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When I was younger I learned piano to grade 6 level, and I also picked up some bass guitar along the way. I enjoy playing music and composing from time to time. But life is busy (PhD thesis/work/etc.) and I find it hard to convince myself I have time to practice.

What are some strategies I could use to keep up my skills despite a busy schedule? Things I'm currently most concerned about:

  • Sight reading
  • Accuracy and consistency in piano technique, inc. touch
  • Accuracy and speed in bass guitar technique

Edit: I'm asking about specific practice techniques people have used. That is, practical advice. Motivation to practice should be assumed as given.

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    I'm not sure this is really on topic. It's a motivation question, not a music question. You could use exactly the same question on any topic. If you want to do it just fit it in. If you don't then your skills will deteriorate, as you have suggested. – Doktor Mayhem Jun 22 '17 at 6:18
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not about musical practice and theory per se. – Tim Jun 22 '17 at 6:58
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    There seems to be a misunderstanding - I intended for this question to be exactly about musical practice. That is, about practice techniques. I intended for the motivation behind practice to be taken as assumed, and hoped to receive suggestions about actual techniques for practicing musical instruments. I'm well aware that practice is the only way to be good at playing an instrument. I'm simply hoping to hear about practical strategies people have used to achieve that while maintaining a life full of other things. – hartacus Jun 22 '17 at 7:17
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    Real practice takes time, always. Any sort of strategy for managing practice with a busy life is about time management, not about practice techniques. – Matthew Read Jun 23 '17 at 0:01
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    Maybe the question is problematic because there is no single technique that will be better or worse at preventing atrophy. Whatever one chooses to practice will atrophy less, and whatever one doesn't practice will atrophy more quickly. Perhaps the question intends to ask about how to prioritize practice. But then, the answer depends on specific musical goals that aren't included. Which parts of your playing do you want to not atrophy (eg, sight reading, fast technique, etc.)? Would this sort of info make the question more on topic? – jdjazz Jun 23 '17 at 4:26
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This will likely not apply to such instruments as guitars or the piano, but if possible carry instruments with you, so you can practice e.g. in a stairwell on the way in to work

flutes

Otherwise, carve out specific time say 30 minutes when you get home or some other predictable time for practice. Another option would be to reserve time (a commitment!) in a musical practice room, should such be available nearby. (This might also provide quiet time to work at other things or to let your mind wander as necessary...)

  • I like the idea of booking a practice room! There are some near where I work and I'd completely forgotten about them. Thanks for the reminder! If you do this yourself, do you set a specific thing to practice on during your booking? – hartacus Jun 23 '17 at 4:49
  • Usually only contextual things I'm having trouble with, like high notes on the end-blown flutes. But I mostly use stairwells or 70s brutalist structures (the concrete has good acoustics) for practice. – thrig Jun 23 '17 at 13:45
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Build a library of sight reading material. You have to find the right level for yourself. Some examples that worked for me are:

  • Czerny, 100 Progressive Recreations
  • Schubert, Dances for Solo Piano (Dover edition)
  • Mozart, L. Nannerl Notebook; Notebook for Wolfgang
  • Mozart, WA. London Sketchbook
  • Bach, Anna Magdalena Notebook
  • Beyer, Elementary Instruction Book
  • A hymnal notated on the grand staff
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I use to have this problem as well. I have a really busy schedule and practicing guitar had become really really hard. so what I did was,

I decided to spend at least 30 minutes of time every day.

So now the question would be when?

I pick up my guitar right after I wake up. Usually, I wake up around 6.30 AM and practice for 30 mins and then get ready for work.

And when I return back from work every day, I try to pick up my guitar back again if possible. Sometimes I skip at evening but that's fine.

I just make sure that I pick up my guitar at least once a day.

So that's my two cents for you.

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Some ideas that I feel have helped me:

  • I squeeze in small amounts of practice during breaks or other down time during the day.
  • I rarely practice any one thing more than a few minutes. I find diminishing returns beyond that, and figure on any given task I'm probably better off with frequent short practice than less frequent long practice. I could be wrong.
  • I try to keep my practice area organized and ready to use: bass plugged in, with strap, on a stand, electronics all on one switch, any reading material on a stand, etc. With an hour long practice session it wouldn't matter so much, but I don't want to waste even one minute of a ten-minute session setting up.
  • I keep lists of lots of small (5-10 minute) tasks. I use the phone app AnkiDroid to track them. I like that it will remind me periodically (at wider intervals depending on how the previous practice went), but it's not really intended for this and there may be better ways.
  • I also have lists of practice tasks that don't require an instrument. This lets me take advantage of time in the shower, on the bus, etc. In my case that's been mainly ear training, repertoire memorization, and fretboard memorization (e.g., visualizing the locations of every ii-V-I in every key using some voicing). But with some creativity I bet it's possible to come up with some good reading exercises that don't require an instrument. I think when I was younger I overestimated the importance of physical relative to mental components of musical skills.
  • For occasional conference travel I have the same list of mental exercises or other hotel-room-friendly activities (composing would be good), but I also sometimes take a midi keyboard (tiny 25-key CME XKey) or small bass (a used Ashbory that fits under an airplane seat).
  • Sometimes the only dedicated time I have is at the end of the day when I'm tired and (I know that's not what this was about, but...) unmotivated. I try to have in mind one short (<10-minute) task that I am absolutely committed to doing every day even if I feel like crap. I tell myself that if that's all I feel like, that's OK. But usually once I get over the initial hump I'm good for longer.
  • I try to remember that this is in the end just a hobby for me that's supposed to be fun, and that if I need to take some time off that's not the end of the world.
  • That said, during my own PhD program I mostly dropped the ball on music and wish I could have found some regular low-key commitments to force me to keep it going. (Sorry, motivation again.)

Good luck! I'm no expert, just another amateur with too much else going on, so take this all with a grain of salt.

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