Becoming the Productive College Student

I recently came across a really good blog post on The Productivityist, one of many blogs I follow these days. It’s a guest post written by Ryan McRae, titled “Becoming the Productive College Student.” It’s a pretty quick read, and well worth the time for anyone who’s looking to be more productive in their college years (and beyond!). Here’s my take on what he has to say:

Master Your Calendar

The first part of McRae’s post is about what he calls mastering your calendar. He says to look ahead at your assignments over the upcoming semester and put reminders in your calendar for when to begin working on them. For us musicians, of course, these assignments would be our upcoming concerts, auditions, juries, etc.

I actually use the Structured Practice Method for this purpose in my own practicing: When I know I have something coming up in the future, I create a practice item in SPM and set it’s “Start Date” to the date I’d like to begin working on it. I did this recently with a concert I have coming up with the Flint Symphony. We’re going to be performing Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, which has some major work for the principal trumpet, so I know I need to work on it in advance. Back when I got the season schedule, I set up a practice item for the symphony, and set it’s start date for a few days after I returned from my recent vacation. Sure enough, a few days ago it popped up on my daily practice list and I got to work. Knowing myself as I do, I’m certain I would have forgotten to get to work on it for at least another week or two if I didn’t have that reminder set up, and I would have been less well prepared for the first rehearsal.

Plan Your Practice Time

One thing I would add to McRae’s advice is to also master your schedule. By this I mean to look at least a day ahead and figure out when you can fit your practicing in. It’s just a fact of life that we often fail to hit our daily goals with regard to practice time. Set times in your calendar and treat them like fixed appointments. If you have an appointment with someone important at 10:00am, you’re not going to hang out in the student lounge until 10:30 (well, you shouldn’t, at least). Do the same with your instrument!

Plan to practice at a specific time and place, for a specific length of time. When that time comes, bite the bullet and go to the practice room and get to work, whether you feel like it or not! This gets easier the more you do it, I promise!

Of course, it pays to make your practice appointments reasonable. Don’t forget to allow yourself some down time now and then, and remember to include time to get from one place to another. Also, if your current average daily practice is 30 minutes, don’t schedule 3 hours right away. Work your way up to it. If you’re not sure how quickly to increase your time, talk to your teacher!

Control WHERE You Practice

McRae talks about making the Library your “sacred” study space. Obviously this won’t work quite so well for musicians. I’ve heard that librarians frown on students who practice Ride of the Valkyries in the library, though I haven’t tried it myself. Our sacred study space is the practice room.

We don’t typically have much control over what practice spaces are available to us as music students, but when possible I recommend trying a few different spaces. During my undergrad we had a few different types of practice rooms available, and I realized I was much more productive in some than in others. Figure out where you get your best work done and use it to your advantage!

It’s also worth keeping an eye on where you are when you miss the mark. For me, I found I would often miss my practice appointments if I headed to the Campus Restaurant for coffee and a sweet roll (this was very popular among my school’s music majors, as the restaurant was directly across the street from the music building). I eventually figured out that I needed to have at least a half hour free, or I just had to skip the hang-out. My trumpet, wallet, and pants size all rewarded me for the missed social time.

Play Hard. Work Hard. It Can Never be Both.

This is McRae’s final point, and we should all etch the above headline deep into our brains.

I know. We all believe we can surf Facebook while we practice our scales. But I can tell you, based on extensive personal experience as well as mountains of scientific research, that it’s really a bad idea. When you’re practicing, practice. Period.

Mark Flegg

Dr. Mark Flegg is the Principal Trumpet with the Flint, MI Symphony Orchestra, and the creator of Dr. Flegg's Structured Practice Journal.

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