A practice routine, like a diet plan, should be good for you and should help you reach your goals, but it should also be something you can sustain and even enjoy.


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