Staying Productive During Summer Practice

Summer 2020 | Co-written with Jeff Dunn

Published in the International Women's Brass Conference Journal

The spring 2020 academic term presented unprecedented challenges to us as musicians, as most of us left our school and work buildings as we entered a time of isolation. Summer festivals, concerts, workshops, and conferences have been cancelled and postponed, and the upcoming fall term is uncertain at best. While educators often encourage their students to consider the summer a “third semester” of their annual education, making productive use of summer 2020 is more daunting without the usual resources available to students. If approached in a positive and healthy way, the time free from commitments can be used to make profound improvements in one’s playing.

The first challenge we all face this year is motivation: finding the will for consistent, focused practice. First and foremost, please take care of yourself and your health first. Eat healthy, exercise daily, and rest appropriately. To practice efficiently, your body and mind should also be running efficiently. Take time to get outside (safely), and do your best to find time to distance yourself from video conferences and screens. It is even appropriate and healthy to schedule time away from the horn; taking time off can allow muscles to heal, and big concepts to sink in more.

Lastly, stay connected with peers, family, and friends. Classmates from your studio can be helpful and empathetic, as we’re all in this together. Don’t be shy about reaching out to your instructors and teachers. They are just as upset to have missed out on time in person. Social media can be a helpful tool in maintaining connections. Use social media as a positive tool to communicate and share with your colleagues, but be careful what you post and engage with. Do share videos, practicing, or even mock performances, but always in a way that represents yourself well, and can be part of your virtual footprint in 10, 20, or 30 years!

With our human needs met, it’s time to structure your practice. Create a plan for your practice, including days, time, duration, and content. Plan wisely around any other commitments, family or roommate needs, as well as respecting any nearby neighbors. Stick to this plan, though, as maintaining a routine will help to provide much needed structure and organization. On very open and free summer days, a set wake-up time and morning routine is helpful in ensuring that you can follow your plan and make the most of your practice time.

To maximize efficiency, you should begin your day knowing when you will practice, have a general idea of what you would like to practice, and some general goals you wish to accomplish. Practicing is an art that necessitates flexibility. If you only practice what you plan to accomplish, you may miss other more important issues or end up only playing material that you can already play at a high level. The best way to practice is to create a routine with specific goals that allows room for this flexibility. It can be beneficial to use a template that includes places to check off accomplishments or reflect on goals. This will allow you to structure your practice and reflect on how your plans may have changed throughout the session so that you can organize the next session accordingly. Creating a schedule of manageable practice sessions with ample rest in between provides the opportunity to cover all necessary material in a structured setting. Often, in times when our schedules have more flexibility, we find it harder to practice regularly and efficiently. Creating structure helps to organize practice, prioritize what is most important, and contributes a sense of accomplishment that is extremely important for mental well-being and to maintain the motivation to practice. To help with this step, you can find free templates of practice schedules and goal-setting sheets at

When setting goals for your practice, try to create both small and large scale goals to make the most of your practice time. A large scale goal may be preparing a set group of material for fall auditions, or perhaps addressing a major technical issue, like cleaning up your articulation. Small scale goals might be addressing legato style in one section of a movement, or focusing on intonation during a phrase. Any goal you create for yourself should be measurable, specific, reasonable, and achievable. Setting out to learn an entire concerto in a day, or playing through an entire etude book in an afternoon is not reasonable, and will only lead to frustration. Furthermore, speeding through either too difficult or too much material can negate previous progress, as cutting corners can lead to bad habits. Praciting in this manner will take longer to fix and relearn material, and is less efficient than simply taking more time to learn it right the first time. Understanding that some development can take time is an important part of goal setting as well; if a note lies outside your comfortable range, it will take a few minutes of practice each day over a longer period of time to become comfortable playing the note. To address your goals, devise a concrete plan of how to practice, as well as a timeline to achieve it. With reasonable focus, determination, and organization, a lot of progress can be made in a short period of time, rather than letting that one lick in your solo take up your attention all summer long.

With a summer ahead comprised of individual practice, it is increasingly important to find creative ways to keep practice engaging. Many of us find joy and motivation in collaboration and performance. Without these outlets, we need to find creative ways to create positive musical experiences. Don’t be afraid to take some time to play solely for fun; this is incredibly healthy to do! Record one part of a duet, and then play along with yourself, or try with a friend. This is a great time to experiment with the new technology at our fingertips. As an additional benefit, you will find that creating quality synced files will improve your sense of pulse and intonation. Find ways to reach outside of “normal” practicing. Play your etudes along with a pop song that you love in the same key. Work on an excerpt with a funk drum beat created in GarageBand. The strong sense of beat and energetic backing track can make something that may have felt mundane feel completely new and exciting, and help develop your ears and your sense of time.

If you do not have much experience with improvisation, there are many opportunities to play along with backing tracks to simulate a sense of communal playing. The Jamey Aebersold play along series and iReal Pro app both have countless backing tracks in a large array of styles. You can also find free backing tracks on Youtube or create your own with music software if you have access to it. Improvisation also does not have to solely exist in the jazz realm. Explore early baroque improvisation, create your own counter subjects over a fugue recording or embellish a melody or cadenza. No matter what you do, finding ways to tap into your creative musical skills will increase your overall musicianship and make practicing much more enjoyable.

It behooves us all to create new opportunities to perform and share music with our communities, as it may take time for traditional concert seasons and series to reemerge. Plan a virtual recital with your peers, or a solo recital for family and friends. A private event to share your progress, celebrate successes, and receive feedback is helpful on our journey, and can provide a concrete goal and timeline in your long-term planning. Take advantage of the virtual offerings taking place this summer, if possible, to remain as engaged as possible. Online educational programming or recorded concerts may not fully replace our usual live events, but it is far better than nothing!

Lastly, do not be shy in reaching out to the respected members in our field for guidance, help, and support. Many are finding themselves with more free time than usual and will be more than happy to engage online. If you are able, consider taking a virtual lesson or purchasing music to support artists. Not only will this give you something new and exciting to work on, but you will be supporting the artistic community during a time of unprecedented challenge. Connecting with artists, whether your peers, teachers, and the musicians who inspire you is more important than ever. More often than not, they will welcome your email inquiry and are glad to talk. These two authors are certainly happy to hear from you as well.