The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

11 (or 12) Tips on Practicing over the Holidays


snow crystal

They’re here!  The winter holidays, filled with family visits, parties and gatherings, travel, chocolate, new toys, a surprising amount of stress, and hopefully, more chocolate.

Many of these things can mean major interruptions in your practice routine.  If you’ve been away at music school, you may suddenly find yourself back at home with people who want to see you, not hear your scales from behind closed doors.  For professionals, you may have gigs sprinkled randomly throughout the season, interspersed with long travel days and social obligations that trump professional considerations.

Practicing over vacation, while everyone else is playing with new toys, can be a real challenge.  Here are a few strategies that I’ve employed over the years to make practicing work over the holidays.

  1. Let your family know ahead of time that you will be practicing. The delicate balancing act of family and practice is a LOT easier if my family knows about it ahead of time, and knows why it’s important. If you have a concert or audition coming up, let them know!
  2. Get creative about where you practice. I remember several Christmas vacations spent practicing in my grandparents’ basement.  It was not the most pleasant place to play, but it was the only spot that was quiet and that I could call my own for a few hours a day.  Find your own private practice spot.
  3. Get creative about when you practice. It’s a tough discipline, but sometimes getting up early is a great way to get in some quality time on your instrument before family madness is in full swing.  (Especially if you can practice somewhere far away from sleepers, like the basement!)
  4. Plan ahead. Decide ahead of time what you are going to practice, when, and how much.  At the end of each practice session, make a plan for the next day’s work, and write it in your practice notebook.  Then when you drag yourself away from the Playstation tomorrow, all you have to do is follow your own directions, not reassess your practice needs.
  5. Be reasonable with your goals. Winter break is NOT the time to up your practice routine from 3 hours a day to 5. Let’s be real, people!
  6. Practice big ideas. Winter break often means an interruption in your normal lesson schedule, if you are a student.  Maybe you have 2 or more weeks between lessons instead of just one.  That makes it a good time to spend some focused effort on big ideas that your teacher has been working on–like changing your posture or your embourchure.
  7. Practice a new piece of music you’ve been wanting to play, or a piece you really love. Make sure you have a compelling reason to take yourself away from family activities:  music that you love, or music that you haven’t been able to find time for during the school year.  I’m going to be working on Edie Hill’s This Floating World and I can’t wait!
  8. Find time to enjoy casual chamber music with family or friends. Normally, I would say that playing duets with your dad doesn’t count as practicing, but over the holidays, it’s a great way to keep your chops up, and to reconnect with the reason you became a musician in the first place.

    portrait of the author as a young flutist (in fifth grade, playing Christmas carols with my father)

    portrait of the author as a young flutist (in fifth grade, playing Christmas carols with my father)

  9. Perform for your family. This one is especially good for younger musicians, and music school students. Just make sure you choose your pieces carefully.  As an enthusiastic student, I once played some weird “new” music for my partly tone-deaf grandmother, and she stopped me in the middle of it, saying it was so loud, it made her stomach hurt!  I should have stuck with the Ave Maria
  10. Give yourself some external motivation. Bart Feller, principal flute of the New Jersey Symphony, just mentioned to me that he is headlining the Kentucky Flute Fair in January, and that not only is he looking forward to the Fair itself, but to having a reason to stay in shape over the break.  Everyone needs external motivation, and a performance or audition scheduled for early January is a great reason to practice over the holidays.
  11. Cut yourself some slack. It is vacation after all, and we all need a break from time to time.  If you want a break, but you have to keep practicing (because you have an audition in early January…), schedule some off days, and stick to them. Enjoy them, even!  You might find that a day or two of rest improves your playing. It’s a phenomenon my colleagues and I call The Magic of Gestation, and will be the subject of it’s own post next year sometime.
  12. Eat lots of chocolate. I’m pretty sure there are studies that show this helps with your music performance…

Happy New Year!

Photo credits:  Snow crystal:  elif ayse;  Me & my father playing together:  my grandfather.

posted under Techniques & Tricks
4 Comments to

“11 (or 12) Tips on Practicing over the Holidays”

  1. On December 22nd, 2009 at 1:19 pm Lisa Dee Says:

    A lot of great ideas! My teacher scheduled a master class (with all of his students) for tonight, before everyone leaves town. It was very exciting to be invited. The master class inspired steady practice to prepare, and seems like a good send-off to two weeks with no lesson. I am looking forward to practicing at my parents’ house when I visit over the break — they hear me play so infrequently (unless I leave a French horn message on the answering machine) that I feel like I’m making major progress!

  2. On December 24th, 2009 at 1:02 pm Wayla Chambo Says:

    Thanks for this, Zara! Heartening and encouraging, as I do have auditions coming up in January, and the balance of rest and discipline is always tricky. Happy Holidays to you!

  3. On January 4th, 2010 at 12:34 am Jeff Harre Says:

    I did some of these while I was at my brother’s for Christmas–I was there a week. I didn’t practice every day, but most days. My 11 year-old nephew said “I like hearing you play.”

  4. On January 11th, 2010 at 8:56 am Basia C Says:

    Wonderful advice! My holiday practicing went well, but I somehow seem to practice more eagerly and efficiently when I have something important I should be doing instead, like preparing something for my regular work. :D Free time doesn’t seem to mean more practice.

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