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Stay Cool, Take Notes, and Use a Tomato

I've been a freelance violinist in Chicago for more than eight years now, and it’s brought me some pretty wonderful opportunities. I've played chamber music at Millennium Park, Ganz Hall, WBEZ, the Empty Bottle, and everywhere in between. As I've grown as a player, my performance opportunities have grown with me.

Career growth, and new challenges, are wonderful. But there’s a great saying that definitely applies: New level, new devil. At different stages in our careers as musicians, the stage gets bigger … and we’ve got to up our game. Maybe you’re a student whose teacher just assigned you the hardest concerto you’ve ever seen. Maybe you’re applying for graduate schools and looking at repertoire lists so long, your head is spinning. No matter who you are, sometimes what was “good enough” before just won’t cut it anymore.

Was my practice routine keeping up with my career growth? Honestly, no, and it was affecting my performances and my mental health. The need for an efficient, effective practice routine had become urgent. Frankly, getting onstage without enough preparation is so unpleasant, it might as well be a matter of life and death!

This year, I’ve challenged myself to find new ways to approach my practice. So far, I’m really happy with my results. My new approach involves three commandments:

1. Stay cool, and don’t beat yourself up.

2. Leave notes for your future self.

3. Use a tomato.

Let’s go through those in some detail.

Stay cool, and don’t beat yourself up.

I have an assignment for you. For the next seven days, every time you practice, I want you to listen very carefully to your inner monologue. Your inner monologue, whether you realize it or not, is running the practice show.

At the end of seven days, ask yourself: what kind of person is running the practice show around here? Is your inner voice kind, patient, and focused? Or are they mean, pessimistic, even abusive? Personally, sometimes I catch my inner voice saying things like “you’ll never be able to do this” or “you didn’t practice enough as a kid” or “it’s pointless to practice this anyway.” Not exactly an inspiring coach, huh?

No one wants to practice their instrument if the person running the practice session is a total jerk. So teach your inner taskmaster to be patient and kind, and you’ll be more inclined to keep your daily appointment. I’m now working to consciously say encouraging things to myself: “This is much better than yesterday,” or “the composer will be excited about my progress,” or ‘I’m learning so much working on this passage.” It may sound cheesy, but it’s a lot better than the alternative.

Leave notes for your future self.

My partner recently installed a whiteboard in my practice area for me, and it’s been a total game-changer. Each day, as I work through a particular piece, I make notes about what I’m doing and where I want to begin the next day.

For example, in mid-March I’m performing my friend Carolyn O’Brien’s solo violin piece, Caprice, which is quite challenging. These little whiteboard notes will help me get started on today’s practice session without scratching my head about what to do first.

a. Yesterday, I worked through it at Quarter Note = 50, experimenting with different bowings and making sure I’ve got the rhythms correct. So I made a note for myself that today, I’d like to try it at Quarter Note = 60. (The goal tempo is about 72.)

b. I cut my first fingernail too short yesterday, so made a note to revisit a left-hand pizzicato passage that will be less painful after 24 hours of nail growth.

c. The coda is very fast, so it demands a different practice technique. I made a note of my tempo progress.

It’s not rocket science, but leaving notes to my future self helps me stay organized, track my progress, and hit the ground running. Plus, whiteboards are fun.

Use a tomato.

I’ve had great success in the past few months with the Pomodoro Technique. This is a very simple technique that teaches you to (1) choose a task and focus on it, and (2) take breaks. You set a timer for 25 minutes, work without distraction, and then take a mandatory five-minute break. Repeat. Each 25-minute work session is called a pomodoro, which is Italian for tomato. I put my phone in airplane mode during work time. And I reward myself for each pomodoro by drawing one on -- you guessed it! -- my whiteboard.

Once your brain is tired from a few pomodoros in a row, you can start taking longer breaks. Read more about the technique here.

If you’re someone who gets overwhelmed thinking about all the work you have to do, try this technique. You’ll be astounded at what you can accomplish in 25 minutes! Plus, taking frequent breaks helps avoid that “fried” feeling you get from working too hard, too long.

(If you’re interested in hearing more about this technique, join my email list, the Email Huddle, and I’ll send you my awesome little worksheet: Making the Tomato Work For You.)

Happy practicing, and let me know how these tips work out for you!

Ellen McSweeney is a Chicago-based violinist, writer, singer, and songwriter. Learn about her career coaching services and artistic career workshops at Keep up with her musical projects at


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