The Practice Bank

By Miranda Wilson

Hands up if you have a love-hate relationship with practice.

Sometimes opening a new score feels as blissful as opening your Christmas stocking. Other times you invent all kinds of busy-work to do so that you don’t have to get your instrument out of its case. (Hello procrastibaking, my old friend.)

If you’re a professional musician, practice has to get done. It just does, there’s no way around it. Music is a high-maintenance occupation requiring constant attention and growth. If you don’t practise, you lose your chops. If you lose your chops, you lose your gigs.

How do we square this with the fact that life is busy? The older we get, the less our time belongs to us, especially if we have kids. The more successful we get, the more gigs and travel we have, and the less time for maintaining fundamentals and preparing new scores for rehearsals and concerts.

That’s where the practice bank comes into it. If you take care of the pennies in the practice room, the pounds take care of themselves in concert, even if you’ve spent the last 15 hours on planes and you couldn’t practise in your hotel room because it’s the middle of the night. Investing in the practice bank saves your hide when life gets busy and your practice time shrinks.

Every note of practice you put into the practice bank is an investment that you get to cash in later.

Actual footage of me playing the cello, aged about 11, with my pet budgie sitting on my bow.

I practised a lot when I was a kid. I’m a morning person, and I summoned up the motivation to wake up at five o’clock every morning to practise two hours before school. When I got home at four in the afternoon, I got in another two before homework and dinner.

I’m not sure my practice was very effective, because I didn’t yet understand how to use my body and my cello efficiently. But it wasn’t a waste of time, because I did learn a vast amount of repertoire, and I listened widely and hungrily to recordings of all the great cellists playing all the great repertoire. I read and read and read. I studied scores. All of this knowledge went in the bank. It meant that my academic work at university was really easy, freeing up more time for practice.

Later, when I studied with Natalia Pavlutskaya, I learned to play the cello in a more physically logical way. She had to tear away years of my inefficient habits. It was frustrating to feel like a total beginner after I’d spent my entire adolescence getting patted on the back and told how talented I was, but this humbling experience went in the bank too.

One lesson she scolded me for not practising enough hours. I muttered some excuse about being busy. Natasha retorted “Busy? Your life is like a holiday!”

This rankled a bit, but I was always anxious to please Natasha, so I did go away and make a log of how I spent my time over the course of a week. Compared to Natasha, who taught unbelievably long hours on top of her family responsibilities, my day really wasn’t that busy.

That led to two realizations.

  1. The student years were going to be the last time in my life that I had enough time to practise. It didn’t seem like that, given that I was juggling a full class schedule and a part-time job, but everyone said it only got harder after you graduated.
  2. I admittedly hadn’t been using my time efficiently. I was wasting my most energetic hours on tasks that, while they had some challenges for my newly-adult self, didn’t require a lot of brain power: laundry, grocery shopping, and the like.

So I made a detailed schedule of my week, prioritizing the hours of the day when my mind was most active (for me, the morning) for practice. Reading assigned texts, studying scores, and writing essays could be accomplished in the afternoons. Weekends were for my part-time job, but I could sneak in an hour of practice before I left to catch my bus. Everything else could wait until the evening, when I was tired, but awake enough to accomplish domestic tasks.

I’m so grateful to my 18-year-old self now for prioritizing the practice bank. Because later in my career, a lot of things conspired to take my practice time away from me.

Time-sucking aspects of adulthood (a by no means complete list):

  1. Teaching. I love teaching, but it involves a lot of one-on-one hours. Plus, it’s our bread and butter. Luckily, I find that teaching students how to practise energizes me to improve the efficiency of what I’m doing in the practice room myself — and in that way, teaching and performing are two sides of the same coin.
  2. Gigs. The more performing engagements you have, the less practice time you have, because you have to prepare a lot of scores and you’re up against tight deadlines. Hopefully your previous deposits in the practice bank help out with this one. And you learn something from every gig if you go into it with a learning-growing mindset.
  3. Family. If you have kids, you inevitably have less time to yourself. But this can change your mind about practising — it stops being a chore and becomes something you crave. You’ll never be more grateful for the hours you previously put in the practice bank than when you have a small, needy creature who is entirely dependent on you. And yet, it can make you a great deal more mindful about how you prioritize practice in what little time you have to schedule.

Burnout has reached near-epidemic proportions among academics, and this must be particularly true of music faculty, who have to spend so much one-on-one time teaching in addition to administrative and research responsibilities. But I love what I do and I’m always looking for ways to manage my scheduling and prioritize what matters the most to me professionally. I’ve found the work of Laura Vanderkam incredibly helpful in this respect. For example, the professorial schedule affords me some flexibility, so I keep “sacred hours” in my weekday mornings for practice, the time of day when I have the most focus. I don’t even open my emails until this is accomplished, and I only answer urgent ones during my morning work time. I schedule students all afternoon, when I still have energy, and am energized from having put some practice in the bank. I’m usually a bit brain-fried in the evenings, so I set that time aside for time-sucking but less sacred tasks, such as replying to non-urgent emails, administrative tasks, working out, and housework.

In summary, a successful system of practice banking comes down to two things.

  1. Practising mindfully, always considering what you’re teaching yourself at any given moment. As I wrote repeatedly in Cello Practice, Cello Performance, you should “never play with anything less than your best sound.” (That includes intonation and vibrato.) Efficient practice goes right into the savings account.
  2. Reserving “sacred time” for practice, time that can’t get sucked into email and admin. It’s really hard to do this when you have a lot of commitments and obligations, but if you manage the rest of your time well, it becomes easier to ask your family and/or students to leave you alone for a couple of hours.

What “investments” do you make with your practice and your time?


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