My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What to do when in panic mode - have a plan!

I have a wonderful problem at the moment. I am trying to prepare for four different recitals that will be occurring within one month. I realize that I did this to myself, I agreed to do these performances so I'm not complaining. In fact, I truly am thrilled.

But...(you knew that was coming, didn't you?)

I woke up this past Monday morning in a complete panic, surprise, surprise. It was one of those internal, high-pressure panics where I might have looked allright to folks around me but the minute I sat at the piano, my mind seized up in sheer terror and confusion. And as soon as that happened those nasty little tapes started playing in my head: "You take on too many things at once! What were you thinking? You're going to fall flat on your face!"...I think you probably get the picture. Before this lasted too long I decided to do what always works in the face of looming deadlines and seemingly insurmountable problems - I decided to come up with a plan.

Now I have to admit that there was a bit of groaning when I came to the realization that I needed to do this. I tried to come up with some alternative treatment plan - namely cookies. But after the sugar wore off and I started panicking again I dragged out my laptop, plopped myself on the couch, opened Excel, and went to work. Here's a look at what transpired:

First I asked myself the simple pointed question, "What am I so worried about?"
  • I don't have a clear picture in my head of when all these concerts are going to occur. I know the dates, more or less, but I don't really know what time-frames I'm dealing with.
  • A lot of the music is new and I'm concerned that I'm not going to have the new material learned well-enough in advance to be comfortable at the performance
  • I don't want to practice too many hours a day because I don't want tension and fatigue to set in. I'm concerned that if I feel like I have to get through everything everyday, I'm going to be in trouble physically.
  • I'm having a hard time keeping track of what I've practiced the day before so I feel like I'm wasting brainpower and memory trying to recall silly details.

Next step, I put together a spreadsheet that I thought would cover all of the above concerns. Here is what I came up with: (You can click on each individual image to open a larger, more readable version)

Colorful, isn't it?  I love color. Anyway, so each different colored section represents a different recital program and I've arranged them chronologically. It might be hard to see but in the third column I put in the number of "practice days" I have up until the week before the recital. I know, confusing. Let me explain. When I do a chart I make sure that I have realistic expectations of myself. For instance, because I am a mom and a wife, I can't practice every day of the week - weekends are reserved for my family. So the number in that column does not include weekend days. If there are other days I think I might not be able to practice, I do not include them either. I also make it a given that I will not do any serious practicing the week prior to the performance because in my experience, if I don't know it by then, no amount of cramming is going to help me in those final days. In fact, when I cram, it tends to backfire on me because I get up on stage knowing what might go wrong. Not fun and just not worth it.

The sixth column, labelled "Difficulty" is one of the most important columns. In it, I mark how challenging every given piece or movement is for me. Those marked as "difficult" are addressed more frequently than those with any other indication and if I have little time to practice, I only practice the difficult ones. These labels can change as the days and weeks pass. Once I feel more comfortable with a movement, I will demote that selection so that I can pay even more attention to the ones that are still giving me trouble.

The empty columns on the right side of the spreadsheet are for the days of the week - one column for each day I practice. This is how I remember what I practiced the day before and sometimes I even write notes (tiny notes!) to remind me of something I need to do the next day.

This might seem like overkill to some people and perhaps it is. But I love being in control and I am a very visual learner so a chart like this literally drives my practice routine. I get energized working with this tool, perhaps because I see it almost as a game I'm playing with myself. And yes, it does take time initially to plan and create these types of charts but I'd say it only takes a half an hour to an hour at the most to make one.

So is it worth it? Let's see, I actually get joy out of practicing right now so the answer is a calm, cool "Yes!"

If anyone decides to try something like this, please keep in mind that your chart doesn't have to be like this particular one. I've done lots of different types, depending on the person and the situation. Below is one I made up for my husband, a singer. For his, we had extra elements involved like learning words and putting it together with the pianist.

You can plan out your semester at school to make sure that you bring in something new to each lesson, you can make a chart for memorization, you can plan out what you're going to wear to each practice session...oh wait, I wouldn't take it that far. But be creative and be practical. And if you do try doing this and want to share the results with me, good or bad, I'd love to hear all about it!

Happy planning and enjoy watching your panic take a hike!!


  1. Great practice plan! This is very similar to Burt Kaplan's Daily Practice Organizer - he takes his a step further and asks that you write down the time you're going to spend on each item. But I like your practice plan for the days I know I can get into a mode, and not necessarily practice to the clock. It's also great for getting a sense of the whole picture because it's a fluid plan, and can be changed as needed.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you, Alexis. Good to know about the Kaplan book :-) Generally I avoid attaching specific dates and/or times to any plan because it's too easy to get the schedule messed up somehow - something always pops up that we don't expect. I also tend to air on the conservative side so that more often than not, I can succeed or even surpass my expectations. Most people feed off success, myself included so I try to work that into the system as much as possible.

    Thanks again for your comments, I always learn a lot from the input you give :-)