time management II

The magic ingredient of the method outlined in my previous post is boxes. If we create boxes of time, we can fill them with concentrated activity. If, on the other hand, we have a luxurious chunk of unstructured time ahead, we likely will fail to fill it with anything more elaborate than an occasional morsel of activity (or chocolate).  To be sure, if one, for example, has the task of reducing a book manuscript by 15.000 words in two and a half days, without throwing out all the good stuff and creating a mess with the footnotes and cross-references in the text, the only thing one needs to do is to sit down and do it. The boxes will be five: one workday, one short night, another workday, another short night and a frantic print-out wrap-up, topped off by the ride to the post office to get the final manuscript out of the house. While I have been in such situations, they should not be called normal. Also the required energy level is nothing one should try to mobilize on a regular basis – it cannot be good for one’s health. In normal circumstances, we’re given choices for our activities – and so we choose.

The act of preparing a new piece of music offers too many choices. Most of them can be justified in some really good way. For example, if we hate working on some easy passages, we can claim that some really difficult stuff needs a lot of training first. Conversely, the inclination to jog through a piece without bothering about the difficult passages can be excused because one needs to get a grasp of the structure before one dives down into the details. One can keep practicing the exposition of a sonata, fooling oneself with the belief that the recapitulation is very similar. One can skip the minuets of a suite until the last minute because one might be able to sight-read them, unlike some other movements.  All these evasive moves can be summarized in two words: sublime dawdling.

Some people have excellent reading and memorizing skills and can prepare their pieces in spite of everything. Some other people know so much repertoire that it is clear that they use some special technique for optimizing their time-efficiency. Descriptions of such techniques in the literature are almost always worth reading. The special mental states beneficial for optimal practicing, the ideal levels of discipline and even the preparatory stretch-thy-muscles ordeals brusquely take care of the dawdling. Not very many people, however, have the energy and faith in themselves to carry on like that as a matter of routine. Not everyone has a butler who wakes them up at five in the morning with a cup of strong coffee, either. We desperately need really simple time management methods.

During a masterclass, cellist Anner Bylsma explained one such method – this is how students prepare a chunk of repertoire for the lesson next week – it can be modified in all sorts of manners. What you need is, again, a kitchen timer (or, in the original version of the tale, a 5-minute hourglass for boiling eggs). You take all the music that needs to be studied and number the first five lines from one to five. Then, starting with one again, number the rest of all the lines in the same fashion. Now you tune your instrument (or whatever needs to be done before you begin to work), set the timer and practice the first line no.1 for exactly five minutes. This includes working out the fingerings, going through the arm and hand movements and identifying special difficulties. If possible, you end up trying to learn how to play the fragment a tempo. You stop as soon as the timer beeps, and turn to the second line no.1, repeating the action – and so on, until all the lines no. 1 are done for the day and you can go drink beer. Needless to say, it is beneficial to take a short break every hour or so.

The next day, you proceed with all the lines no.2, taking care to look at the transitions from no.1 to no.2 as well. Lines no.3 on the third day. After the fifth day, all lines have been worked on, and the sixth day can be devoted to playing through everything first slowly, then faster, and for practicing some sections that still require work.

If the individual lines vary in difficulty, you will have to endure it: this is one basic principle that shouldn’t be violated. There is always something to be worked on even on a simple line of continuo (in an obligato sonata), and you don’t have to do it for more than five minutes. If a line is much harder to play than the others, you’ll at least have had the chance to work out a fingering and to get an idea about what the difficulty is. Make a mental note that this part needs more work further on.

First, the disadvantages of this method: it is inherently stupid. You get no idea about the structure of your piece, and you are left in the dark about whether you will be able to play it as a whole or not until one day before the next lesson. For playing real music in a real world, it sounds a bit like suicide in five-minute fragments.

Now the advantages: it is inherently stupid. You get no idea about the structure of the piece, and you are left in the dark about whether you will be able to play it as a whole or not until one day before the next lesson. On that day, however, you will learn two things: first, it is amazing how much one learns about a structure while working on random unrelated selections. Unless the piece is a structural beast, or very hard to play (or both), you will have developed a fairly good idea of what it is about, and playing through it (or sitting down to analyze) will likely solve the last few question marks for you. Second, you have actually spent all that time working on the piece. Again, provided the technical demands are not very high, or substantially too high for your abilities, you will actually be able to play most of the piece with quite some confidence.

Especially for the preparation of large chunks of only mildly interesting music (for an ensemble musician, there is occasionally no choice), this method has helped me enormously. But I have also used it to to get a grip on some pieces that were longer or more difficult than I was used to at that moment. Naturally, the amount of after-work needed exceeds the orignal one day in most cases.

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