Summer, to the max

Let it be said right off the bat: I am a summer baby. It’s my favorite season- my birthday! cabins and camping! the beach! bicycles! sweet balmy nights with a icy beverage and good friends! I COMPLETELY understand wanting to make the most of summer and not be tied down by responsibilities.

As a professional musician, summers also mean lots of gigs, hopefully, and you can definitely fill up your schedule with outdoor concerts and festivals. That means I get a lot of ‘face time’ on my instrument and need to maintain a routine to stay viable for all those potential gigs.

But for many of my students, busy in the summer means travel, or ACT-prep, or a part-time job, and this can mean that music falls to the side as schedules change constantly. You may not have time for a lesson every week, much less put the horn on your face everyday.

Which means it’s time to think about your routine, and how you schedule it.

I have a student this summer who’s home from her first year of college, and she’s hoping to expand on her musical knowledge so as to return to her band program stronger in the fall. I’m so inspired by this. I took summer lessons one year out of all 6 of my college and graduate school years combined, and the rest of those years I picked my nose and hemmed and hawed about practicing until about August, when I realized placement auditions were fast approaching. But this girl, she’s got it figured out. She’s smart.

Many of my grade school students have already had their placement auditions for the fall, and so musical growth is taking a backseat for the summer. But summer can be a tremendous opportunity to learn things outside of the range of band, pick music you like to play, develop new techniques.

Here are a few simple steps for keeping your summer musically healthy:

1. Find a regular time to practice. 

If your summer job is MTWF 10-4, maybe you practice from 9-945. Or 430-530, before dinner. But it’s always the same. On days off, you can expand your time, but keep the time slot the same.

2. Do your warm-up routine every day.

If this is all you get to- great! You got to it. You stretched your muscles and kept your musical brain strengthened. Next time you can add scales or a part of your etude.

3. Set small goals week-to-week, and one or two big goals for the whole summer.

If you’re taking lessons, I’ve assigned you a few things to focus on, like two or three scales, a technical pattern, a tune in different keys, an etude. These might serve as good weekly goals- “I’ll get C major learned in two octaves,” or “I’ll increase my double-tonguing  speed by 15 clicks.” They should be part of a larger goal for the summer- “Learn all major scales in 2 octaves,” “Multiple tonguing at quarter= 142.” etc.

4. Don’t sweat taking time off for travel. 

You get to take breaks. It’s okay. A week off the horn won’t make you forget how to play- it may make you fresher! It’ll take a few days to feel normal on the horn again, but you may notice that certain things are simpler once you’re back in the game.

5. Make it fun. 

I mean, duh. Music is about enjoyment. It’s a shame it has to be constantly ‘proven’ to be valuable to education programs and overall societal health to be taken seriously. I think it’s okay if music exists because it’s intrinsically valuable, not because it makes you smarter (although it will do that, too). Get your friends together and sight-read chamber music. Or start a band. Buy a book of songs from your favorite movie arranged for your instrument. Play for folks in a park or in front of a store on a sunny day. Think about your instrument and smile- you’re doing this for you, not for anyone else.

Happy practicing!


on routines

About once or twice a season I fall into a little funk. It’s nothing as serious as depression, but it’s definitely a listlessness, a desire to be lazy and do the bare minimum. Being self-employed and making my own schedule, this can seem mighty tempting. What would it matter if I took a Thursday afternoon to watch TV instead of getting some arranging done or approaching my second practice session? Can’t I just get back to it tomorrow when my brain’s rested?

And sometimes I give in, and take a nap on the couch with my kitties.

And sometimes I fight it. And I’ve been fighting it more and more lately, as I get better at routines.

In January of this year, I officially become solely self-employed. I had been working a part-time office assistant job, mostly from home, that took up about 3-4 hours on weekday afternoons. When that ended, I found myself facing whole days with seemingly nothing to do until my lessons in the evening. I know from years of experience that unlimited free time is a killer for me, and that I need to have some sort of a schedule to keep myself on task.

So I made a routine. Mornings after breakfast, I set aside an hour/hour and a half to warm-up and practice my trombone. On Tuesdays I would blog, regardless of whether I had much to say or not. Somedays I would read or do research on a musical topic, or do lesson preparation, other days I would arrange. I had it blocked off, but over time what I chose to do each day became more fluid and dependent on what was needed next. In the afternoon another hour of practice.

After 5pm, if there are no lessons to be taught, I allow myself to fully ‘clock out’ and relax.

And Friday and Saturday constitute my ‘weekend’.

Last week was tough. I really didn’t want to do much on trombone besides get through my warm-up, and sometimes even that was hard. I had things to arrange that have been on the master list for a long time, but instead I conjured up an entirely different project, and that consumed most of my week. There’s nothing wrong with mixing up the routine from time to time, but for me it can make it a lot difficult to get back on track.

This week feels different. Practicing this morning felt fresh and productive. I’ve arranged a tune, finished my other project, blogged, networked, done studio housekeeping. I’m not judging myself for my week of ‘meh’, but I am glad I pushed myself to keep to a routine throughout it, even if it was just the bare minimum.

Your routine might look different. The only thread that connects your days might be that you make your bed in the morning. Or you might do the same task or go to the same classes everyday. If you’re in my studio, I might ask that you do the same exercise everyday. I might be trying to get you to establish a routine, or I might genuinely want to see what a week of daily work on an exercise will do for you. I’m learning some of these things too, especially what makes my teaching effective over time. Start to think about what you do that anchors your days, and how it helps you improve musically.

It doesn’t have to be boring.

It could be totally freeing.