Staying in Touch and On Top of It: Time Management for Music Majors

There are never enough hours in the day for a music major. But by knowing exactly what is expected of you and what you can accomplish, your fall semester is sure to be a successful one. .

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ur time as university students goes by so quickly, and it can be easy to spend time inefficiently and ineffectively when we’re not quite sure what we should be focusing on and for how long. From the airplane view, we attend school to learn our major by singing and performing and everything that entails, from voice lessons and coachings to staging rehearsals and choral and ensemble work. From the helicopter view, though, this rapidly expands to a multitude of related courses ranging from language, diction, music theory, and ear training to the many nonmusical courses included in both traditional liberal arts degrees and conservatory programs. In short, there are many demands on a music major’s time. 

Additionally, there are ongoing deadlines accompanied by major-specific pressures. For example, preparation for an upcoming recital or opera scenes performance can quickly overshadow—and steal time from—preparation for a paper or group project due the next week. Factor in the pressures that students feel from directors, conductors, and teachers all insisting that students make their area the priority, and you have a recipe for a “time management learning experience.” 

And that learning experience can come in the form of a poor grade, sleeping through a test, or a poor performance experience. That same recipe, however, can also present an opportunity to make an attainable plan, follow it, and keep calm throughout the work. Here we’ll discuss two critical components of time management—communication and experimentation—in hopes of creating more ease in work/life balance, saving students time for rest, jobs, and gigs outside of school. 

Staying Connected with Studio and Classroom Teachers 

University students have a lot to manage—academically, artistically, and personally—and the structures and timelines provided by school form excellent scaffolding for creating and growing effective time management skills. Course syllabi make up a significant portion of this scaffolding and lay out a student’s obligations and expectations for assignments, tests, and related due dates over the span of a semester. The same is usually true in the voice studio, and even if a primary teacher doesn’t distribute a semester syllabus, expectations are frequently set in conversation and through degree requirements such as upper divisional hearings and recitals. 

What’s less clear is figuring out precisely how long something will take to accomplish, like physicalizing an adjustment into your technique or understanding how to quickly identify and build augmented sixth chords for a theory quiz. And for those new to life away from home, navigating the basic how’s and where’s of college life—transportation, laundry room culture, social life, etc.—can make forging a path to effective time management complicated. 

Happily, there is help, and it’s usually nearby. Whether you’re one summer out of high school or returning to campus for graduate school, universities and conservatories are rich with resources and offices aimed at helping students make the most of their academic and personal lives as well as manage the inevitable stress and anxiety. For this conversation, let’s talk teachers. 

Teachers do not root for students to become overwhelmed, stressed out, and fail. Most would much rather take some extra time in a voice lesson, after class or, better yet, in a scheduled office hour to answer questions a student may feel self-conscious asking, including “How often and how much should I practice?” “What should I practice?” “How do I know when I’m done practicing?” or, quite simply, “How do I practice?” 

While at first it might feel embarrassing or simplistic to ask any of these questions, it’s helpful to remember how quickly college goes by and how much money it costs! Being a music major isn’t about convincing your teacher that you know everything. It’s largely about learning how you learn and developing effective career and life habits for school and beyond. Quite simply, we’re leaving musical money on the table when we’re embarrassed to ask questions with answers that will almost immediately bolster our efficiency and reveal to us how long we should expect something, or some assignment, to take. 

Thoughtful conversations about practicing can empower a student to grow and cultivate their technique and artistry. More effective still, such discussions give teachers a much clearer view of what’s being communicated effectively in a lesson and which concepts and adjustments might be getting lost in translation, description, or imagery. 

Some teachers require a practice journal as part of the syllabus, and this is yet another tool for seeing—in writing—how long (or how quickly) something takes to accomplish. Skill level, age, and experience introduce a multitude of variables here, yet the primary takeaway is that communication is helpful and instructive, especially in the case of someone new to the concept of practicing—many college freshmen successfully pass auditions and enroll in programs without a solid, personal practice routine in place. 

Communication and time management are closely linked. When we’re behind or out of touch, we can waste a lot of time imagining or misinterpreting the expectations of another person. Remember, reaching out for help and instruction is at the very heart of why we go to college—to be shown how to understand and how to do things and, in many cases, how to learn to teach others to do the same. 

This simple concept of connection serves as an important reminder that staying connected isn’t limited simply to social media, the news, and keeping in touch with family and friends. For instruction that is not individualized, it’s critical to maintain connection with your teachers online where possible (through online curricular tools like Blackboard and Canvas) in order to more clearly understand the teachers’ expectations and keep a manageable pace with coursework, assignment deadlines, and other class requirements. 

Time Management and a Tomato 

Remember, whether you’re a student or teacher, we don’t all get the hang of time management the same way. Some of us have grown up with wonderful time management role models, while others of us are inclined to print a final paper and start a load of laundry five minutes before class starts. Intentions are a big part of building effective time management skills, but it’s in the act of trying something out (and trying again) that we adjust, become efficient, and find our rhythm. 

Do you remember how things went the first time you tried to ride a bike or play something in 6/8 time? If we’re fortunate, we have someone around to encourage us and show us some grace during our first attempts at something new. But even if that’s the case, the ball is ultimately in our court as we commit tasks and concepts to muscle memory. 

Provided we’re following the instructions, syllabi, and advice of those showing us the way—our teachers, in this case—we can assume we have some safety for trial and error in developing our learning and practice habits. When we’re not behind in class, readings, etc., we have the luxury of having a little more time and less anxiety while actually figuring out how long it takes us to practice a concept, learn and memorize music and text, or synthesize our research in an essay or paper. 

I’m a big fan of breaking tasks down into smaller increments of time and I frequently advise my voice students to set a timer on their phones for anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes for a practice assignment. I find that when we break things down into simpler, shorter tasks, they become easier to conceptualize and then repeat, and the larger goal is less overwhelming. 

The Pomodoro Technique formalizes this a bit more while keeping it simple. A quick Google or Wikipedia search reveals that the Pomodoro Technique (named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer) advises you to decide on a task, pursue it for 25 minutes, note your progress on what you’re getting done in that time, take strategic breaks, and continue “doing pomodoros.” The actual instructions are a bit more specific, but the gist is that you start developing a knowledge of what you can accomplish in a given time, while building a rhythm and routine of strategic work and breaks. 

Keep it simple. Setting a timer and making a quick note of how far you get while you’re writing a paper, answering an essay question, or warming up provide simple, easy-to-repeat tasks that help build powerful habits of self-awareness and task management. Further still, building up a repertoire of study and practice habits helps us avoid the common pitfall of putting large projects off to the last minute in unrealistic time frames. 

Discussion topics surrounding time management do, of course, extend far beyond the primary topics of communication and task management covered here (e.g., avoiding TikTok and Twitter rabbit holes, finding balance in Zoom calls to friends and family, etc.). Yet do yourself a favor and dedicate some time and focus to the topics discussed here. 

As you begin the semester, make a list of practice- and progress-related questions for your applied teacher (email them in advance or have them ready at your first lesson) and take time for a meaningful discussion of how your progress goals line up with your teacher’s goals for you. Some of these questions may turn into questions that you’ll regularly address with your classroom teachers at the start of future semesters. 

By developing a better awareness of what’s expected of you, and what you can reasonably expect from yourself (in a timespan ranging from 25 minutes to 24 hours), you’ll be better equipped to set both attainable goals and clear boundaries, saving valuable time in the process. And with this comes a better awareness of how many extra/free hours you realistically have for the part-time jobs and gig work that are critical in the lives of so many students. Happy fall semester! You’ve got this! 

Peter Thoresen

Dr. Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Moulin Rouge! and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct voice faculty member at Pace University and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City; he also serves as music director with Broadway Star Project. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and Broadway Kids Auditions (BKA) and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com, @peter.thoresen (Insta), and @DrPetesTweets (Twitter).