I’m often asked by my students how they should organize their daily practice. Usually, I give them a guideline based on how I structure my lessons: warm-up of long tones or harmonics, technique practice, etude, and repertoire. I give suggestions for how long they should spend on each element, but sometimes I neglect to mention how important the breaks are. Just like in my lessons, where a little time is spent talking about unrelated topics (it is by design!), I like to give both my students and myself a little mental break before refocusing on the music.
You need to take frequent breaks for the physical aspect of playing to give your body a break. The flute playing position is not exactly ergonomic, what with both arms held out to the side and the spine in a gentle twist. But just as importantly, you need to take mental breaks.
The mental drain kicks in far earlier than the physical, in most cases. I find (and this is completely anecdotal! I am not a scientist.) that there are diminishing returns when I push myself beyond the limits of my mental stamina. If I keep pushing myself—one more repetition, one more run-through, one metronome click faster—mistakes happen more frequently. I lose focus and I get frustrated. Depending on what I’m working on, this could happen in as little as twenty minutes. When I reach this point, I know the situation is probably not going to improve and I need to focus on something else for a while.
The good news is that it doesn’t take long at all for the brain to bounce back from that fatigue. I try to take a five-minute break for every thirty minutes I practice. Within that time, I can do whatever I want, although it’s usually not very exciting. I might watch a short Youtube video, read a book, reply to an email or text, work on my plan for world domination, clean my breakfast dishes, or simply just get up and stretch a little. Staring at a screen is probably not the wisest option, as it’s pretty easy to get sucked into that social media vortex.
There is science behind this. Studies have shown that taking short mental breaks actually reinforces learning. There are ample studies that show long breaks (i.e. sleeping) are essential for building memories, but new research shows that we can retain new memories in short breaks as well. I’ve left some helpful articles below if you’d like to know more.
There is no one way to divide your practice time between active learning and breaks, but there are some popular strategies that can act as a starting point for you. One popular method is the Pomodoro Technique, which has a five-minute break after every twenty-five minutes of work. After four cycles, take a longer break. There are other methods (including the 52/17 split—weird, I know), but they all follow the same basic concept. Timed breaks where you do anything unrelated to your task at hand will reinforce learning, improve focus, and re-energize you physically and mentally. The important thing here is that you need to have a timer on hand. It may feel regimented, maybe too structured for comfort, but this is a skill that needs to be learned just like anything else.
It takes time and will-power to get used to the structure, but the results are well worth it. It’s a great way to infuse your practice with short-term mini-goals to keep you motivated (a goal-setting post is coming soon!). It will take a bit of trial and error to find the practice/break ratio that works best for you, so start with a tried-and-true method like the Pomodoro Technique and adjust the timings as necessary to find a good fit.
Do you use a timer when you practice? Do you have a break schedule that you like to stick to? Let me know in the comments below!