Everyone knows about the metronome. It is perhaps the single most important tool that any musician, especially a percussionist, has in the practice room. As my former drumline instructor used to tell me, “It doesn’t count as practicing if you’re not using your metronome.” However, there is a much less celebrated tool that may actually be just as important… The timer.
The humble kitchen timer/stopwatch can revolutionize the way that you practice. Most smartphones have a timer function, or you can invest in a cheap digital kitchen timer. If you feel like being particularly “old school” you can always get one of the kitchen times with the big dial and the bell that rings when time has expired. Once you’ve got your timer, here are a few things that you can do with it:
1) Stop counting repetitions. Many of us like to practice short segments of music a certain number of times before we speed up or move to another section. For example, you might tell yourself “I’ll play measure 37 ten times at quarter note = 60, and then I’ll move it up to 65 and play it ten more times, then ten times at 70, and so on until I get to 100.” Seems simple enough, and your teacher is probably quite proud of your diligent practice habits. But what happens as you’re counting repetitions? You forget where you are. Was that the seventh or eighth time that I’ve played that? Hmm… Using the kitchen timer lets you say “I’m going to play this at this tempo for 90 seconds, and then speed it up.” By eliminating the need to keep track of repetitions, you free up more brainpower to focus on what really matters… Playing music.
2) Slow down. When we feel good about a passage, it’s hard to force ourselves to keep repeating it. You might have assigned yourself ten repetitions, but if it feels good after three, you might consider just moving on. Using a device which can’t be swayed by your opinion forces you to keep repeating a phrase, which is what you need to do in order to solidify that passage in your mind and in your hands. It doesn’t matter how good it is, if you’ve got 45 more seconds to play it, you’ve gotta stick it out.
3) Speed up. Ironically enough, one of the ways that we often waste time is by repeating the same phrases too many times. Phrases that are comfortable are more likely to be a trap that you can fall into, repeating them for an endless amount of time (sometimes to subconsciously avoid that phrase that you haven’t quite figured out yet). The timer keeps you moving on to the next step. Play the passage, timer goes off, you move on. Simple as that.
4) Plan your practice session. Let’s say you have an hour to practice. It could be the time between classes, or any other set of obligations, but you know you have one hour. By dividing your time into shorter periods you can create clear goals and increase your efficiency. For example, if you have that hour dedicated to practicing a short piece that is four pages long. Split your time into four 15 minute sessions, one per page. You could even divide that further, saying that you want to spend 10 minutes reviewing short bits, and 5 minutes playing a few repetitions of the entire page. Repeat that three more times and you’ve completed your hour by breaking it into a series of shorter, more achievable goals.
5) Eliminate distractions. We live in a chaotic world and there are countless distractions every single time that you step into a practice room. It could be your friends in the hallway, or your family upstairs, or checking for emails on your phone, or that paper that you have to write. Regardless, you’ll never be at your best if you aren’t focusing on your practice. I can’t just block out 3-hour chunks of time for practice, nor can I stay mentally engaged for that long. But, I can easily tell myself, “I’m going to practice for 15 minutes without checking email, answering the phone, or doing anything else.” I set the timer, and for 15 minutes, I am completely committed to the task at hand. Then, if I need to do something, or make a note of something to do later on, I write that down, take a minute to let my mind relax, and then jump into the next 15 minute block of time. I can’t just go back on all of the commitments that I’ve made, but I can choose when to deal with them during my day.
There are just five of the uses that I’ve found for timers in the practice room. What are some ways that you’ve maximized your practice time by using a timer?