Play it Forward to Manage Your Playlist

Potluck Creative Arts Lesson LineSimply Music

Every Simply Music teacher is also a Simply Music student, whether they study with another teacher or by themselves, since we all must learn all the pieces and projects in order to teach them. In addition to being a Simply Music teacher and student, my daughter takes lessons, and I serve as her practice coach. So from all possible angles, I know how much of a challenge it can be to manage a Simply Music repertoire and, in particular, the Playlist itself.

Over time, we’ve tried a number of different things to make life easier and stay effective and efficient at keeping both current projects and repertoire pieces in good shape, including all the things I described in Simplifying Playlist Management as well as Keeping the Repertoire Alive. There are lots of good ideas here. Recently, I came up with another idea that has made a big difference in managing my daughter’s Playlist and, consequently, her whole practice routine. I call it the “Play it Forward” method Playlist management, and it’s really very easy to do in practice.

When you practice a song, take a look at how many days it’s been since you last practiced it. If you practiced it perfectly or near perfectly, then you can stand to wait longer until the next time you practice it, so take that number of days and add one. If you practiced it really well but not perfectly and it feels like the song will still be fine if you want the same amount of time again, just keep the same number of days in mind. If you practiced it less than really well, then make a judgment about how much smaller to make the number so that you’ll be practicing that song again as soon as may be needed to get it back in shape. Now, look ahead past your current practice day in your Playlist, counting out that new number of days. In the box, write the number.

Once you’ve done this for all your songs, you’ll not only know that you’re practicing each song as often as it needs to be practiced. You’ll also know you’re practicing each song as little as it needs to be practiced, helping you cut down your overall practice time, just like I talked about last month in With Piano Practice, Less Can Be More.

There’s another tremendous benefit, though. You’ll never again need to wonder what repertoire pieces to practice. All you have to do is look in the current day’s column. Whatever projects have a number written there, those are the pieces you need to practice that day. When you practice a piece, just put your check, X or whatever other mark over the number so that you’ll know it’s been done — just like you always did — and then go write the new number however far ahead you pick for that same piece. With all your songs moved into this system, you won’t ever even need to look back to count how many days it’s been since you last practiced a song — you’ll have that answer right there in the number written down for the current day, making it even easier to figure out what the next number should be for each song.

Now I’ll respond to all the questions I imagine people will have, because at some point along the way I had them myself.

Why can’t I choose what to practice? On one hand, it’s understandable that you may not like the idea of not getting to choose. On the other hand, remember, you can always play whatever pieces you want, as often as you want, outside of practice time. That’s when you can always have all the choice you want. And also remember, you don’t get to choose your current projects, since they’re assigned to you. Practice time should be about doing not what you want to do but what you need to do in order to keep everything going as well as possible. With the “Play it Forward” system, you’ll no longer need to figure out what needs to be done and wonder if you’re making good choices for keeping your repertoire alive. In effect, each song “tells” you what needs to be done, how much practice it needs, when it needs it.

Can’t I increase more than one day if I want to? Sure, you can. Nobody’s stopping you. Just be careful. The faster you “play it forward,” the more likely you are to find that you’ve lost ground by the next time you practice a piece — just like you may already know from waiting too many days before practicing a piece again. This creates more work for yourself. I think it’s better to take an incremental approach. If you really have a song down, after just four weeks you can move a song from being played daily (every 1 day) to being played weekly (every 7 days), just by increasing by a single day each time. After a little more than year after that, you’ll be playing that song monthly (every 28 days) — and you’ll have maintained complete confidence and perfection in that song at every step of the way.

How do I decide how many days to decrease a piece if it’s not in solid shape? Use your best judgment, and take into consideration the current number. The smaller the number, the fewer choices you have — a 4 can only go to a number 1-5, while a 20 can go to a number 1-21. The easiest approach seems to be to get to know what perfection feels like for increasing by one, to get to know what not-quite-perfection feels like so you can feel confident at least keeping the number the same, and to just use your best judgment with any decrease. The more diligent you are with playing songs forward, the less often you’ll ever need to decrease a number anyway!

What about current projects? Keep following the advice in Managing Current Projects, giving each an appropriate amount of time each day you practice. If you’d like to play them forward with the numbers, you can — and they’ll always be 1, because current projects are always supposed to be practiced daily! If the pencil dots in the margin are enough for you, then you can just play your repertoire pieces forward and not worry about numbers at all for your current projects.

Won’t some days end up with only a few songs to practice, while others end up with a lot more? Yes — and everything in between is possible, too. If your schedule can handle this variation in daily practice time, then you’ll know that you’re giving everything just the right amount of practice, all the time, like Goldilocks’ just-right porridge and bed. If you have a need to even things out more, you can always move certain songs to different days to make that happen. See below.

What happens if I can’t (or won’t) play a song on the day it’s been “played forward”? Sometimes you may need to skip a day of practice. Sometimes may just want to skip a day of practice. Sometimes, there may be a particular song you want to put off for some reason, whether it’s making your practice time more even from day to day or otherwise. With however many or few songs you want or need, you can always just play them further forward. If a song was a 5 for today, write a 6 for tomorrow, and don’t put a mark over the 5. You don’t have to be a slave to the numbers, but you should listen to what they’re telling you. Every time you play a song further forward, you’ve stretched beyond what that song wanted. Do it as often as you need, but try not to do it anymore often than necessary. The Playlist will get cluttered and confusing, and your pieces are likely to suffer. Also, try to practice “further forward” pieces first, as a way of catching up and keeping everything as close to “on track” as possible. Of course, also remember, you can also always plays pieces “backward,” or, rather, less forward — if you’ve got a light day today, you can always get ahead by practicing pieces marked down for tomorrow.

How do I transition to this approach if I haven’t been doing it from the start? It’s true that the easiest way to do this is to do it from the start for each song — the moment a piece stops being a current project and enters your repertoire, you can start playing it forward, deciding whether to keep the number at 1 for a bit for daily practice or whether it’s ready to bump up to 2, and then just keep going from there. For any other song not yet playing it forward, you can just start with however many days it’s been since the last practice and go from there, or if you think there’s a better number to use, whether bigger or smaller, go ahead and just be sensitive to adjusting it later as needed. The biggest thing you need to know about making the transition is that, until all your songs are playing it forward, you’re going to need to look in two places to figure out what songs to play on any given day — the played-forward numbers, and the rest of your repertoire that hasn’t been played forward yet. Use your best judgment about how many not-yet-transitioned songs to transition in each day, chipping away until they’re all playing forward. Do your best to also practice all the songs that have already been played forward for each day, so that you don’t get behind. The switch may be a little tricky, but once you’ve transitioned everything, it gets much easier.

Leave a comment below!

6 comments for “Play it Forward to Manage Your Playlist

  1. sue coles
    May 29, 2010 at 12:44 am

    brilliant idea re playing forward

  2. April 14, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Thank you for the tips on playing forward to manage the playlist

    Lilly Stimson from living water aeration

  3. September 8, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks, Mark! This is very helpful! Will share your
    suggestions with my students. 🙂

  4. Mia
    May 6, 2014 at 9:22 am

    Thanks, great approach in managing the playlist!

    • May 6, 2014 at 10:38 am

      Glad you like it! I’ve heard from other Simply Music teachers that their students are benefitting from this approach. It’s a real win-win — keep your stuff in good shape, with the lowest possible amount of effort. Enjoy!

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