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.

Announcing: Dr. Flegg’s Structured Practice Method!

Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve written a post to this website. I’m happy to report that I continue to get close to 2,000 visitors every month in spite of this. But, it’s time to explain why I’ve been so quiet (I have a really good reason!).

Some Background

I’ve been performing professionally on the trumpet for a little over 30 years. This means that for the past 40 years or so, I’ve practiced the trumpet. Nearly every day. For many, many hours. But in spite of (or perhaps because of) my vast experience with practicing, I’ve always believed I could do better… be more efficient, more thorough, more effective.

I’ve read countless articles, papers and books on the subject. I’ve taught hundreds of students over the years, seeing again and again how we all struggle with similar challenges. I’ve studied with many of the world’s finest trumpeters. In short, I’ve studied practicing very deeply.

One thing you’ll see again and again if you read about practicing: Most people recommend you keep a practice journal. What most people don’t talk about, is HOW to keep a practice journal. I’ve tried journalling off and on for years, but paper journals seemed cumbersome. Yes, it’s helpful to write things down, as that process definitely focuses and refines your thinking, but what if you’re working on something specific and want to track your progress, or quickly refer back to the notes from the last few times you practiced that passage? With a traditional journal, you end up flipping all over the place trying to find the two or three sentences you want to see.

About two years ago I started experimenting with different ways of solving that problem. Eventually, I settled on a system where I used a collection of folders and documents in Google Docs. By the Fall of 2013, my system was working quite well for me, though I still knew it could be better.

Toward the end of 2013 I decided the way to take my journalling system to the next level was to develop a computer program to automate it. I began work in January of 2014, and the project has been my main professional focus ever since.

It turns out there are a lot of things to learn and do if you want to produce a high quality web application, especially if all of your professional training is as a trumpeter! I have learned an enormous amount over the past year about programming and about the interwebs. It’s been a fascinating and exciting journey for me, and it’s nowhere close to being finished.

That being said, I’m very happy to announce to the world that my Structured Practice Method is now available to the public.

Dr. Flegg’s Structured Practice Method

I’ve actually been using it in my own practice since May of 2014, and all of my students at Wayne State University and Saginaw Valley State University have been using it since the Fall Semester 2014. It has been incredibly helpful. I have definitely noticed that I am a more effective practicer than I was previously, and the difference in my students has been even more significant.

As of today, I’m opening up the “Public Beta Testing” phase of the application’s development. I’m accepting a limited number of new subscribers in order to really run the system through its paces. I think most of the kinks have been worked out by my students, but in computer programming, I’ve learned that there’s always another bug in there somewhere!

I also hope to get valuable feedback from musicians who are not my students. The dynamic of the student/teacher relationship can make it difficult to offer honest criticism and suggestions, especially when at the end of the semester I’ll be giving out grades.

If you’re a musician who practices, please stop by Dr. Flegg’s SPM and sign up for a free beta tester account! I promise you you’ll be glad you did!

PS: I have big plans for the future of this application. While it currently allows teachers to monitor their students’ practicing from within the app, I’m already working on adding some great additional features to help teachers guide their students in their practicing. Stay tuned to the Structured Practice Method website and this blog for more announcements!

PSS: I also would like to give credit where credit is due. My step-daughter, Katherine Perkins, has been incredibly helpful in developing the public face of the SPM. Among other things, she designed our logos and has been a great help and encouragement in my work. And, she uses the app herself to track her workouts! Perhaps more about that at a later date.

Finally, I’d like to publicly thank my wife, Betsy, for putting up with me over the past year. I’ve put a LOT of time in on the computer when I could have been taking the trash out, or doing laundry, or… Thanks, Honey, you’re the best!

-Mark Flegg

Triage in the Practice Room

Imagine a busy hospital emergency room. An ambulance roars up, and paramedics quickly unload a patient, clearly in distress. A doctor runs up, takes a quick look, and says:

doctor-161345_640

“I see you’ve been stung by a bee!”

“Yes, but..” the patient responds, weakly.

“Well, let’s get some ointment on that and see if we can get you feeling better.”

At this point one of the paramedics speaks up:

“Doctor, what about the stab wounds?”

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