A performance major at a large American university recently asked:
When I return home for winter and summer breaks, I find it incredibly difficult to practice. I work two jobs during the summer and one in winter to help pay bills, so I am always busy, but there is no connection to classical music at home or in the area.
I do have time, albeit limited, but I have it. Yet I can’t seem to motivate myself, or get into a steady groove of practice. Is this normal for college and professionals who are completely detached from a musical environment?
Do you have any advice?
This is a quandary that I am intimately familiar with. While there can be any number of things to suggest as advice, I would couch all suggestions with the usual caveat of this is what works for me.
Balancing a ‘real’ job with playing the horn
It can be very difficult to maintain a regular practice regimen when personal needs necessitate working full-time or part-time in a different occupation.
The manner of the work can have a big impact by the end of the day. A physically demanding job can wear one out to the point of exhaustion while a job demanding heavy concentration might turn one’s brain into a bucket of mush.
For about a 15-year period, my own work history transitioned from income generated mostly by horn-playing to income generated mostly by web development. At times this transition was a bumpy ride and getting the proper amount of time on the horn was not always easy.
Thankfully, that time weathered itself and my dedication to the instrument has endured.
So if there is any consolation to be given to the questioner, it is that this problem is perhaps transitory and in time it will fix itself. In the meantime, here are a few tips that have helped along the way.
1.) Think about your daily schedule.
Asking questions is a good place to start.
- How does my work affect my attitude towards practicing the horn?
- What personal distractions am I involved in that might be impeding my practice time?
- Is it possible for me to sacrifice something?
- Am I eating well and getting enough sleep?
- Does my job trigger thoughts of depression and anxiety?
- Am I being lazy? Do I feel guilty about that?
- Do I feel powerless to change what is happening?
- Do I need to re-think my practice routine?
2.) Start small. Allow time to adjust.
When starting a new day job, I will sometimes allow myself a little room to settle into it. This might include reducing my horn practice for a few days or (if no immediate playing jobs are involved) a few weeks.
When getting back into playing the horn with more seriousness and regularity, it helps to start by thinking small. As mentioned in yesterday’s terrific interview, lowering your expectations a bit in order to compensate can help to keep your head on straight. With a little planning and thought, it is possible to allow your normal standards to return naturally (without getting cornered into yet another mental trap).
Journal your progress and reward yourself for reaching certain goals.
Focus on basic techniques. When moving forward and expanding to harder stuff, be sure to know your line and stick to it.
3.) Seek out inspiration in new places.
Without some kind of hands-on inspirational pool to draw energy from – like a community band or a brass quintet – a day job can really throw off one’s spirit in terms of the will to practice.
If playing opportunities are slim-to-none, the situation can seem especially dire, like a man stranded in the hot desert looking for an oasis. That being the case, the motive to make a change towards the positive falls wholly upon the player. It is the player’s choice to seek shelter from the heat or to wither and die from exposure and dehydration.
If inspiration is not readily available, it should be purposefully sought out.
- Listen to new repertoire
If your job allows for headphones, it is a great way to pass the time.
- Read books on music
If money is an issue, the local library can be a resource.
- Read blogs
There are a number a great sites with free content.
- Check out new methods
Again, if money is an issue, the internet has plenty of free resources to explore.
- Take a lesson
Even if you are not in the best of shape, the entire topic of inspiration and time management might be worth talking about.
- Play duets with yourself
With modern recording and playback methods, this is not too hard to do.
4.) Leave your horn out.
This is a simple trick that hinges on the power of suggestive thought.
If you have a safe area for leaving your horn out on display, do it. Having a horn out in plain sight can be magnetic; it draws you towards touching it, picking it up and playing on it.
5.) Consider non-traditional methods.
- Learn a new instrument, such as cornet with a horn mouthpiece, the baritone or trombone. Sharpen up your piano skills. Personal growth as a musician does not need to be excluded to one primary instrument.
- Break away from the one-hour routine.
- Practice away from the horn.
In my current job for example, I am allowed four 15-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch. My commute to work is about 30 minutes, one-way.
This adds up to over two hours of free time to buzz lips, do exercises and to play the mouthpiece. On a typical work day, I get over 90 minutes of face-time done before physically touching the French horn in the evening.
Think outside the box
The basic concept is something that aligns with an old proverb about thinking outside-of-the-box and fighting adversity with creativity: necessity is the mother of invention.
In striking a balance between a day job and playing the horn, be sure to stay positive, open and alert for alternative modes and methods. Difficult situations can inspire ingenious solutions.