Last January, I committed to 365 consecutive days of practice.
By announcing this fact, I am of course also confessing to an uncomfortable truth: I am a professional trumpet player, and a college teacher at that. And until recently, I could not honestly claim to have practiced every day, without exception, even though I told my students that this is exactly what they ought to be doing. I suspect I’m not alone in this, and I also suspect that those who might scoff at me for what I’m about to admit to are probably guilty of the same bad habits. Anyone who has actually been through this process in a serious and meaningful way has a sense of humility about it. You can’t do this kind of thing without uncovering most of the truths you try to hide about yourself, one way or the other.
But while you are hiding from those truths, you can rationalize not practicing in a dozen different ways. You’re sick. You’re stressed. You’re busy. You have a gig, which counts as an acceptable substitute. You’re on the road, and your drive is nine hours. You played all day in your students’ lessons. You hurt your chops because you overdid it last night.
I know these excuses because I have used all of them at one point or another, often in combination. This was the year I decided that no excuse was sufficient. That decision changed my life.
When I set out upon my journey in mid-January, I had a little bit of a head start and no idea of what I was actually undertaking. I already practiced most days, but the last year I was certain I had practiced every day had happened when I was an eighth grader, and this fact had been making me increasingly uncomfortable. I keep track of my sessions using Mark Flegg’s outstanding software, Structured Practice Method*, and according to my online practice log, I had already been playing consistently for the better part of a month.** Dr. Flegg’s software keeps track of data using a series of helpful graphs and color-coded statistics bars, so I determined that, in addition to the fact that I wanted a 365-day practice streak, it would only count if my average number of minutes practiced over a two- or three-week span never fell below thirty minutes per day. This, I reasoned, would allow me to have occasional days where I was playing for only twenty or twenty-five minutes, which was probably important for situations such as pops concerts or heavy travel, but it would force me to make up for lost time by doing more work on the days before or after such exceptions.
It’s worth acknowledging that thirty minutes per day sounds at first like a pitiful number. But I was working as a full-time college professor with more than twenty students, and I was wise enough to my circumstances to know that an hour per day, every day, was flat-out unrealistic, especially because there were bound to be days when half an hour really would be the best I could do, and I didn’t want to be committing myself to ninety-minute days to average out the others. Thirty minutes was enough to do a respectable, thorough warmup, which seemed like a good habit anyway before a long day of teaching. If I went beyond this number, so much the better. Thus did I set my parameters.
In hindsight, it is an exceptionally good thing that I set my target number at only thirty minutes per day. Over the course of the ensuing year, I would leave my job unexpectedly; move everything I owned halfway across the country; undertake a road trip from Indiana to Los Angeles in order to perform at an international conference; fall sick twice; and consider quitting the trumpet altogether in the wake of the turmoil that surrounded my decision to leave full-time college teaching. Of all of the years when I could have set this goal, I certainly picked a pivotal one.
Helping me along the way were two key resources, both of which you’ll find at the bottom of this page as “Products I Endorse.” The first was the aforementioned Structured Practice Method software, without which I would have been utterly lost both in terms of motivation and focus; the second was Steven Pressfield’s convicting treatise about the hallmarks of professionalism, Turning Pro. Let’s just say that after reading Pressfield’s book, I saw myself a little too clearly in his description of an amateur, whatever my job title might have told me to the contrary, and I wasn’t willing to accept that standard from myself any longer.
Over the course of the year, I watched as my perceptions of myself and my playing evolved. In the first four months, I was full of energy, working seriously on repertoire for a recital, two conference performances, and two orchestral auditions that I ultimately cancelled once I realized that the writing was on the wall about my teaching job and I was in no mental state to go through with an audition. On April 12, I announced my resignation to both my administration and my students, and my practicing hit a low point the following day (twelve minutes). To fully appreciate why I reacted this way to a choice that I made voluntarily, you have to understand that I had thrown everything I had into first winning and then retaining my rank as an assistant professor, for the better part of fifteen years. Walking away was devastating. But something else had also changed.
April 13 with its twelve-minute total came to represent the day that defined the rest of my year. Before that date, I hadn’t been sure if I could go through with the entire 365. But after that point, no matter the circumstances, I looked back at that day and said, “Whatever it is, it can’t possibly be worse.” And so I gritted my teeth. And I practiced.
When I was too miserable to practice in my soon-to-be-vacated office, I practiced at my house. When I moved to Arkansas and had neither house nor office, I practiced in a practice room at Arkansas State. When it was too inconvenient to get to the practice room, I practiced in our apartment with a mute. When I couldn’t stand the mute any longer I practiced only pop tones.*** When I was on the road to California, I practiced in my car. When I was in Phoenix, Arizona and the outside temperature was over ninety degrees and rising, I turned on the car and ran the air conditioning. When the drives were too long to practice on either end of them, I grabbed my mouthpiece and a metronome and did ten-minute sessions of monotone articulation studies as the exits flashed past, much to my supportive husband’s dismay. When I had to spend ten days in Pennsylvania I rented a fabulous AirBnB property with no neighbors and no Internet, and there I hit a high watermark of nearly four hours. And when I didn’t have Internet to log my time on SPM, I logged in advance and then fulfilled my contract with myself later in the day. Along the way, I learned a lot that I didn’t know before.
I learned that though there might be legitimate reasons not to practice, such as going into labor or winding up in an ambulance, a decision not to practice needs to be just that: a decision, not an afterthought. If I decide today that I’m not practicing tomorrow, that’s a choice and I’m making it with a clear head and good reasons. If I get to the end of the day tomorrow and haven’t practiced, there might be circumstances that have contributed to that situation, but the reason for that situation is that practicing simply wasn’t a priority. For years I had been allowing circumstances to dictate my practice habits, without ever acknowledging what that really meant: practicing was not a priority. Period.
I learned that the thirty-minute days are just as important as the ninety-minute days, because the thirty-minute days are what allow me to get to the breakthroughs without having to retrace my steps to make up for lost time. I also learned that daily practice removes a tremendous amount of anxiety. There were a lot of days last year when I had no idea what I was going to practice, especially in August. I had just moved to a new city; I had no performances lined up and no real ambitions for myself; and at first I had no job. But I was committed to practicing, so I knew I was going to play something. I played Schlossberg. After playing enough Schlossberg, I noticed that not only had I removed the anxiety about whether I was going to practice at all, but I had also removed any anxiety about my ability to acquit myself when the calls for gigs actually arrived. I knew I wasn’t going to be out of shape. I knew I wasn’t going to run out of time to learn the music. What else was there to be afraid of?
I learned that I had fallen into a trap that’s easy for a young teacher to fall into: namely, that of thinking that my students’ problems were always up to me to fix. Even worse, I had allowed my students to think the same way. Because I hadn’t fought and won the battle for my own practice time, I couldn’t tell the difference between a student who was actually serious about the trumpet versus a student who only claimed to take it seriously. As a result, I was investing a lot of time and emotional energy into problems that would have been better resolved by me staring my student(s) in the eye and asking, “How do you expect this to get better when you aren’t actually doing consistent work?” That realization changed a lot about how I walk into a lesson.
But most importantly, I learned a lot about self-respect. Earlier this month I took a week off, in order to better think about how to move forward now that I’ve finally slain that first dragon. Even though I’m playing again at this point, I haven’t yet gone back to logging my sessions online (though I will), because I don’t want to get seduced into measuring the worth of my practicing by how many days I’ve played in a row. There are other things such as quality of focus and demonstrated progress on my instrument that are far more important, even though the daily log keeps me honest, and even though I have effectively doubled my expectations for myself in terms of statistics. Ultimately, it boils down to this: how much I practice (or don’t) isn’t anyone else’s business, but I know how much I need to do today in order to be able to look myself in the eye in the mirror tomorrow morning, and when I take my horn out of its case these days you can be sure that I’m doing it not for the benefit of my students, my colleagues, or the voices of my mentors in my head, but rather for the pride of being able to say that I have fought for this, I have chosen it, and after all the ups and downs I deem it worth my while.
The lessons I learned within 2017 have been profound, so much so that I’ll likely be adding to this set of reflections for weeks and maybe months to come, and I’m already planning a future post about the benefits of using SPM. But in the meantime, I have an appointment to keep: I am overdue for some Schlossberg.
* It is worth noting that Dr. Flegg’s software is now Structured Practice Journal, but I have chosen to refer to it here by its original moniker.
**I would later learn that I had begun my 365 days on December 17 of 2016, a watermark that I deliberately did not identify until December 2017, when it became so obvious that I was aiming for December 16 that I could no longer ignore it. For my purposes during the rest of the year, if the date ended in a “2017,” I was practicing.
*** “Pop tones” are the snippets of sound that come out of a trumpet when you are barely tapping the notes at the softest possible volume. Thanks to David Hickman for coining the term; you can see a video demonstration here.