Does 5 Minutes a Day Make a Difference?

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clockWe all know that if you practice between rehearsals, you develop skills faster and retain more of the music learned than if you don’t. And everybody I know always intends to do more between rehearsals than they actually do (including me of course).

I was at a workshop recently where we were being exhorted to practice various exercises regularly as a way to improve our vocal skills, and being assured that just a few minutes a day would make all the difference. And it occurred to me that the problem with this message isn’t its content, it’s the follow-through: everyone agrees with the principle, but do they do anything about it? (Well, they might a couple times in the following week…but then Real Life takes over again.)

I came away with two questions from this:

  1. How much difference does ‘just a few minutes’ a day actually make?
  2. How do you get people to do it?

The term ‘just a few minutes’ is clearly intended to indicate that it can fit in with a life that is already busy. Ask someone to do an hour a day, and unless they see singing as a central part of their life into which they are currently focusing significant attention, they are going to balk. But ‘a few minutes’ – that’s possible. We waste that every day in waiting for the kettle to boil.

But by the same token, ‘just a few minutes’ sounds kind of unimportant. It might be easy to fit in, but it’s even easier to leave out. Forgot to practise today? Never mind, it was only a few minutes.

So, to even get a chance at answering question 1, you need a strategy to solve question 2. And my current hypothesis is that to do that, it needs to be more precise and more structured. I propose to change the open-ended ‘just a few minutes per day’ to ‘5 minutes every day for a month’. Setting boundaries makes it easier, because it’s clearer when you’ve achieved the goal.

Five minutes is still an undemanding quantity, but because it is precise, it becomes easier to see where it might get slotted in to the day. And limiting the commitment period to a month has two effects. On one hand, it’s more manageable, because it doesn’t feel like you are giving over your entire life to it. On the other hand, it’s more urgent – miss a day from a finite number and you’ll never get that day back. And there also needs to a sense of practice regime – a to-do list of activities that differentiate practice time from just singing about the house.

That still leaves open the question about how much difference 5 minutes will make, of course. From one perspective, you’d expect it to be largely ineffective, as it is an absurdly short time. You’re hardly even starting to get warmed up vocally in 5 minutes, let alone getting into that deep musical part of the brain. But from another perspective, it would still be infinitely more than not doing it, and so could make real and lasting changes. Just connecting with that part of the brain every day should slow down the loss of progress between rehearsals.

I’m interested in this not just at a theoretical level; I’d like to know for real. My first plan was to ask singers from Magenta to participate in an experimental 5 minutes a day for a month programme and feedback how they got on. Then it occurred to me that I have singer friends all over the world who may be interested in joining in.

So, this is an open invitation to participate in my practice experiment.* We’ll be running it during the month of June (cunningly chosen to coincide with a new intake of members in my choir), and details of how to join in will follow in Saturday’s blog post.

*Obviously, the term ‘experiment’ is used in the casual form here of ‘I wonder what would happen if…well, let’s give it a go and see’. Hard-core empiricists will no doubt tut at the validity of my results. But I’ve already mapped out my position vis-à-vis hard-core empiricism in the arts in Chapter 2 of my choral conducting book and don’t need to go through it all again here. Anyway, human testimony of experience is valid information, and that's what we're after here.

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