Category Archives for "Structured Practice Method"

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and… Me

​The Only Constant is Change

Heraclitus, ~500BC​

In my last post, I spoke at length about my plans for the summer. I was chomping at the bit to get to work on version 2.0 of the Structured Practice Method application, and finally knew I had the luxury of plenty of time to focus on it in depth. I was excited.

Looking back over that article, I'm glad to see that I didn't make the mistake of setting specific goals for releases. I'm not sure if I found this article while I was writing, or shortly after, but it's really good advice for anyone who works at creating or making. In a nutshell, it says if you start making estimates about when something will be ready, that becomes a deadline in your mind. And deadlines are made to be missed, which makes you feel guilty, and bad. And then you procrastinate because thinking about the deadline makes you feel even more bad, and so on, and so on.

Anyway, within about an hour of when my "Summer Break" post went live, I got a text message from my wife. It said simply, "are u around?" ​On its own, this doesn't seem particularly ominous, but in our world, we generally only interact while at work if something important comes up. And it did. To make a very long story much, much shorter:

My wife received a big promotion at her job. A promotion that had been a major career goal for her since long before we met. One that I fully supported for her. And also one that meant a move from Michigan to Connecticut.

So, all of that time and focus I was planning to devote to working on the SPM over the summer? The vast majority of it went toward moving. It turns out moving is stressful, exhausting, and in a lot of ways all-consuming.

We're getting nicely settled into our new lives in the "Nutmeg State" now, and I'm happy to report that I've once again been getting my focus and time aimed at the Structured Practice Method. Much remains to be done, but I'm making really satisfying progress on a daily basis now.​

I expect to stick with my intermittent posting schedule here on the SPM Blog while I continue to work behind the scenes. More news to come as I have it!​

Summer Break

Time to Relax and Get Busy

​The academic year at both of the universities where I teach has come to an end, and now that the dust is settling a bit, it's time to start looking at my plans for the summer. I do, of course, realize what an incredible luxury this is. I know that most people do not get to take May through August off from their jobs every year. I'm stupid lucky, I get it. And I'm thankful.

​Not all of my jobs shut down for the summer. Actually, May is turning out to be one of the busiest months of the year for me. Between performing gigs and teaching, I have a grand total of one day off between April 24th and Memorial Day Weekend. But it is true that things are slowing down. After the middle of June, there will be only a very few gigs before the Fall season kicks off, and my summer teaching schedule at home generally works out to be about half what it is the rest of the year.

This “Summer Slowdown” has been a constant for most of my professional life, and I’ve found that it’s a great opportunity to tackle larger projects that require extended periods of concentration, or just large chunks of time. I still remember the year I discovered this potential, way back when I was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston.

I had just completed my first year at the Conservatory. I had transferred from Wayne State (where I now teach!) and entered as a sophomore. It had been a good year, full of inspiring experiences. NEC is an amazing school, and Boston is one of the coolest cities on the planet to live in, especially as a musician.

Most of my classmates at NEC left town for the summer, many of them heading to prestigious music festivals around the world. I had no money, and I was far from the strongest trumpet player at school, so I had no festivals scheduled. I stayed in Boston and worked full-time as a temp, doing data entry for a large hospital at first, and later moving to a clerical job at the conservatory.

One would think that having a full time office job would mean there’d be no time for work, but I found the opposite to be true, possibly because the schedule was so relentlessly consistent. Every day I would work all morning at the Conservatory, then head across the street and spend lunch in a practice room (I ate in the office during work hours), then work all afternoon. After dinner I would get another couple hours of practicing in. It was not the most exciting time, but it was very productive. I was able to work through, in depth, all of the etudes and other material I’d worked on during the school year, but never felt I’d really mastered.

That Fall, as the school year began and we all got our ensemble placements and started rehearsing and practicing together, several fellow students came up to me and asked what festivals I had attended and who I’d studied with over the summer. They could hear such a huge improvement in my playing, they were all convinced I’d been somewhere amazing. Let’s just say they were pretty surprised when I told them how I’d actually spent my summer.

Now, here we are more than a few years later, and another summer is getting underway. This year I have very specific plans for my time. My main project is what I’ve been calling “SPM 2.0” for a while now. I’ve actually been working on this for some time now, but have begun spending significant time and energy on it as my other commitments have scaled back. I am really excited about what the new version will look like, and what it will be able to do.

I have a few other “projects” planned for the summer, such as continuing to practice the trumpet and spending at least some time outside every day when the weather permits. I’ve rediscovered cycling over the last couple of summers, and can’t wait to get my bike back out!

One thing I will not be doing is making regular blog posts. I’ll resume my bi-weekly posting schedule in the Fall, but over the summer I’ll post only if I find something I just have to share, and maybe make an occasional update about progress on SPM 2.0.

I hope you all have a wonderful summer! Get outside and enjoy it as much as you can, but also, if possible, see if you can carve out some time for a project that’s meaningful for YOU. Of course, if you want to share your summer plans in the comments, I’d love to hear about them!

Happy practicing!

The Tyranny of the Streak

Practice streaks can be motivating, but they have a dark side too.

Streaks are everywhere, including the Structured Practice Method. As I write this post, I'm at the end of a streak of 367 consecutive practice days. That streak ends today, and I have mixed feelings about it, so I decided a post on the subject might be a good idea.

​Back in 2013 I realized that my concert clothes were getting harder and harder to fit into, and I was getting close to having to decide between taking a full breath or zipping up my pants. I knew I had to do something, so naturally I turned to Google. I found an app called MyFitnessPal, which I could use to track everything I ate and make sure I stayed within calorie and nutrition goals to lose weight. As you might imagine for the creator of the Structured Practice Method, this kind of thing appeals to me, so I signed up.

I struggled for a couple of months while building the habit of logging all my food. Believe me, this is not easy, but I was determined, and I eventually got it worked into my normal day-to-day activities. The weight started to come off, and over several months I watched as I steadily progressed toward my goal. By the time I was within just a few pounds of where I wanted to be, I had a streak of around 230 days of logging my food, which I was really proud of. Keeping that streak going was the only thing that kept me on track more than once during that time, for sure!

Losing that streak completely killed my motivation

But one day, I didn't get around to logging any food until pretty late in the day. In fact, it was past midnight, and the next day, when I went to log my breakfast, my streak was gone!! And I hadn't even really missed a day!! I was furious!! And, it turns out, really discouraged. All that effort to maintain my perfect streak, and it was gone in the blink of an eye. In that one instant I completely lost my motivation​, and I have struggled to get back on track ever since.

​I think the worst thing about it for me was the fact that I hadn't really missed. I felt betrayed by the app. What was the point if it could take away my streak on a whim?

Of course, if I'd simply shrugged it off and gotten back on track the next day, I would have been perfectly fine, and that's the thing. A streak is great, but shooting for that perfect, uninterrupted run is ultimately not realistic. And even if we only hit 70%, we're still way ahead.

​For me, this was a case of letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.

The story above is one reason that I actually resisted putting the streak statistic in the Structured Practice Method. I was worried that it could demotivate just as easily as motivate. But in the end I couldn't resist. And I do enjoy getting a good streak going, as with the one I'm breaking today.

​And this streak has actually been very motivating for me. It's gotten me through some busy weeks where I would very likely have dropped off if not for the desire to post that elusive full year.

But today I'm letting it go. We're in the midst of a huge week for me in the Flint Symphony. We're doing a program of American music: Bernstein - Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Gershwin - Porgy and Bess Suite, and Ellington - Black Brown and Beige Suite. I simply don't have the chops to practice even a little bit and also get through all our rehearsals and concert on this program, so the streak has to go.

I'm also taking a vacation immediately following the concert, so it was​ on the way out anyway. I'm really looking forward to taking a few days to just hang out with the family and not be a worker bee, but I am also really excited about not having this streak hanging over my head. I've been really proud of the accomplishment of getting a full uninterrupted year of practicing in, but it's also become a burden that I'll be quite happy to be done with.

Over the past few months, I've come to feel that practicing every single day over an extended period of time might not even be something all that desirable. Arnold Jacobs, one of the greatest brass pedagogues of the twentieth century, is quoted as having said "Sometimes just sitting under a tree is the best way to become a better musician," or something along those lines. I think he was onto something. As humans, we need breaks. As a trumpet player, sometimes my face needs a break even before my brain does. As long as the overall trend is one of practicing most days, I don't think it's so bad to have the occasional day off.

As I design SPM Version 2.0, I expect the streaks feature will change to reflect this understanding. I already have some ideas. I'd be interested to hear what your thoughts are. Do streaks motivate or demotivate you? How to you handle the inevitable missed day? As always, let us all know in the comments below!​

Happy practicing!​