For those of you familiar with the (now mega famous) 10 Coin Practice Method, courtesy of my teacher, Deborah Henson-Conant, you will be THRILLED to learn that I have a new method to add to my practice artillery.
It has been deeply gladdening to receive messages from musician friends (mainly but not exclusively, there have also been some musician STRANGERS) over the past couple of months, telling me that they have been using the 10 Coin Method, enjoying it, and recommending it to others.
This has tickled me pink for a couple of reasons:
- When it comes to writing about practice, and the perpetual battles involved therein, I have a deep-seated fear that people will respond along the lines of ‘Why would I need suggestions for my practice? I have NO TROUBLE with efficiency, time-management or discipline whatsoever. If you do, you’re just a bad person.’
This hasn’t happened. Yet.
- It is always good to know that when you spend hours slaving over a hot laptop, people are having a little look, and thinking something along the lines of ‘Om nom nom, that’s some tasty practice blog! I’ma try making that at home!’
This is my hope.
And it seems to be happening! Except the bit about people saying ‘Om nom nom, that’s some tasty practice blog! I’ma try making that at home!’ - that bit was pure fantasy on my part. FOR NOW.
What HAS happened, however, is that people have written to me, saying that they like the idea, and some have offered their own additions and experiences!
My favourite suggestion so far is from Alex Feldman, a phenomenal performer, virtuoso recorder player, unicyclist and Jester, among other things:
“I find the coin technique fore rehearsing very effective. I usually use beanbags or rolled socks myself (I like to ceremonially toss them, or spike them to the ground).”
Ceremonially tossing rolled socks as a gesture of triumph definitely adds a bit of much-needed grandeur to proceedings.
(I’m sure I will write more about Alex soon, as he recently choreographed and coached me in my first ever harp-dancing experience - to which I was VERY resistant at first, as he will testify - but in the meantime, do take a peep at this video to see what he can do.
Also, for those of you who read my blog on learning to ride a bicycle at the tender age of twenty-two, I have been thoroughly put in my place by Alex’s unicycling sons. THIS VIDEO nearly made me implode with joy.)
Unicycles aside, today’s blogulation is about THE NEXT STEP. Read on, if you dare.
When I moved to Arlington, I decided to join a gym. This may seem unrelated to the trials and tribulations of daily practice management, but bear with me.
I have never been a particularly athletic creature (if you know me, you might be stifling a laugh at this point, or you might be laughing, long, loud, and clear) but there comes a point, when you’re shlepping a harp around all the time, up and down stairs, and over hills and dales (in America, a harp trolley is called a ‘Dolly’, and ‘carrying a Dolly o’er a dale’ makes it sound much more romantic than the muddy, sweaty reality) that your back and shoulders start to revolt. MUTINY IN THE RANKS!
So when the going gets tough, the tough get a sports bra.
I LOVE my gym here. I love its friendly small-town feel. I used to go to a gym in London, where everybody had special gym bunny workout wear, and bodies that looked like they’d never met Ben and/or Jerry - pumped, primped, and preened to a level that made me feel profoundly uncomfortable. I love the friendly staff, the inspirational murals on the walls, and the fact that there’s a big dish of free candy on the reception desk for a post-workout treat (welcome to America, folks). What I love most about my gym, however, is the fact that if there are ANY members who are either female, or under the age of sixty, they have yet to show themselves. The new gang I’m rolling with make me feel like the henchest person this side of the Hudson River. Plus they all call me ‘honey’ or ‘dear’ (which I can only assume is an attempt to befriend me, and hide their fear/awe inspired by the majesty of my guns.)
However, the ego boost I get from working out with those more wizened than myself can take a turn for the mortifying, when I come to a weight machine and have to take the weight level down, sometimes by SEVERAL pounds. Come on! Am I really that much weaker than someone in dentures?? At this point, I am forced to remember that I do, in fact, have a long way to go, fitness wise, and that I am still the athletic version of a yoghurt.
BUT I SHALL NOT BE DISHEARTENED.
And my reason for this wilful optimism and perseverance in the face of press-ups (woe is me) is this:
That’s right, my friends, a Workout Chart, courtesy of the ‘Mush to Muscle’ program (hey, who you callin’ M*U*S*H*??) at my dear old gym. The P stands for pounds (don’t laugh. That would not be kind) and the R stands for Repetitions. Just so’s you know.
So every other day, I pop in, do me a bit of cardio, and complete one or two circuits of weights. After each machine, I note my progress (or lack thereof). The thing I love about this system is that, even when it feels like I’m getting nowhere, and wheezing through every set, I can record what I’ve done, in black and white (or grey and yellow, but come on now) and lo and behold! the glimmer of progress IS there. Kinda. I just have to keep going. And stretch afterwards. These are my golden rules of gymming. That and, if you have an iPod, a cracking playlist won’t hurt any.
Decision making and self-doubt make me falter. Pre-planning, little targets and determination make me feel like a champ.
So why is it so difficult to apply this to my practice routine?
The Ten Coin Method was the first step in the direction of ‘Just Getting On With It’
The second step is a touch more radical, but so far, it’s working for me.
It is this.
- Decide how long you want to practice for that day.
- Scrap it. Make it REALISTIC. If you make a five hour practice plan, and end up only doing two hours, you’ll feel disappointed, and that is the worst. Finding an amount of time that’s on the right side of realistic AND the happy side of ambitious, is tricky. So I normally go for two hours. That way, I can feel like I’ve achieved a respectable amount of time, and then if things go well, I can use the page a couple of times and feel UNSTOPPABLE.
- Divide your time into mini sections. I like six minutes. I have finally reached the point where I am willing to admit that I have a terrible attention span. Six minutes is a short enough time that I won’t lose focus, AND it will leave me wanting more. Which feels good. I experimented with ten and twenty minute time slots, but they felt too long, five felt pathetically short, and neither 7 nor 8 fit neatly in a 60 minute hour (another kind of hour, maybe). But SIX minutes, for me, is perfect. That’s ten mini sessions in an hour. Which somehow manages to feel simultaneously like something substantial, but effort-wise, like NOTHING.
- Take a piece of paper… (I feel like the weird talking statue on Art Attack. In so many ways.)
- Mark out your mini sections. For two hours, I draw out twenty little rectangles, happily waiting to be filled with practice GOLD.
- I set aside the first two or three slots for warming up (12-18 minutes, depending on the weather. Warm hands make light work. Cold hands make Katya a dull boy.)
- Then fill in each remaining rectangle with a thing you want to practice.
- Mine for today looked like this:
That’s just what it looked like. If you want to know, the piece of paper is just a bit smaller than my hand. Small pieces of paper make things seem VERY manageable (I also use an A3 size drawing pad, for making BIG practice plans on days where things need a bit more oomph.)
Things I like about this system:
- A ‘No Ifs Not Buts’ approach works well for someone like me, with a crippling procrastination habit.
- It helps to keep things manageable, and the 6-minute timer I use makes everything feel like I’m on Ready Steady Cook. In six minutes, what CAN’T I make with a courgette, two Kinder Eggs and some coriander?
- It makes me REALLY AWARE of how much I can actually achieve in a set amount of time.
- I can schedule in snack breaks without feeling like I’m wasting time, because it’s out of the practice time-zone. (What happens Out of The Practice Time-Zone, stays in the Out of The Practice Time-Zone. Or something to that effect.) And there’s nothing better than a snack break - my PracticeSnack (or Übungimbiss - it sounds like a real thing if you say it in German, right?) of choice at the moment is a cup of tea (PG tips, with a generous splosh of milk), some chocolate covered ginger (amount undisclosed) and a couple of Triskets (I had never met these until I came to the US - they’re like savoury shredded wheat, and super tasty).
- It forces me to confront the things I would otherwise avoid tackling. For example, improvisation is something I always dread working on - it feels like a tunnel of never-ending doom and inadequacy. If I set myself an hour just to work on improvisation, within four minutes, you can find me in the foetal position in my harp cover. However, I usually find that, at the end of six minutes, when my timer beepedy-beeps (you don’t know, but that was a GREAT impression of my timer) I’ve eased myself in, and I’m looking forward to when it comes around again on my schedule. And for me, that feeling of anticipation, and the exciting little glow of achievement, no matter how infinitesimal, is the aim of the game.
Now, if you will excuse me, I must get back to my harp. I’ve only done one hour today so far, and that will NOT look good on my time-card. Beepedy-Beep.