I am often asked by my students how I can find time to practice in the midst of a very busy schedule. I must first admit that it is not always easy to do, especially when you play two very different instruments.
I believe that there are generally four different types of practicing: 1) practicing for long term improvement 2) practicing to maintain current skills 3) practicing to learn a piece of music and 4) practicing to get comfortable.
The first kind of practicing is what many of us learn to do when we’re young but becomes more difficult as professional obligations and commitments put pressure on our time. It’s what leads to progress not over hours but over months. It’s how we find more efficient gestures, how we increase our high register, etc. There are obvious benefits to this soft of practicing but we rarely see them immediately.
The second kind of practicing is what many of us realize we must do when we get older. As more things demand our time some days we only get 30 minutes to practice. Some days we don’t get to practice at all. Our immediate fear is that our skills will slowly (or in some cases quickly) begin to deteriorate. This type of practice is often important in the short term, but in the long term it stifles our potential.
The third kind of practicing is very pragmatic. You might have a piece coming up you must play, so you practice that piece. It might be for an audition, concert, recital, reception, etc. Unfortunately, there are many challenges that might be presented in a piece we must play which cannot be fixed in time for the performance. A good example of this is the extreme upper register of a brass instrument, something that can take players many years to fully develop. If the first time you plan to play a high F or that really tricky octaves passage is when you see it in a piece of music you have to play in a few weeks, you should of course expect to have a lot of trouble!
Last is absolutely the least productive type of practicing. It’s what we do at the last minute right before a performance or audition. We do it to overcome nerves or whatever else is currently inhibiting our playing. Sometimes it IS important to do, but more times is merely a last ditch effort to fix something that should have been fixed months before.
So what do I recommend? Obviously all of those types of practicing have their use and merit. However, I try to rely as much as possible on the first type. Even in the midst of the busiest times of my year I make sure that I am spending some time trying to improve with a long term goal of mine rather than merely practicing what stares me directly in the face. It minimizes the amount of time it takes me to learn music. It minimizes the amount of time it takes me to feel comfortable before a rehearsal or audition. It even minimizes the amount of practicing I must do to maintain my current abilities. In fact, it minimizes the total amount of practicing time I need as a whole.
Essentially, practicing to improve in the long term minimizes your total dependance on the other forms of practicing. You don’t fear certain pieces of music because you already spent the past several years working on the biggest technical and musical challenges they might contain.
This is also something that is important to master when you are young. Two truths seem to be universal. The first is that the older I get the busier I seem to get. The second is that the older I get the more that is demanded of me musically. Believing that some day you will be free of all other distractions and able to focus 100% of your time practicing your instrument is pure mythology!