Practicing – How to Utilize Your Time

Mike Lawson • Features • November 6, 2017

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There’s that great Helen Hayes quote, “Every expert was once a beginner.” Never forget that. I remind my students of this all the time.

I’m still learning as well, I just have a 30-year head start on them. I honestly feel that way. I want to never be “done” learning. Continuing to push ourselves is the only way we grow and further our musical and technical abilities.

How do we get better? How do we continue to learn and grow? We do this by studying, taking lessons, having experiences, and practicing, only to name a few. This article will focus on the practicing portion of this idea.

By definition, it’s the act of working on something in a repeated fashion in order to become proficient. To learn something we haven’t yet and make it better by spending time on it. Is that the same thing you had in your mind when you thought of it? Perfect. Now that we know exactly what it is, let’s talk about some concepts that go along with practicing that are essential to be successful. Effort, determination, organization, and patience are some key components of successful practicing.

Effort – You have to put in the time if you want to grow.

Determination – Don’t stop, even when things aren’t getting better or when you get frustrated.

Organization – What and why are you going to practice? If you have an hour what exactly are you going to do? Set goals.

Be organized. Get a game plan. Then execute that game plan.

Patience – Here is the big one. Don’t rush through things or move on once you have something the first time. Keep at it to be truly sure you have it ingrained in your playing or that a musical passage is beyond comfortable when playing the whole work. This is really important. It won’t happen overnight nor will it maybe happen even within a week or two. It might take weeks or months. But know if you keep trying and have all the above qualities it will more than likely eventually happen for you. I can personally think of things that took me months to truly get. Once I had them, though, I had them.

Through that diligence and utmost use of patience (and it wasn’t easy!) I realized that I gained so much more than that one technique or playing through a movement of a piece. I absorbed other technical ideas, my musical communication grew, my fluidity at an instrument was increased, etc. Remember when you’re working on one specific thing chances are you are also improving other skillsets as well.

This all may seem like something you’ve heard before, and possibly you have, but I’m saying it all here again for a specific reason. I believe there’s an assumption that everyone knows EXACTLY how to practice. While there are lots of different ways and concepts, what we are essentially talking about is spending time trying to get better. That takes good, old-fashioned hard work. I’m using the term “old-fashioned” very purposely.

The practice room hasn’t changed in a long time and the concept of practicing hasn’t change for a long time. The parameters and expectations may have, the tools we use to practice have (smartphones with amazing metronome apps), but the true bare bones of it all hasn’t. The problem is we have changed for sure. I’m finding with each incoming Freshman class that the concept of spending 60 minutes of uninterrupted time is getting harder and harder for them to do. It’s just the way life is now. See if you can do something for 60 minutes without doing anything else, essentially having the patience to set that aside without walking out of the room, feeling the need to check your phone/email/text, etc. It’s tough, right? That’s ok. The expectation of what you do when practicing still is there, though. So, an added feature to all of this is growing the discipline of that patience. If you can’t do 60 minutes to start, try 25. Set a timer and don’t allow yourself to do anything but practice for that amount of time. Then, after a couple of sessions, increase your time. It’s simple and very effective but in the beginning, it’ll be hard to do. I even find this in myself nowadays. When I was in college it was easy, we had very little distractions. But now when I enter the practice room I could, if I wanted, binge watch an entire show on Netflix without even touching an instrument. Answer those 20 texts. Respond to 35 e-mails. There’s ALWAYS something else I could be doing, and I’m used to trying to juggle it all. It’s a real thing. So fight that temptation, grow your patience window, and reap the benefits. This of course is not directly relatable to everyone, but I have seen an increase in this over the past five years for sure. Don’t stress over it, but acknowledge it and learn to practice that aspect as well. Practicing how to practice if you will. The great thing here is once you increase that threshold then you have it, you don’t regress from it.

Here’s a sure-fire way to help you with all of the above items when practicing. It’s a way of practicing that I was inspired by via a presentation at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention given by Rob Knopper ( about how to practice. Its simplicity struck me heavily and after watching that session I’ve made all of my percussion students do this, and I’m amazed at the results. I was expecting all of this top secret information to come out of Rob’s mouth, but what he had to share was so strikingly simple it helped me realize that I could use this same process with my own students.

The key factors for this approach are the following four concepts: perform/record, analyze, figure out how you’d like to practice addressing the issue(s), and then execution of that practice. Each portion must be done with focus and diligence and remember to trust the process, it’ll work. Don’t veer off and start doing other things – stick to the plan.

Here is a breakdown.

Perform/Record: Capture yourself playing whatever it is you’re working on. Don’t worry about analyzing yourself in real time, just play your best. Pretend it’s a concert or that you are playing something for a friend.

Analyze: Answer this question – what are you looking for when you watch your video/listen to the audio? Be specific. Is it the overall musical statement or your use of dynamics? Consistency of sound between hands? Decide this prior to watching/listening. Then watch/listen and analyze, but only against your established criteria. Find the good and the things you want to work on.

Figure out how you’d like to practice addressing the issue(s): This is self-explanatory. Get a detailed game plan for what and how you need to practice.

Practice: Now get to work on the things you decided upon in the previous step. Be purposeful and stick with the process you laid out.

What’s next? Back to the top! Do it all over again making sure you addressed the issues you wanted to fix.

Simple, right? It sure is. Remember that you have to take each step with a high-level of detail and thoroughness. The act of analyzing yourself is an amazing learning tool and you’ll see things instantly that you can’t see when actually focusing on playing.

And remember what we are looking for is the simple and the obvious. I coined a phrase in my Percussion Techniques class this semester when I was trying to articulate to them, as non-percussionists, what I was going to be asking them to do when learning to play: Mastery of the Simple. When you really look at what we can do it’s not rocket science, so then make sure when you watch and analyze your own playing to look for what I call the “big ticket” items. Large to small. Look at your overall symmetry, where you’re striking your instrument, how your moving in general, overall musical communication, et cetera. Don’t focus on little tiny details off the bat – unless you’re at that point. Always double-check the foundational stuff because a lot of the time those are the things that need fixing.

I want to stress this recording idea. In a past article I mentioned how we as percussionists can get a decent sound without much effort. So, by definition we’ve trained ourselves to two do things — accept a mediocre sound as good and to not really have to pay attention to what we are doing, since we didn’t have to in the beginning stages anyways. When we record this will allow us to focus on the process of LEARNING to pay attention to how we are moving and what we sound like.

Then, with time, those very same skill sets developed in the 3rd person perspective while watching ourselves will begin to creep in to our abilities when we are playing in real time.

And almost everyone has a way to record video of themselves nowadays — so use you phone or computer to help! I’m still amazed at how almost everyone has the ability with something they already have in their pocket to record rehearsals or practices (audio or video) and they don’t. I would have killed for something like that when I was in school back in the 90s. Like I touched on before, since it’s just so obvious sometimes we miss those things. Use the technology you have to your advantage and start learning more efficiently and effectively.

An added benefit to this whole process is that it will help you refine your skill of teaching others. You do essentially the same thing when you analyze your own playing as when you analyze theirs. What this also means is that you’ll be able to get concrete information out of watching good YouTube videos.

With the large amount of resources online we can learn a tremendous amount of material but we need to use the same process – just use the video you’re watching as the recording and skip the last two steps. Ask yourself what you’re looking for/trying to extract from great players when they play and then view the video with that analyzing angle. Learning from it isn’t the same as just watching it and enjoying it. You have to make the concerted effort to stay in the analyzing phase and extract what you want from it, and then apply it to your own playing.

Use the recording format and remember to stay on task. Remember, don’t let yourself get away from the goals you are setting while you practice (or answer that text/message you just got on your phone!). Be diligent. Take your time and do the work you set out to do. I made a form/worksheet for my students to fill out when going through this process and they have to fill them out. This helps them literally go through the steps and show the work. Once this becomes habit for you, I’m willing to bet you’ll be practicing more efficiently and get much more out of less time than you did in the past.

Each day is a chance to get better, so challenge yourself, be patient, do the work, and you’ll see the results. Remember though, there’s not short-changing any of this. You must put in the time to get the results. That may be hard or challenging and that’s ok. It’s normal. Keep working at it. It’ll get better, you watch.

Dr. Jeffery Crowell is a Professor of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where he teaches applied percussion and percussion techniques, conducts the UW-Eau Claire Percussion Ensembles, and leads Jazz Ensemble III, part of the outstanding UW-Eau Claire award-winning jazz area. Dr. Crowell received his DMA in percussion performance (classical/contemporary) with minor fields in jazz performance and electro-acoustic media from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. He is active throughout the United States and internationally as a performer, clinician, and adjudicator. Dr. Crowell’s performance and recording credits include such artists as Louie Bellson, and Henry Mancini. He has performed at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella Series, presented and performed at PASIC, appears in the motion picture “The Majestic” starring Jim Carrey, marched with the Velvet Knights Drum and Bugle Corps, and has taught on the staffs of numerous award-winning groups including the Tournament of Roses Marching Honor Band. Dr. Crowell is a performing artist/clinician for Mapex Concert/Quantum Marching and Majestic Concert Percussion, Mapex Drumsets and Hardware, Sabian Cymbals, Gon Bops World Percussion, REMO Drumheads, and Innovative Percussion Sticks and Mallets. He is also an Ensemble Artist and Educator Network member for Black Swamp Percussion.

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