By Miranda Wilson

Practice. Ever since our teachers taught us to sing “Doctor! Suzuki! Says never! Be lazy! But practice! And practice! Until you! Go crazy!” to the tune of Twinkle Variation B, we’ve known that it’s compulsory for anyone who intends to become a professional musician. You probably did your first practice under parental supervision, until you reached an age when you could be trusted to take care of it on your own. Maybe you found it energizing to get up early to practice before school, or for night owls, did it for an hour or two before bed. Either way, when you’re a high-school student, your practice space is your own and your practice schedule is up to you.

Like so many other aspects of daily life, practice changes radically when you leave home for college. Adjusting to being away from family for the first time can be a culture shock for anyone, and music students have to deal with the additional challenge of finding time and space for practice when both are at a premium. Your roommates and neighbors in the dorm are unlikely to appreciate your scales and études, so practicing in your bedroom is no longer an option. And while music schools have rooms designated for student practice, many a college freshman gets a nasty surprise when he realizes he can’t just walk into one whenever he wants and stay as long as he wants. Even when practice space is “first come, first served,” that doesn’t mean you can rely on getting a room. Add this to the pressure of a scary studio professor who demands upward of four hours of practice a day, and it’s no wonder so many students panic.

In college, no one is going to manage your time for you—your schedule is your business. Your studio professor and conductor are going to throw a lot of music at you, work quickly, and expect you to keep up. Your fellow students are your colleagues and competitors. It sounds daunting, but it’s also liberating if you learn how to successfully navigate the written and unwritten rules of music school. The practice-room survival strategies below will help you to get all your work done—while simultaneously satisfying your teachers and being a good colleague to your fellow students.

1. Practice During Off-Peak Hours

In a profession where much of the work is done in the evening, it’s no wonder musicians tend to be night owls. If you’re having trouble getting a practice room, the problem may be that you’re looking for them during peak hours. One conservatory student told me that she solves this problem by starting her practice at 6:00 am before the crowds arrive. This win-win situation enables her to get hours of practice done, plus, they’re over and done with before her morning classes and rehearsals begin. 

If getting up at half past five doesn’t appeal, you can try more extreme measures. At my undergraduate school, where there was a grand total of four practice rooms for the entire music department, it was almost impossible to get one during waking hours. My best friend and I came up with the ingenious plan of arranging our sleep schedules so that we could come in at two in the morning, when the music building was deserted. We practiced until dawn, then staggered home to sleep for a few hours before classes. We took another nap after orchestra in the evening, then got up again at one to head back to campus. It may sound crazy, but some of my happiest college memories come from those peaceful nights on campus with the distant sound of my friend’s cello keeping me company. While this wouldn’t be an option for older musicians with work and family commitments, it works great for an energetic young person with flexible sleeping habits and 24-hour building access.


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2. Treat Others as You’d Like to Be Treated

When it’s hard to get a practice room, it’s tempting once you find one to camp out in there all day. Most music schools have strict rules about this, however. Practice rooms are for practice only—not studying, sleeping, or eating. All the students I spoke to had their own pet peeves about practice-room etiquette. “The practice room is not your bedroom,” says one University of Kansas student, who has no problem with bursting into a room and shouting “Wakey wakey, Sleeping Beauty!” to anyone caught napping. Once, he was shocked to open the door to find a fellow student practicing without his clothes on in the dark. “I was like, ‘Honestly?! Wear your clothes!’” 

Other common complaints include unpleasant odors in practice rooms. “People need to take a shower and do their laundry before coming to school,” says a Montana State University graduate. It’s also considered bad manners to eat hot food in your practice room—and woe betide you if the piano technician catches you setting your water bottle down on a piano. Small wonder, then, that so many musicians subsist throughout the day on protein bars, which don’t leave crumbs or smells.

Once you finally bag a room, you may not be eager to give it up. Try not to leave it unattended, though, except for short visits to the restroom. One University of Colorado student became enraged at another student whose bathroom break turned into an hour-long departure from the practice room, where he had left his instrument, scores, and books. “I was desperate to practice and he wasn’t even using his room, so I moved his stuff out so that I could practice in there,” he told me. “When he came back, he yelled at me. I said ‘Dude, you left. It’s my room now.’ He was mad but he didn’t have a leg to stand on.”

To sum up: be considerate of others in the hopes that they’ll do the same for you.

3. Protect Your Health

Your family home may have been a solitary haven for practice, but practice spaces usually aren’t. It’s a rare music school that has perfectly sound-proofed practice rooms, and some have dangerously high decibel levels if you find yourself in the room next to someone playing a loud instrument, such as the trumpet or trombone. If you have no choice but to practice in loud environments, be sure to protect your hearing using medical-grade earplugs. Some audiologists will custom-make these for musicians who need ear protection but also need to hear what they’re doing.

4. Reframe Practice as a Performance

Even when conditions aren’t damaging to your hearing, some students find it hard to adjust to practicing within the earshot of others. One of my University of Idaho cello students told me that she got nervous playing scales in our campus practice-room building when she knew that other people could hear her. “I keep worrying that someone from studio is going to hear me playing scales and judge me,” she says. “What if they think I’m out of tune?” I tried to reassure her that everyone in our studio was kind and supportive, but then I realized that her self-consciousness might be the starting point for a new, reframed practice habit. What would happen if we practiced everything as if it were a performance? How many times have we wasted hours noodling about with poor intonation and a bad sound? What would happen if we practiced everything, everything, with our best concert-hall sound and were always listening to ourselves as intently as if someone else were listening? What would happen if we treated every practice session as an expressive performance, even in the earliest stages of learning a score? What if feeling nervous and judged in the practice room were actually excellent practice for dealing with those same anxious feelings in performance? 

5. Negotiate Larger Spaces Off-Campus

Depending on where you go to school, the practice-room issue can create a recurring dilemma. Ultimately, everyone is here to improve their skill level so that they can perform successfully. But it’s hard to do so in a tiny, acoustically non-optimal room. Sooner or later, most students realize that the kind of tone production necessary in the concert hall is very different from what sounds just fine in a practice room. Why not make initiatives in the community by connecting with people or organizations who can offer larger practice spaces? Many students negotiate the use of a church on weekdays, in return for playing at Sunday services or accompanying the choir. Other organizations, such as schools and nursing homes, will sometimes be glad to let a college music student practice in their facilities in exchange for performances or lessons. In addition, many retired people will eagerly open their homes to students needing practice space. When I was a student, I befriended an elderly patron of the arts whose large, high-ceilinged parlor was a perfect practice space to work on projecting tone production. She issued an open invitation for me to come by and practice—and even claimed to enjoy listening to my scales. 

Making the leap of faith to go to music school is an act of bravery. What you do when you get there isn’t just about practicing music, it’s about practicing adulthood. Time management, collegiality, entrepreneurship—the skills you teach yourself in the college practice room are the skills that set you up for your future in an exciting, fast-paced, varied profession.