A Guide to Practicing Remotely

Community School faculty, including (left to right) Hui Wu, Ken McGrath, Connie Sheu, Mary Alonso, share tips and encouragement for practicing remotely.

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Colburn faculty are committed to exceptional arts education even during the current shelter in place order due to COVID-19. Although students cannot physically be at Colburn and other music schools, arts education continues. Many institutions, including the Community School of Performing Arts, have adapted by transitioning to group classes and private lessons remotely.

Apart from lessons and group classes, a major part of a student’s artistic education is practicing. During this time of self-quarantine, musicians have an unprecedented amount of time to practice. While this can seem like a gift, endless stretches of time bring many challenges to musicians seeking to heighten their craft. How do musicians overcome these challenges and make the best out of their practice time?

Our faculty have spent their lives perfecting practice habits and want to share their knowledge with our community. In this article, Community School faculty give insights to the tools, tips, and techniques to make practicing more effective and beneficial.

Practice Techniques

To start, what does an ideal practice session look like?
Having a routine in place for daily and weekly practice is essential to a student’s growth. This becomes even more important when faced with shifting circumstances. Keeping a regular regiment of practice is essential to not only staying focused amongst the distractions, but also to continuing the musical development that was in progress pre-COVID-19.

Ideally, students have an acceptable routine already in place established before remote learning started. Percussion faculty Ken McGrath says that students “should keep it consistent with the practices that were in place before our current circumstances.”

What about students who don’t have a regular routine?
Good news. This is the perfect time to build your practice routine and habits. With stay-at-home orders affecting the United States and the world beyond, students have more disposable time to devote to constructing a valuable practicing habit.

How should you structure your time?
A major challenge for students is the amount of time. It is easy to feel lost and not know where to start. Don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of time. Instead, develop a plan for those blocks of time. Jazz faculty member Walter Simonsen gives great advice for organizing that time: “Students will find it beneficial to schedule 15-20 minute practice sessions in between the at home school blocks they have. So maybe it’s 45 minutes of math, practice for 15 minutes, 45 minutes of history, take a 30 minute break, 45 minutes of English, 15 minutes of practice. The structure keeps us focused and in the game.”

The length of practice sessions and breaks can vary greatly from student to student. The amount of time is up to you. However, make sure you stick to a plan that allows for you to reach all your artistic goals.

How long should you practice?
Ah, the age-old question. This question often brings up bad memories of timers, counting down the minutes, and waiting for the obligation to be over. However, this couldn’t be any further from how Colburn’s faculty think about the optimal practice length. Saxophone faculty member Harvey Pittel says, “For me, it’s not about the length of time but the concentration during practice… The quality of your practice is the first consideration. Concentrated and organized playing is of the utmost importance.”

Suzuki Guitar faculty member Connie Sheu suggests that students “look less at the clock and more at your daily/weekly goals. Sometimes you’ll find that a focused 20-minute session is more effective than an hour of mindless practicing. Other times you’ll find that not looking at the clock will result in 90 minutes of immersive time with your instrument and yield wonderful results.”

Practicing should not simply be a time fulfillment. It should be focused and effective, no matter the duration.

What time of day should you practice?
This is very much up to the student. Pittel recommends that students should “consider practicing at your most energetic time of the day.” String Department Chair Henry Gronnier agrees with that. His personal advice is to “try to practice in the morning after breakfast and a shower when you are fresh. Practicing when you are tired is not productive.”

Our faculty agree that students should choose the time of day that works best. Whatever time of day that is, stick with it. Make sure you commit to that time and create a habit around it.

How should you set up your practice space?
Setting up a practice space creates the foundation to an effective practice session. One of the most important elements is the tidiness of the space. Suzuki Violin faculty member Michael McLean says that “the less clutter the better.” Make sure to clear off your piano, desk, or music stand of all music you aren’t using. Get rid of anything that might distract from effectively practicing. Early Childhood faculty member Mary Alonso says that her “space needs to be uncluttered (no potential distractions) and have lots of space (I don’t want the sound to hurt my ears).”

Wherever you practice, the space should feel ready for music-making, and not for a deep-cleaning.

Additionally, make sure the space is well-lit. Bring in extra lighting or open blinds if more light needs to be brought into the room. Another way to prepare the practice space is to bring in a mirror to watch your posture and expression.

How should you incorporate technology?
With Zoom, FaceTime, and recording devices now deemed essential components for music lessons during quarantine, technology is a lifeline for arts education. There are seemingly endless applications to technology during practice sessions: pitch drone, metronome, accompaniment track, and recording.

IMSLP has myriad pieces for students to develop skill, experiment with genres, and improve sight-reading. In the first episode of the new Colburn podcast So, How’s That Going?, Colburn alumnus Estelle Choi of the Calidore Quartet mentioned the app MyPianist, a virtual pianist that responds to your playing and lets you augment your music-making through the power of artificial intelligence. There is a technological tool for every problem.

Our faculty feel strongly about incorporating technology into practice time:

Hui Wu, Piano Faculty: Record yourself and be your own teacher.

Walter Simonsen: I always use technology. I read all of my music off of an iPad using forScore. I use the built-in metronome or another metronome app. I use an iReal book or Aebersolds to play along with and practice jazz. I use the program Transcribe for transcriptions. And I always record myself at least once during a practice session. I also find that if I am warming up, I will use Zoom to warm-up together with a friend.

Mary Alonso: With today’s tech, it is much easier to record yourself—this is a powerful way to observe what we look and sound like.

Michael McLean: Use it all—video, recording from smart phone, tuner, apps that let you record over yourself like Acapella, etc.

Challenges to Practicing

After a routine is established with the time of day set, length of time confirmed, practice space cleared, and technology downloaded, the student should be ready to tackle any musical composition. However, even with a surefire practice routine, there are still significant challenges to practicing during quarantine (or any other time of the year).

Challenge 1: Mental Blocks

Even with a solid routine, technological help, and a perfect practice space, there are still significant challenges to making musical and artistic progress. One of these challenges is mental blocks. One minute you can be accurately executing a tricky cadenza and then suddenly you can’t play a simple rhythm. When practicing for an extended period of time, mental blocks often destroy any sense of progress and can be incredibly frustrating.

How do students avoid these unfavorable occurrences? First, know that these obstacles happen to the most experienced of musicians. Percussion faculty member Ken McGrath emphasizes this:

Mental blocks happen to everyone. I advise my students to take breaks if practicing for long periods of time, at least five minutes per hour. If a mental block should occur or a student notices a lack of focus, stop practicing immediately and either take a break or go on to another activity. There is nothing more frustrating than learning material incorrectly and then having to go back and re-learn it.

Taking a break and walking away from the music might feel counterproductive, but breaks allow the mind to rest from the intellectual exercise. This will allow the student to come back to the practice session feeling mentally ready to tackle any obstacle.

While just walking away is helpful, there are other ways to clear the mind if these mental blocks arise. Connie Sheu recommends Alexander Technique: “I often stop and do the tried and true Alexander Technique method of relaxing all the body muscles by lying on the floor with a book under my head while breathing deeply.”

Practicing is as much in your mentality and headspace as in your physical body.

Challenge 2: Staying Accountable During Isolation

An important reminder is that even though teachers aren’t physically available, students are still accountable to the expectations that they have placed on the student. Pittel says to students: “In my experience, every good and great teacher (which includes the entire faculty at Colburn) is specific in one way or another about their expectations for your next lesson. Try to meet these expectations. You are accountable to your teacher at that next lesson.” It is a good reminder that this quarantine is not permanent. Practice as if the lesson is tomorrow.

Ultimately, every student is accountable to themselves. While there are many people who play a role in your education, the drive and motivation has to come from yourself. No teacher can make anyone a world-class musician without the determination coming from the student.

Simonsen understands the power of being accountable to yourself: “As musicians we are always faced with the fact that the accountability always lies with us and no one else. It’s vital, even when we are not sheltering in place, to keep a practice log of what you have worked on and for how long. By doing this you have a solid record, and it makes it much easier to see what works and what does not. A practice log is everything!” Bassoon faculty member Theresa Treuenfels sums this up succinctly: “Be your own critic.”

Challenge 3: Playing in Front of Families

Many students are at home during the quarantine. Conservatory and university students are away from campus, high school and junior high students are at home, and everyone is spending more hours indoors with their loved ones. Playing in front of family members or roommates is often hard. Parents may critique too much, siblings may make fun of practicing, and practicing may interrupt online school or conference calls that family members may be participating in.

First, students have to know this situation is not unique to themselves. Simonsen encourages students to “know that everyone who has ever gotten up in front of others and performed has felt some self-consciousness at some point. Just remember that everyone wants you to play well and succeed. They are excited for you to share your hard work.”

Secondly, students must find their own space to practice. Treuenfels strongly emphasizes making a space where the student is comfortable. Art comes from a place of feeling free to experiment and mess up. Feeling safe and comfortable in your space is going to lead to a much more productive session. Henry Gronnier echoes this: “Students need to find a quiet room in the home where they can feel safe to experiment without being judged.”

If you are feeling uncomfortable practicing in front of family members, have a conversation with your family and explain that having a space where you can practice without comments or critiques or feeling judged is essential to artistic growth.

Challenge 4: Students Without Access to Their Instruments

If students don’t have their instruments or complete set up with them in quarantine, how are they supposed to practice? Luckily, there are many ways to keep your musical skills in shape even without instruments.

Here are some helpful tips from our faculty:

Mary Alonso: Practice steady beat and add rhythm using a jump rope or ball. (Added health benefit for this one!) Also, we can learn a lot by listening to other great musicians. I used to listen to opera singers when I was learning about vibrato. You can also learn a lot by picking up another instrument. Try applying your knowledge to a new instrument—your brain will grow exponentially!

Walter Simonsen: There are so many online ear training and theory courses one can do now. You could also download a piano app., or get a midi keyboard and a program like Audacity or GarageBand and write music!

Harvey Pittel: I learned something years ago from French students of the classical saxophone about how to practice while on a plane flight. You just imagine the instrument (any instrument) in your hands and press on each key as you see the music in your mind.

Connie Sheu: Mental practice can do wonders! There are studies shown that basketball players that practice free throws without the actual ball are more likely to make their shots than those that don’t do this mental practice. The same can be true on a musical instrument. Study your scores, mimic the finger motions, and run through a piece mentally with all the musical details, expression, and dynamics. This helps me a lot in concert preparation even when my instrument is accessible to me.

Putting It All Together

Practicing is an essential element to any artist’s journey. Determining the perfect routine will take time and experimentation. Every musician is different. The Community School recognizes the challenge this pandemic presents for our students and musicians across the world. As artists tackle problems like lack of equipment and instrumentation, family issues, mental blocks, and anxiety, we are confident in students to do the best they can to overcome these obstacles. We hope the tips and advice from the faculty help you on your musical journey.

Encouragement to Students during COVID-19

Everyone is feeling stress and anxiety to some degree. Whether that be financial, personal, family, academic, or anything else, focusing on your craft can be incredibly difficult while maintaining self-isolation. The faculty at the Community School recognize this and want to continue encouraging students during this time.

Connie Sheu: Let music be a refuge for both you and your virtual audience. People out there need to experience beauty now more than ever to get them through this pandemic. Don’t be afraid to put your playing out there through creating simple home videos, even if it’s not perfect. Strive for authenticity more than perfection and remember that music is meant to be shared with others.

Michael McLean: Do your best—don’t overly judge yourself. Turn your talent for music into service of others and share your music with a loved one in person or via internet concert, etc.

Hui Wu: Use music as your tool and language to make the world a better place.

Debbie Devine, Drama Faculty: Know that adaptability is a wonderful trait. Embrace it. Practice it. Explore alternative ways to do something familiar. You will be enriched.

Harvey Pittel: Enjoy and try to appreciate your online lessons and teachers. All the applied instrumental teachers that I know are genuinely concerned about you and how you’re feeling during this difficult time. Maybe you can visit with them a little more than usual and talk about your experience, and take the time to ask how they are doing as well. Have musical goals in mind that are exciting for you. A new piece you want to learn, improvement on some aspect of your instrument, etc. Enjoy the time with your family as much as possible. Think about fun things to do beyond your musical goals: hobbies, games, etc.

The Community School wishes you the best of luck in your artistic development. We are looking forward to seeing all of the growth from our students once we are able to return to campus.

If you are looking to take your practicing and musical skills to the next level with remote lessons from one of our esteemed faculty, submit an inquiry form today. Registration is also now open for Summer 2020 classes and camps.

For more information about the Community School of Performing Arts, contact cspa@colburnschool.edu.