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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Taking time for timers in the practice room

All right.  I just set me nifty new timer for 30 minutes.  Let's see if I can get this post written in that time!

The other day I was checking out The Practice Shoppe's website to see what nifty little tools and toys they sell to help in the practice room and I came across a series of cube timers that intrigued me.  I thought it was interesting that each timer had 4 set durations you could use, with each cube having a different combination of times.  I ended up purchasing one that has increments of 5, 10, 20, and 30 minutes to see how it works and to get myself thinking in timer mode.  You see, I have rarely, if ever, relied on timers when I practice, perhaps because I am stubborn but also because I'm pretty self motivated - I don't usually need extra encouragement to practice a passage for an effective period of time.  In fact I often have to pull the plug on myself because I'm having so much fun...truly!

That last point, that I sometimes have a difficult time stopping myself, got me thinking...maybe timers can be used for that purpose too.  Maybe there's more to them than just being a tool for musicians (or their parents) to use as some sort of torture device...

"Bwahahaha...I am going to set the timer now for 10 minutes.  You must practice these two measures until the timer has gone off or else!!!  BEGIN!"

I've seen some people using timers in this manner.  I suppose it serves a purpose but I've also seen it create somewhat of a Pavlovian response where the minute the timer is started the musician finds him/herself slouching and going through the motions of repeating the passage in question while staring painfully in the direction of the timer the entire time.  "Please, please, please go off now."  I don't know how much deliberate learning is going on in moments like this.  It makes me wonder if there's another way which leads me back to a point I made a bit earlier.

Maybe we can use timers as a way to make sure we don't get too carried away with our exploration of a tricky passage.  Imagine that!  If we can set the timer as a cue to start a thrilling, intriguing round of musical exploration our time would be so much better spent.  It would encourage us to find a way to be in the moment, to play with our instrument, to experiment, to problem solve.  We would no longer be staring at the timer with a look of ceaseless pleading. If we've gone into that mindful place the timer going off doesn't feel like being released from a prison cell, it's more of a reminder that it is time to move on and spread our curiosity elsewhere.

I am intrigued about this possibility of using the timer in this way because I think it could help us move away from the type of practicing that can be frustrating and to move towards practicing that is instead a continual exploration and journey of improvement.  When we use the timers the torturous way, if we haven't accomplished what we were supposed to accomplish by the time the alarm goes off, we can often feel like we've failed.  In using this other approach it would be harder to go into judgement land at the end of the time.  We know that we've put in some good work and maybe have had fun in the process - that's bound to be more satisfying.

As I say in my book, Inspired Practice, "Discouragement is the enemy of effective practicing." Let's see if we can use timers to head us in a more encouraging direction.

Do you have any clever uses for timers in the practice room?  How do you feel about using them?  I'm curious to hear your thoughts so feel free to leave a comment below.

Oh timer just went off!  Guess it's time to sign off.

Happy practicing!


  1. Oh - I'm going to pick up one of the blue 1-3-5-7 minute ones! I've been trying to do random practice, which involves spending only 3-5 minutes on any one thing (scales/certain part of a piece/etc) but none of the Pomadoro iPhone apps I've tried have been able to do what I want without requiring too much attention/frustration.

    1. These are great little timers, Betty. So easy to use :-) I hope it works for you too!