How to Balance an Active Performing Schedule and a Teaching Career
From the Winter 2016 issue of Classical Guitar | BY CHRISTOPHER MALLETT
The one thing most guitarists have in common is their love of performing. While performing may not be what first brought us to music, it certainly can be the glue that holds us there. After all, who doesn’t love applause? But finding the time to prepare for a performance can be difficult. It’s no secret that the majority of classical guitarists graduating with a performance degree will supplement a substantial part of their income from teaching. As performance majors, students spend the bulk of their college education preparing to go out into the world as full-time performers, while receiving little training on teaching students or learning other entrepreneurial aspects required to become a professional musician. Even with teaching as a primary source of income, guitarists can still enjoy a successful concert career as long as they learn how to balance and manage their time. I spoke with several professional guitarists about their experiences and methods of balancing time between performing and teaching.
Time management is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when preparing for a concert while also teaching full-time. In addition to performing internationally as a soloist and in an ensemble setting, Connie Sheu also teaches at the Pasadena Conservatory in southern California and is the general manager of the Guitar Foundation of America. For Sheu, having a full schedule has its benefits: “Sometimes, having less time actually makes my practicing more efficient. I often feel more focused and determined to make the most with shorter periods of practice time interspersed throughout the day, and I genuinely crave time with my guitar if other things have been keeping me busy.”
Josinaldo Costa is director of the classical guitar program at Servite High School in Orange County, California. He also organizes two major guitar festivals in Europe. Costa says, “I don’t use any elaborate method to manage my time. I simply make sure that there are reasonable amounts of time to be dedicated to each task. However, I try to be as strict as possible with the schedule I set for myself, and to maintain a daily routine and keep very clear goals in mind. In my experience, the problem in managing time is not the manner of management itself, but rather in diminishing the amounts of unproductive time. A routine really helps me, as I feel that frequently I lose the most time in preparing (or planning) to complete a task than with the task itself.”
Whether teaching private lessons at a music studio or at the college level, our teaching load typically decreases during the summer months. Though it may be a financial burden, it can also be a fantastic time to plan an entire season’s repertoire, contact concert venues, or even record an album. Matthew McAllister, who divides his time between performing internationally and teaching at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the University of St. Andrew, usually finds himself very busy during term time. “There is not much free time in each week. I have to make the most of the summer break and do as much touring and as many festivals as possible during this period,” he says.
MAKE EVERY MINUTE COUNT
As a concert approaches, the teaching does not stop, but how can we pull time out of thin air? It’s there; we just have to make every minute (and second!) count. Try to take advantage of that gap in your schedule when a student calls in sick, or if a friend is running late, use those 10 minutes to work on a passage that has been giving you trouble. Everyone I interviewed takes advantage of their limited time in different ways, but they all acknowledge that focusing on challenging sections of music is a crucial part of practice, no matter how much time one has.
McAllister feels that “zero procrastination and only working on the challenging aspects of the repertoire,” is one strategy to use when you have limited time to practice. “If I have 10 minutes to practice then it is only spent tackling the most demanding areas of the music. Try consolidating your practice time to make sure all the necessary practice points for an upcoming concert are hit.”
Not every practice session will be ideal, of course. Often, something in our daily routine needs to be sacrificed to fit everything into our schedule. Sheu says, “I skip the technique drills and scales and instead create technique drills out of passages in my repertoire, and do slow practice of difficult passages.”
We can also take advantage of our time by not limiting our concert preparation to the practice room. “Score studying helps when there’s little time,” Costa says. “You can do that on the metro/bus or during any sort of break that you don’t have the guitar with you.” Seattle, Washington–based international performing and recording artist Hilary Field says, “While traveling on a plane, I’ll work on writing the music out on staff paper from memory. I feel secure when I am able to hear the entire piece in my head, visualize the notes and harmonies, and visualize the fingerings. A lot of these strategies can be done without guitar in hand, and are pretty intense practice methods for really understanding the music.”
One of the keys to becoming a more confident performer is feeling secure with the repertoire you are preparing for an upcoming engagement. The confidence it takes to play on stage can only be achieved by spending a great deal of time with the music you are planning to perform. The tasks that we face in our daily lives can at times feel overwhelming, and what usually falls by the wayside is a consistent practice schedule. Reviewing pieces from previous concerts, in addition to learning new repertoire, can actually be an excellent way to save time. “I try to maintain a varied assortment of music in a somewhat ready-to-perform state,” Costa says. “This means that if something comes up in a short time-frame, a substantial amount of the work is already done— especially the work that requires the most time: memorizing, learning a particular technique, etc.”
“I do quite a bit of practicing in my head, to hear and visualize the score, and to understand the music beyond the fingers on the strings,” says Field. “I also work on breaking out of muscle memory to reinforce a deeper grasp of the music. I break the music into sections and practice starting at random sections. I practice a phrase, drop my hands, and wait before I continue in order to break the chain of muscle memory. I work on understanding all the harmonic changes and the form. If there are multiple phrases that are similar but with slight changes, I’ll play those back–to-back to understand the similarities and differences.”
Many guitarists will eventually find themselves in a situation where they will have to prepare multiple performances in a short time. Sometimes each concert can require completely different repertoire. A practice log can be a beneficial way to manage and organize daily practice. McAllister explains, “I have a simple graph—I got the idea from David Russell—where I list the days of the month against the repertoire I am preparing, and I make a note of what I practice and on which days. I use varying colors of ink to record how well the practice is progressing. This chart can help highlight how things are developing and show me at a glance what needs work.”
Still, maintaining a practice log does not work for everyone. “I have tried, but I found that it didn’t help me much,” Costa says. “In fact, the log itself became another task to be dealt with and an end in itself. There is a place for discipline and organization in practice, for obvious reasons, however, completely removing the aspect of chance and non-regimented enjoyment from the routine can really damage one’s relationship to the instrument. Having said that, we all have different personalities and problems and therefore, we need different solutions.”
Field believes that to have a successful performance career, you must “be prepared to take a serious look at your commitment to being a musician through all the ups and downs that come with being an artist. Always put your best self forward not only as a performer, but also in all of your professional interactions.”
Finding the balance between performing and teaching may be difficult, but finding time to do the things that we love creates a more fulfilling and meaningful career as a musician.
Christopher Mallett is a performing guitarist, recording artist, and co-owner and teacher at the California Conservatory of Guitar.