How to Find Practice Time in a Busy Week

Practice record dudI think I have this conversation with one or another of my students at least once a week.

ME: “So how did your week go?”
Student: “Okay, but I was really, REALLY busy!”
ME: “Did you get some practice time in?”
Student: “…REALLY busy!”
ME: “You know you’ll only get better on your guitar if you practice, right?”
Student: “But I don’t have any time! I have so much [insert activity here, i.e. homework, family responsibilities, job pressure…]
ME: *sigh* “Okay, let’s take a look at your calendar…”

Paraphrase this in a hundred ways, and you’ll get a glimpse of an often repeated moment in a music teacher’s life.

It certainly can be hard to find time to do the things we consider important. So often, we simply don’t know where our time goes! Yet we really need to figure this out if we’re going to be productive and happy.

I enjoy listening to Dave Ramsey on his radio show. I’ve learned a lot about financial matters from him, and I highly recommend his books and teaching. You can find him at One of the budgeting principles he emphasizes is that every dollar in your budget needs to have a purpose. Give every dollar a name, and it will go where you want it to. If you don’t, it will simply be spent in any number of ways, and you will have lost control over your money.

Our time is a key resource that requires purposeful application as well. And just like our money, if our time is not spoken for, it will get spent. And we’ll only realize it when we look in the rear view mirror.

If you are having trouble gaining mastery over your time, I’d like to share some principles of time management with you that work for me and for my music students.

Write It Down

When we put our schedules in writing, whether physical or electronic, it’s like pounding a stake in the ground that marks our intention. The blank calendar page is the enemy of our purposeful use of time. Write down the events and activities that you need to follow through with, and review your calendar daily.


There will be some listings on your calendar that you can’t change, like holidays and special family events. And there are always last-minute things that happen that will interfere with the best planning. Expect them! But as you plan, make sure you strive for a balance between those things that you have to do and the things that you simply want to do because they are important. And don’t forget to schedule some down-time! When you prioritize your schedule, it can give you the permission you need to do the fun things as well as the important things. For me, fun is a big deal – fun with my family and fun in my work both help me keep an optimistic outlook on life. I’m not pleasant to be around when I’m grumpy!

Post It In Plain Sight

Where is it that you spend most of your time at home? When you walk in the door after work or after school, you drop what you’re carrying, and head to the fridge. Then after a minute or two, you go somewhere and probably sit down. Where is that? Your calendar needs to be there, in full view and within reach. If it’s on your computer, like mine is (I use Google Calendar, seems to be adequate for my needs), make sure your computer is turned on with a shortcut on your desktop. If you can, leave your calendar open by default, so that it is easily accessible anytime.

Take just a minute to review your calendar. You’ll find through trial and error the types of events you need to include on it. At first, I’d recommend creating a time block for everything. ‘Give every minute a name…’

If you’ve never done purposeful time management before, here is a quick method for creating your schedule. I find that I need to go through this process at least once or twice a year now, though it used to be a monthly exercise. It may well start out as a daily discipline for you as you discover where your time is going. We’ll start with time that is already spoken for and move toward more discretionary uses as we go.

How to Craft Your schedule:calendar pic

1. Create a table with eight columns. Label times down the left-most column in increments of 1/2 hour, starting with the time you usually get out of bed and ending with your usual going-to-bed time. Then label each column header with the days of the week, starting with the 2nd column.
2. Thinking through your week one day at a time, box in and label all the regularly occurring events in your life. For example, if you eat dinner at 6pm on Monday, box in that 1/2 hour time slot, labeling it “dinner”. If you get home from work or school at a certain usual time on Tuesdays, draw a line at that time that indicates you just got home.
3. As well, block off time for those regular activities in your week that you know you will do, even though they don’t seem as important. For example, if you know you really love to watch a certain TV show on Sunday nights from 8 to 9, go ahead and block it off. If you know that Fred will be coming over after work on Friday like he always does, put it on the calendar. If you know that getting out of bed before 10am on Saturday is impossible for you, then block the schedule off accordingly. It is important that this schedule reflects reality.
4. Check to make sure you include your personal appointments, social engagements, family responsibilities and household routines; these things are expected of you and are non-negotiable!
5. Next, write in those activities that are discretionary but require daily or weekly discipline to accomplish, like practicing your instrument or going to the gym. Often I find it helpful to insert these next to other activities that always happen, no matter what. For example, if you eat dinner at the same time every evening (getting more uncommon these days), you may find you can practice right after dinner pretty easily. If you are a morning person, make a 10-15 minute practice session part of your routine before you leave the house.
6. Now it’s time to list things you would like to do because they are important to you. Working around the matrix of events you’ve created, you will probably find entire 1/2 hour blocks of time that are not spoken for. It’s up to you how you prioritize your activities; just remember that you need time to breathe! Each of us will have a different tolerance for expending energy in a straight line toward our goals. Taking time for recreation and time just to be quiet are essential.

Your process may accomplish these steps in any order. The important thing is to be purposeful, be deliberate in how you look at your daily and weekly routines in order to accomplish those things that are the most important to you. As a musician, it’s really easy to say “I can’t find the time to practice”, but for the musician who wants to make progress, this is how to find the time. It really works!

How do you find time to practice? What has your experience been with creating or keeping to a schedule for your music and all of the other things you do?

I’d love to hear about your experiences in mastering your use of time! If you have any questions about this technique or any aspect of music and music theory, please leave a comment below or email me at [email protected]. Thanks for reading, and let all your friends know about!

© 2013 Steve Case

Faultless Fundamentals: a Lesson from Louie

77th army band uniforms   After high school (almost ancient history), I did a tour in the military, playing my trumpet (and guitar and keys) with the 77th Army Band out of Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Though I didn’t fully appreciate the opportunities that were afforded me at the time, I learned lesson after lesson in style, arrangement, genre and instrumental technique. But one of the lessons that stands out to me still was one I learned when we were on a recruiting tour just over the Arkansas border.

We were the guest stage band for a tri-state music festival, gathering schools from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. There was a guest artist as well, a great jazz drummer who made it during the ’60s, one of the best jazz players of that decade.  I met Louie Bellson as he entered the auditorium, shaking hands with many of the musicians in our stage band.  The large, round pendant of gold he wore on a chain around his neck stood out against his white turtleneck and blazer, and I was immediately taken right back to his decade, and I looked forward to playing with this iconic musician.

 Playing with Louie

   Because we were the guest band, we became, for the moment, Louie’s band.  We had been practicing a chart written for him, entitled “Explosion”, and we had made pretty fair progress on the music.  But then, when Louie sat down at the drum kit and counted it off, we dove headfirst into the song faster than we’d ever played it.  It was like being shot out of a cannon!  He led us through the chart so much faster than we had practiced, it was all we could do to hold on.  Of course, being a drum feature, it was all about Louie being able to shine.  He did, and it was impressive!
   Our own drummer was quite accomplished on the kit himself. For this performance, he gracefully stepped aside so that Louie could play. After the performance, I asked him, “so what did you think? He’s pretty good, eh?”
   He still had a fairly awestruck look on his face. “Man, he sure can play!”  And then, after a slight pause, he added, “But as I watched him, I realized that he’s not playing anything that I can’t play, he was only playing rudiments.” Then with an admiring smile, he quipped, “he just did them BETTER!”



   I’ve never forgotten that comment.  Now after years of teaching, working with many different types of students, I can say that expertise in musical fundamentals are so much more important than fast fingers, loud volumes or how many songs you can check off in your repertoire.
   It’s not retuning your guitar according to the latest fad that makes you a great guitarist; it’s not how fast you can make your fingers play the runs and octaves in Mozart’s Alla Turka; it’s not how well you can make your voice flip between head and chest voices when you’re singing Sarah McLachlan tunes.  Nothing against Sarah McLachlan or Mozart, their music is wonderful!  But it’s not the riff, the speed or the style that set apart competent musicians from the wannabes.  It’s the fundamentals.
   We’ll cover more on this topic soon.  If you have any questions about music, music theory or its practical application, please email me at [email protected].  I’ll do my best to answer them!  But for now, let me ask you:
   How solid are you on musical fundamentals?  When you play or write, how have you sharpened your tools and focused on the rudiments?

    Thanks for sharing your experience, it will help the rest of us!

(c) 2013 Steve Case

Clarify, Simplify: Music Theory Doesn’t Have To Be Complicated

20130531_115102 I sat down with a music student the other day, a young man who plays very well but still is not where he wants to be musically. He writes his own music, but needs help thinking out of the box; he would also like to have his band play his songs. Though he is without a significant theory base to pull from and lacking the tools to rewrite and hone his work, he has done pretty well. He is a fun student for me to work with – I get to explain the whys behind his music, why some things work and some don’t, and I get to watch his face light up when he gets to an “aha” moment!

He has taken theory courses in school, but honestly, the courses he mentioned haven’t helped much, and probably won’t, because he isn’t interested in analyzing Bach and Beethoven. I remember being in his shoes.

One of the first things he and I did was to make sure we were speaking the same language. There are at least two key principles here that his previous music courses overlooked:

1) One term = one meaning

If you call a particular fruit an “apple”, that name has to be exclusive. There are, of course, many varieties of apples, but you’ll never see a carrot or a mushroom being labeled as an apple at your farmer’s market. An apple is always an apple.

For example, we can assign numbers to the major scale (you remember, “do re me fa so la ti do”… just like in The Sound Of Music…) A major scale then becomes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. And it is the basis for any discussion of music theory in our culture, it is foundational. But if we say a major scale is 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, then I start talking about a minor scale being 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, I have just added to the student’s confusion and torpedoed my integrity as a communicator. A minor scale is not 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, rather, it is 1 2 flat-3 4 5 flat-6 flat-7 8 (the natural minor scale). And this is just one instance.

Music is subjective enough that in order to talk about it intelligently, the terms we use really need to be consistent. But if we can’t be consistent about a musical idea, then we need to admit it up front. Take music genre terms for example. There are definite criteria for some styles of music: swing tunes always have uneven (swung) eighth notes, while pure rock will always have even eighths. Jazz will emphasize embellished chords (like Cma7 or G13), Latin beats are syncopated (emphasizing the off-beat).

But other terms we have to admit won’t always fit our preconceived mold. Try to define what “pop” music is, or even “classical”. Our definitions may be different.

Nailing down music theory can feel like trying to nail jello to a tree. And so as often as we can, let’s be consistent and give one term one meaning. As your own lexicon develops, you’ll be able to decide for yourself how to define the elusive terms.

2) Streamline your thinking

20130705_164455Music theory can be complicated and subjective, just as any sorts of theories are. If the theory is to help you write or perform, it has to be usable, meaning it’s uncomplicated and dependable.

When I’m trying to rip through my guitar lead or jam out a new chord progression on my keyboard, I’m not going to think, “I need to increase the frequency of audible vibration, increase the perceived amplitude while decreasing the duration of the envelope of…” Not if I want to make music any time this week. I will, on the other hand, think, “I want to go higher, louder, faster”. Those terms are usable and practical.

The first way of thinking is not incorrect. But it is unhelpful when I’m trying to play.

My student laughed and nodded when I pointed out that he did, in fact, know a lot about the terms we were defining. But the key for him, and for each of us, will be to simplify how we think about the nuts and bolts of music. This is a topic we’ll be returning to again and again, it is critical for us to be successful with our music.

How can I help you simplify and streamline? If you have any questions about music, music theory or its application, please email me at [email protected]. And while you’re thinking about that, let me ask you one:

What has your experience with music theory been like so far? Has it been helpful or not? Simple or confusing? I’d love to hear from you, and hopefully we can help each other sharpen our skills!

© 2013 Steve Case