My brutally honest music-practice journal: An experiment in accountability

by Gwendolyn Hoberg, Special to MPR
February 19, 2014

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Practicing an instrument requires focus. Right? Right. So how many times can you stand up to attend to unrelated matters during instrument practice and still have it count as "practice"?

I started thinking about this question about a month ago, when at the end of a session with my french horn I realized I had taken breaks seven or eight times to jot myself a note, or read a text message, or look for something in my desk — and I had only been practicing for half an hour.

This was getting out of hand. I needed to start paying attention to how well I was focusing. To begin with, I needed to make an effort not to get up at the slightest enticement. In order to make myself more accountable, I started to keep a practice journal.

January 30: Didn't get up for 35 minutes. Ignored one chirp from my phone. Not too tough to stay still and fairly focused.

February 3: Got up after four minutes to write a note to myself. After seven minutes went to greet my husband home from work and got pulled into a half-hour conversation. The rest of my practice was somewhat distracted by that conversation. At one point I just had to get up to tell him something that had happened during the day.

February 4: My computer is installing updates (trying to solve an iPod/iTunes problem). May get distracted but need to practice at this time today...I can't help it: I notice it's restarting and get up to check on things. This leads to a five-minute break and the problem is still not solved. So mad at technology! I put my computer to sleep and get back to practicing. 30 seconds later, my phone chirps with a message. Sigh.

February 5: I'm not going to get up for 25 minutes, until I have to check my laundry...success! And now for 15 more minutes. I haven't even checked my phone in between. Not all practice sessions are created equal.

February 6: Sitting still wasn't a problem today, but I did get distracted by some dead tendrils on a houseplant in my practice corner. I also have to write "research stylish but functional winter boots" here in this journal to make sure I don't forget to transfer this to a to-do list.

February 10: Time to practice but I feel unfocused. I'm going to meditate for 10 minutes before practicing...My mind still drifted to thoughts of cooking dinner (tomorrow's as well as tonight's), but maybe it's better than it would have been.

February 12: I'm pretty sure my session is going to be interrupted by B. coming home soon. That's okay. While I can, I will bring my attention to the horn...yep, substantial interruption, including, actually, a quick car trip to look at a house we might be interested in buying. No micro-breaks to check my phone, though!

What have I learned from two weeks of doing this? Practicing earlier in the day might bring better focus. Putting my phone in another room would surely help. Also, keeping a practice journal has reminded me of a food diary. It's helpful to have one for a while, but it's not something I want to do long-term. I've made progress in unpacking this problem, and that's a good first step.

Gwendolyn Hoberg is an editor, writer, and classical musician. She lives in Moorhead, plays with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, and writes the Little Mouse fitness blog. She is also a co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota.

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