10 Things All Musicians Should Practice Other Than Music
Musicians of all levels know that practice on their instrument is important, and good musicians happen to be good at practicing. Composers get better by practicing their composing by writing. Performers get better by practicing their technique as well as challenging repertoire. The great news is that practice skills WORK on many skills other than music. Musicians who are successful and who are actually content and self-assure also make a point to exercise those practice skills on things other than music. Some of these things might actually help their music, but mostly these are things that make them more successful in the effort to be marketable as a performer, teacher, conductor, composer, or whatever the main focus is. In other words, if you're an aspiring professional, these 10 things that you can practice other than music are very worth carving out time to do.
If you feel like you're as good if not better at your craft than someone who has succeeded at a high level doing that very thing while you are barely getting by as far as work, do a checkup on this list below. I'm not saying that some musicians make it to the top without doing these things, but I think if you could randomly observe 100 of the most successful musicians, you'd find that the majority of them are as good as most of these skills as they are their craft.
Conversely, if you observed 100 musicians who have been at it for a while but struggle to find gigs and seem to wonder why they aren't getting noticed or hired as often as they'd like, you probably would find an obvious void on most if not all of these other skills.
If you're not a professional or aspiring professional, but just enjoy music as a hobby, you should still practice these 10 skills. It might have a residual effect on improving your musicianship. At the very least, it will absolutely make you a better person.
So, here are 10 skills you should practice other than your musical craft.
This list isn't meant to be in a certain order, but I would find it hard to argue for any of the 10 skills to be any more important than this one! I was music directing a summer camp production of Beauty & The Beast Jr in 2016 with most of the young cast feeling the mounting pressure of learning an entire production in 2 weeks. Near the end of that process, one of the wise high schoolers in the cast took a moment to speak to the rest of the cast with this great perspective. "Just think, we GET to do this!! Others will watch WISHING they could do this too, but WE get to do this!! Just relax and enjoy this moment!"
HOW TO PRACTICE
I promise you that this skill is easier than ANYTHING you'll practice on your instrument next week. Here's all you have to do. In the morning, before you check your email, before you log on to social media, before you start working... say out loud something you are grateful for. If you can, make it 3 things. If you also can, make it something different each day or at least try not to repeat yourself more than twice a week. Repeat this as the last thing you do before you go to bed each night. I'm willing to bet that, if you haven't been doing this already, your sleep will improve. If your sleep improves, so much else about your life and musicianship will also improve,. Gratitude might be one of the biggest weapons you have against stress and anxiety!
To go the extra mile, keep a journal and write down your full list to review each day, adding to it as you're inspired, and giving only 1 to 3 things an intense focus and meditation for just a minute each morning and evening..
2. Calling Out Others (in a positive way)
Musicians who have trouble landing gigs tend to have one of two tendencies. Most of the time, when they talk about musicians in their community, it's a list of one: themselves. They talk about what they do, and don't talk about anyone else. Part of that may be a genuine lack of respect, but it could also be a form of envy. There is also this thought that talking about another musician in a positive way could be just getting them more work while you're still waiting for recognition. And, of course, sometimes they do talk about other musicians...in a negative way. What better way to lift yourself up than to bring someone else down?
When I check out the social media posts of other musicians, not all but many of them are often saying things like "You should check out (this other musician)! They do such a great job!" Or it could be a statement made about a band. What's happening is the paradoxical nature of success. Does being successful lessen their fear of "giving away gigs" by being generous and positive of others? Or does being generous and positive of others actually have something to do with their success? I'm inclined to think that both are true, but especially the 2nd.
The paradox is this: By being the type of teacher who will praise the work of another teacher, by being the instrumentalist who praises the work of someone else in your area on your instrument... you show yourself to be confident and personable - the type of person others would like to work with! Complaining, only talking about yourself, or being judgmental is like a red flag to people who want to collaborate.
HOW TO PRACTICE
Commit to going to a live performance in your area once or twice per month. Find something you genuinely enjoy about the performance or the performers, then tell people about it - either in person or with a social media post. Were there things you truly didn't like? Try the classic grandma advice. "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all". But in this case, find something nice to say, and say it! Once a month is sufficient to show that you are someone who is supportive.
3. Comprehensive Study of Your Apps
Not every item on this list is about relationships and networking. Some of it is actually about some things outside of your instrument that will help you to DO your job better, or make you more efficient at your craft, and this is one of them.
At some point in the future, we'll take a comprehensive look at the type of apps you should have as a musician. Some of the basics include a notation software such as Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, Notion, or other as well as a Digital Audio Workstation for recording. There is a variety of attitudes that you can take with these apps after you've obtained them and put them on your computer or similar device.
First, you could ignore them. Just to show you that I'm no master at all these skills, I have an app I downloaded 6 months ago, and I've never used it once. I don't know, yet, how to even begin. Eventually I will, but until then, it's sitting on my computer being as useful as if I'd never downloaded it.
Second, you could limit what you do with the apps because you only know a little about it. This is the technical equivalent of finding something you really like at a restaurant and ordering only that every time you visit. There's nothing wrong with this except for the fact that you might be missing out on something you'd like just as much or more if only you'd allow yourself to explore.
The third way is the one that will give you the most use of your tools. Learn absolutely everything your app can do, whether or not you think you'll need that feature anytime soon.
HOW TO PRACTICE
There are two ways to do this. I once heard the legendary Broadway notation copyist Emily Grishman say on a podcast regarding notation software such as Finale that you should go to the far left menu with the preferences and settings, and click on everything. Click on everything and if it changes something that you didn't want, click Undo. Write down what you learned about it. Go through each menu, each submenu, everything until you've made a comprehensive list.
Another way to do this is to take advantage of tutorial series on YouTube. Unless your app is really obscure, I'm willing to bet that someone knowledgable has put together a comprehensive series on YouTube. Find all the videos, save them to Watch Later on your account, and set aside 30 minutes a week to watch a video. If possible, open your app to practice doing what is mentioned in the video, maybe in a practice file. Once again, write down what you learned. You might even want to type what you learned in a document where you can use keywords that you can find with a search.
4. Mastering Time Management
Whether we're talking about practice time, exercising, doing homework, updating your website, or even reading blogs to help with self-improvement, there's a saying in the professional world from a quote by Michael Hyatt: "What gets scheduled gets done."
Anyone who has studied with me, or read a few blog posts, knows how much I value practice. Ask me how often I practice just because I'm in the mood. The answer is...hardly ever. Same goes with anything else that requires any effort at all.
HOW TO PRACTICE
The solution is planning your schedule. Now I am most definitely no master of this task, and I'm constantly tweaking how I handle time management, but here are several things that seem to work best for me.
Once a week, write down everything you'd like to do, everything! Then rank each item by priority. There are two things you are looking for. (1) The things with a pending deadline, or things that need to be done to stay on schedule with a later deadline, and (2) Things that matter greatly to you for your future self. In other words, if you want to be a great composer, are you taking time for score study and to actually WRITE? You may not have anyone expecting it, but you had best be scheduling it.
Give plenty of time for each task that involves mental concentration. As Cal Newport says in his book Deep Work, it sometimes can take a while to get into a flow state. If you're changing tasks every 30 minutes, you're likely robbing yourself of the chance to maximize your production. Estimate the time you really need to get something done when planning your week.
Anything that isn't imminent or truly important, postpone it for another week, or see if it's important to do at all.
Schedule absolutely EVERYTHING in a calendar app with notifications. Apple and Google Calendars are perfectly fine for this, as long as you have event notifications. They are also great because you can repeat events at a frequency. Don't rely on a checklist app like Google Tasks. You need to SCHEDULE a time and day for it.
The 2-minute rule. If it's a task that can be done in 2 minutes or less, do it right away.
Turn off all distractions. Put your phone on "Do Not Disturb". Turn off notifications for all social media apps and email. You only check those apps when you've allotted time for it. So that reminds me...
Schedule some free time. You don't have to plan what you're doing during that time, but leave times for downtime. Booking every waking hour is productive in the short-term but a sure recipe for burnout in the long term.
5. Taking breaks
This needs little explanation, but it's important.
HOW TO PRACTICE
I'm a big fan of the Pomodoro technique. It requires a timer or alarm system, but basically you commit to a 5-minute break after every 25 minutes of work or a 10-minute break after every 50 minutes of work. The breaks should be standing if you work seated, sitting if you work while standing. Get away from the task, don't even think about it. Don't use the time to check email or social media if there's any chance that what you see will cause your mind to get sidetracked or concerned. (Hint: it probably will). There are Pomodoro timer apps to help you with the schedule, and if you have a smartwatch, it can also provide you break alerts.
6. Build Helpful Systems
I am still working on this one myself, but with each passing month, I realize the urgency of making this a better habit. I have a podcast, for example, that is still taking a LOT of time each week just to produce one episode. There's a system for improving any task that you can apply to get back a lot of your time. It takes a bit of work up front, but it's ultimately very worth it!
That system is ADRO. Automate, Delegate, Relegate, Obliterate.
HOW TO PRACTICE
With every task you do, see if it's possible to either automate, delegate, relegate, or obliterate some of it. What does this mean?
Automate - Can you get technology to do it for you on a regular basis? When you schedule a daily or weekly event in your calendar once, use the repeat function so you don't have to keep scheduling. If you have online banking, I think it's a great idea to automatically schedule each bill. Your email program likely has the ability to create templates that you can choose to at least get started with most types of replies. Consider a calendar service that allows you to share a scheduling link with others. I no longer have to spend time going back and forth with prospective students and parents about lesson times, because I can send them my link through Fons, which keeps my available lesson times. What can you make automatic so that you don't always have to do it yourself?
Delegate - This is assigning something to someone else. There are things that only you can do. Only you can exercise for yourself. Only you can practice your instrument. One big example for me is tax preparation. I've done it myself many times...and wasted whole days, and thought the last time I did it just might send me to the ER. The fee I pay a certified tax accountant is worth every penny for the stress reduction and the time it saves me. What else can you give to someone else?
Relegate - Relegation is simply demotion. You can't do everything, not even everything you want. I would love to stay current on what all my friends are watching on Netflix, Prime, and other streaming services. Doing so, however, would take away from the time I need to do what matters. I occasionally sit down and watch something, but there are entire weeks where I don't watch a single minute of anything. I value reading more in my downtime, at least at the moment. There are things in your life that you don't have to eliminate, but you willingly say that they're not important, and it's okay if they don't happen even in long stretches.
Obliterate - Years ago, I sold my French horn because it was sitting around in my house unused year after year. I had a New Year's Resolution seemingly every year to "Practice French Horn", but never did. Having it around was keeping me from letting that goal go because I obviously didn't value it. I often donate clothes I haven't worn in a long time. To obliterate something from your life is to let it go completely. Sometimes it's the only way you can make room for something else that might matter more.
7. Some form of Meditation
Meditation is simply taking time to breathe and/or to be aware of what your mind and body are doing as well as paying more attention to the world around you as it is.
HOW TO PRACTICE
For some of you, this could be a genuine meditation (guided with an app, or through self-practices either in the morning or at night). For some of you, this may be a type of prayer that you do, one that includes contemplation and awareness rather than asking for something. For others, it's simply getting out in nature without music or audiobook or podcast, and enjoying the moment. However you define meditation, it's hard to find anyone truly successful and managing their stress well who doesn't do at least a few minutes each day. Speaking of getting in nature...
8. Getting Outside
Unless your featured instrument is bagpipes or alpine horn, you're probably inside a lot as a musician. Show me the days where I'm particularly depressed, and I'll show you the days where I failed to get outside. They are very often the same.
HOW TO PRACTICE
Getting outside for a few minutes a day, especially when there's some sun to absorb, is essential to both mental and physical health. I try to do a 30-minute walk each day. I don't think that a treadmill is a substitute for this. Getting out is as important as the movement.
9. Physical Workouts that Include Core Muscles and Mobility
Even if you have some of the rare musician activities that don't require sitting down, working in music has a high potential to be inactive (the sweating you do on your scales doesn't count!). Chronic sitting can lead to hip and back problems, largely caused by a weakening of your core muscles.
HOW TO PRACTICE
Some musicians enjoy bonafide weight training but, if that's not your thing, consider calisthenics or yoga, something to work on strength and mobility, not just cardio. If you don't think you have time, try twice a week. 3 times a week is even better. I will say that I get a lot out of the online programs from GMB Fitness. Check them out on YouTube if you're looking for someone helpful.
10. Talking to Others about Them, Not You
This has been a very hard habit for me to create, and one that I think the lack of doing better has had an effect on the quantity of work I've been able to generate, or the number of friendships I've been able to develop. Everybody loves talking about themselves! Everybody! What likable and engaging people have in common is that they make it easy for others to talk about what they're going through.
Making the other person the topic of conversation doesn't mean that you won't get a chance to talk about yourself, but by relegating that as a priority, you exercise listening, empathy, and create connections that can lead to better friendships and better networking. We'll talk more about networking in the future, but it doesn't involve going up to someone and telling them how great you are at your craft. It has to do with you finding something to ask about themselves. And even if you're shy and introverted like myself, you can PRACTICE this and all the other habits to get better.
HOW TO PRACTICE
Every time you talk to someone, commit to talking about how they are doing. NEXT LEVEL: Ask specific things if you know something about them. Asking "How are things going?" is okay, but asking "How did that test go you had last week?" or "How is your brother doing since he got sick?" are more meaningful questions that show that you have been listening and thinking about the person.
What are things outside of your music that you practice?
You can listen to the podcast version of this post here:
And if you missed my interview with Erica Sipes about sightreading, check that out here: