Making Time for Practicing in a Busy Life

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!

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.


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:

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.)