How musicians can use this iconic productivity tool
Classical musicians spend hours upon hours in the practice room. But, if we are honest with ourselves, how much of that time is actually productive?
I know I am certainly guilty of finding my value in the hours practiced rather than the work accomplished. Wow, I practiced for 6 hours yesterday! I spent 2 hours on scales alone! How dedicated I am! How diligent and hard-working! How impressed I am with myself - and maybe you are, too?
I know I’m not the only one…
As we progress in our careers, long, amorphous practice sessions become less practical. We’re balancing teaching schedules, rehearsals, shuttling kiddos around town, and basic humaning like paying bills and getting the oil changed.
The time we spend on the instrument needs to be focused, productive, and intentional.
Enter: The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a tool that helps you manage your time, avoid distraction, and tackle challenges with clarity and efficiency. It consists of 5 simple steps that are repeated for a set amount of time. So, pull out your practice log, your kitchen timer, and give it a shot!
How to Pomodoro
1. Choose a task and Write It Down. Make it SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Here are a few examples to get you started:
Sound Warm-Up. Today I will use my long tone practice to fill my entire torso with breath before every new long tone, center my intonation with a tuner on non-vibrato tones, and practice my third register diminuendos while maintaining precise intonation.
Scale Practice: I will use my scales today to work on the articulation from Mozart that was challenging yesterday; I will work the tempo up to X; after 10 minutes I will record my scales (and listen to them!) to determine if my articulation is where I want it.
Excerpts: Today I will work on Leonore for clear low register articulation, consistent sound in the intervals, and extreme dynamic change on the last note.
We’re not mindlessly running warm-up routines or playing excerpts from start to finish over and over again. Instead, we’re making analytical choices about what needs improvement and focusing our efforts on those specific choices. The bonus is that we have a sense of accomplishment at the end of each Pomodoro because we achieved a SMART goal!
2. Set a  minute timer. While you can use the timer on your phone, some of us (ahem…) may find the mere presence of the phone distracting. Other options: try kitchen timer or a pomodoro app that locks you out of your phone or computer during your session.
While the traditional Pomodoro suggests working in 25-minute increments, you have the agency to determine for yourself how long you’d like each Pomodoro to last. While you may need shorter sessions for warm-ups, sight-reading, or excerpts, it’s reasonable to prefer a longer session when digging into the slow movement of your concerto. Just keep your goals specific, whether you’re working for 15 minutes or 50.
3. When your session ends, mark off 1 Pomodoro and what you accomplished in your practice log. Taking a few brief notes after a session will help guide your goal setting the next time you approach the piece or excerpt. It also trains you to trust the work you’ve done and releases you from unhelpful, mindless repetition.
For example, if you have worked a technical passage in your Firebird excerpt and found that you are consistently struggling with specific measures (or beats within those measures,) take a note and set a smart goal around that for next time! No need to work the entire excerpt with a metronome if only a few measures are causing you trouble. You work better and more efficiently this way.
4. Take a  minute break. Keep the breaks relatively short and proportional to your Pomodoro. If you just worked for 45 minutes rather than 25, you’ll need some more time to rest your brain.
Tips for taking a break:
While your inclination may be to pick up your phone and scroll, as best as you can keep your breaks restorative. Step outside and look at the sky; do some gentle stretches; connect with a fellow practicer in the hallway; splash cold water on your face. Use your breaks to actually BREAK - recenter yourself so you can enter back into your practice refreshed.
I have a friend who has a rug in her practice space. When she stands on the rug, she is in focus mode; when she steps off the rug, she is in break mode. For you maybe that means stepping out of your practice room or walking up and down the hallway of your apartment building. Use physical cues to allow your brain to rest.
Allow yourself a sense of closure with your practice log. When you know what you have specifically accomplished, you are released from the stress of having to do more. You can close the book on your intonation on diminuendos for today and come back to it in another Pomodoro another day.
5. After  Pomodoros, take a longer break. For most of us, this would amount to a two-hour practice session. Your body and mind will certainly need a long break after that kind of intense work. Because the act of music-making is such a physical one, we must treat our bodies with respect and care. I’m sure we’re all guilty of playing too much one day without enough recovery; it can torpedo the next day’s work and plummet your confidence. Steady, consistent work with periods of physical and mental recovery are what we need.
Tips for Pomodoro-ing
Break large projects into bite-sized pieces. Obviously, you aren’t going to learn a concerto in 25 minutes. But, maybe you could have a basic handle on the expo of the first movement or the coda in that amount of time.
Bundle small goals together. In the long-tone and scale examples above, I grouped multiple small goals that could be worked simultaneously or consecutively into one Pomodoro.
Overlearning. When you meet your SMART goal for the Pomodoro and still have time left, rather than moving on to something else, use that time to reinforce the learning you have done. Try:
Recording yourself and listening back
Listening to the portion of the piece your excerpt comes from
Singing through your piece to develop your interpretation
Tackle memorizing the section you just worked
Give yourself grace. The Pomodoro technique is a tool to support your work. It doesn’t need to be implemented perfectly for it to be effective. Ultimately, the goal is to have focused, intentional practice sessions not to achieve the perfect execution of the Pomodoro Technique (I see you, perfectionists!)
I've created a FREE PRINTABLE for you to print off and post in your practice space until this strategy becomes second nature.
Learning how to effectively structure your practice is hugely supportive to your mindset as a classical musician. When you walk on stage, you have the confidence (and the tangible evidence in your practice log!) that you have done the work. You know that the time spent in the practice room was effective and productive and that you are well-equipped to execute your artistic vision on stage.
Give the Pomodoro Technique a try and see how it supports your work!
Next Steps and Additional Resources
Here at The Musician's Mindset, we have some incredible resources for developing and implementing mindset practices that will transform how you perform on stage.
First, check out our Personalized Mindset Tools Quiz to discover the mindset strategies perfect for YOU!
Schedule your FREE 30 Minute Call with Katie. It’s free. It’s my pleasure. And it’s the first step to releasing stage fright once and for all.
Founder of The Musician's Mindset
Katie is dedicated to helping musicians overcome stage fright and believe in their own unique artistic voice. She believes live classical music is a powerful antidote for the division, pain, and loneliness pervasive in the culture and strives to support all artists to confidently share their work with the world. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, three kiddos, a dog, a snake, and a goldfish named Orca.