In 2012, at age 27, I got my first real job.
I should clarify: I’ve been working or going to school (usually both) since I was 16, and I’ve had many jobs over the past decade and half: waiting tables, landscaping, doing the freelance musician thing, teaching preschool music (which is as adorable as it sounds, mostly) and a half dozen others, music-related and not. I’ve had plenty of jobs. But my current gig in higher ed (I’m an academic advisor) is the first 40-hours-a-week-business-casual-401(k) job I’ve had.
After my first few eight-hour days at the office, I couldn’t believe how tired I was, physically and mentally. The pockets of time I was used to having during the day–30 minutes between trumpet students, a couple hours before the next teaching gig–were gone, and all the things I used to do throughout the day (like practicing the trumpet, for instance) needed to be done some other time.
Over the past two and a half years, by design, I’ve gotten busier and busier at work and at home while practicing more and more. It’s been a serious challenge, but I now play the trumpet between two and two and-a-half hours a day (and sometimes more), and I’m sounding better then I ever have. Like, better than when I was in grad school and had all day to practice. That is very interesting to me.
Here are three ideas that have helped me carve out a lot of practice time in a busy life. I hope they’re useful for you as well!
Restrict Your Choices
When I get home after a hard day’s work, I have many choices as far as what to do. I could hang out with my wife, walk the dog, have dinner, have a beer, or all of the above. Or I could practice. I mean, I should practice, right? But, I played a lot yesterday, and today was a really busy day at work. I’ll just take it easy tonight and let the chops rest up for tomorrow.
Not surprisingly, it’s easy to rationalize my way into skipping that evening’s session. At home, I have too many choices, and all of them are more enticing than practicing the trumpet after eight hours at work. The trumpets usually stay nestled in their case when I come straight home after work.
A much better option is to restrict my choices, and I do that by practicing at work from 5:00-6:30 PM. Now, when 5:00 PM rolls around, I have only two choices:
Stay at work and practice, or go home.
Going home is still a little tempting, but then I’ve got to explain to someone (my wife) that I folded on my plan to practice. I’ll tell you what: the practicing gets done when I cut down on my options.
Guard Your Time
We’re often told that we live in such a selfish culture, that people today only care about themselves.
Most people I encounter spend huge amounts of time helping others: raising a family, taking care of sick parents, coaching their kid’s soccer team, etc. In reality, most people don’t take enough time for themselves. Steven Pressfield, one of my favorite authors, says it better than I ever could in the following quote (it’s transcribed from an interview, so it’s not as polished as his writing). Here, he’s specifically addressing society’s expectation of women and mothers, but the concept applies to all of us:
You have to carve out . . . an hour or whatever it is and just be an asshole. Say ‘no’ to everybody, including the kids, unless your daughter falls off the top of the roof and cracks her head open. It’s like your teenage daughter will put up a sign on her door ‘No Entry – Keep Out – No Visitors’. Right? That’s what you have to do too. I think a lot of times women are so into the nurturing mom and the giving, loving concept of what a woman should be that, they don’t . . . It’s very hard to make the leap and say “I’m worth taking time for my own stuff,” but you are. If we were to try to talk to LeBron James. We just want to have a cup of coffee with LeBron James or Mick Jagger or Jay-Z or something like that. Do you think we would have a prayer in the world of getting into them? No chance. Right? They have 30 people whose job it is just to keep people like us away from them. Right? I don’t care if you’re a single mom that’s just trying to write a novel for the first time or stories about your family or whatever it is, your time is just as legitimate as LeBron James’ or Mick Jagger’s or Jay-Z’s and you have absolutely the same right to put up a wall of steel and do your work behind that wall for that period of time. I know it’s hard to do that, but I give you permission to do that.
It’s hard to be firm with people, especially people we love. It can feel like we should always be available when friends or family need or want something (and in an emergency, of course we’ll put the trumpet down and come running). But on a daily basis, we have to lock the door and put up the “No Entry – Keep Out – No Visitors” sign. And you know what’s really interesting? Most people are pretty respectful of it.
Working 40 hours a week is the best thing that ever happened to my practicing.
When I sit down to practice now, I don’t have time for musical chitchat. I have to leave for work in 42 minutes, and I’m starting a 40 minute routine. It’s go time.
I practice with a plan and with purpose these days, and I didn’t used to do either of these things very well. I had the luxury of time, and I could practice inefficiently and still make progress.
Now, it feels like I have exactly enough time to get my work done and no more (in fact, sometimes less). By demanding extremely focused and structured practice of myself, I can get more done in an hour than I used to get done in two.
(Side note for trumpet players: We trumpet players often do a pretty good job keeping our warm-up and maintenance session on track, but our solo literature and excerpt practice can go off the rails in a hurry. I’ve been successfully applying Josh MacCluer’s ideas from this article to my practice to solve this problem, and I’m very happy with the results.)
Dan Fornero, one of the busiest trumpet players in the LA studios and one of the best commercial players in the world, has a simple quote :
Practice hard early in your life.
This is great advice, of course. Almost all of us wish we’d practiced harder in school, when we had all that time, but let’s not spend too much time wishing. We can make vast strides in our playing now, no matter how busy we may be.