Tips for Getting (and Staying) Organized

Taking a week off from the recent “Friday Review” series, I thought it might be interesting to talk about the subject of organization. Now I’m not an organizational professional, but during my student years and now as a college teacher and busy performer, I manage to keep my activities fairly well organized. I fully realize that organization is not something that comes naturally to everyone, nor is it even something that all people desire. If you function just fine in your professional and personal endeavors without a system of organization, then you have both my congratulations – and envy! However, I would guess that the number of people who genuinely thrive amidst disarray is smaller than you think.  While some people seem to have a natural inclination towards organizing (my wife, for example), it is a skill which I believe anyone can learn. Even though some aspects of the organized life don’t always come easily to me, I am definitely a fan of it – in my line of work it is an absolute necessity. In my case – and perhaps in yours as well – organization has yielded the following benefits.

  • A better sense of my short term and long term obligations
  • More time to pursue various projects (like blogging)
  • Better, and more efficient, access to my teaching and practice materials
  • Less stress!

The final benefit in this short list is reason I enough I think to give organization a try. If you’re a music student aspiring to be an educator (at any level), orchestral player, freelancer, or any of the other possible careers in our field, start getting organized today. The eventual payoffs of being organized far outweigh the effort it takes to get there. Here’s a short list of tips to help you get started.

  1. Make a schedule. Whether print or electronic, schedules and calendars are a basic tool for getting and staying organized. Applications like those offered by Google and other companies can do wonders for organizing your activities.  Use tags to color-code different kinds of obligations, and update your calendar/schedule as soon as it changes. Back up everything regularly!
  2. Folders are your friends. I use manila folders to organize music, paperwork, and various other projects. Each time I start a new project, I create a folder for that project and label it. Create new folders on your computer’s desktop if you have electronic materials related to a specific project or activity. For physical folders, use a file cabinet (a portable one is great if you’re a student or travel frequently).  As you complete projects, either get rid of those folders or archive them.
  3. Organize your practice materials. Numbers 1 and 2 above are related to this, but since this is a music-related website I thought it deserved its own category. Think about it this way. Lets say you spend approximately 1-2 minutes every practice session looking for the music you want to practice.  Doesn’t sound like much, does it?  Multiply that by 3 (3 practice sessions per day, on average), which equals 6 minutes.  Now, multiply 6 minutes by 350 (average number of practice days per year), which equals 2,100 minutes, or 35 hours. Imagine what you could do with 35 more hours of practice time. My system works like this. Make separate stacks (or folders) for each of the following: warm-up/daily routines, solos, chamber music, etudes, excerpts, and anything else that you think needs its own category (upcoming performances, for example). If you perform with several different ensembles, use a separate folder for each ensemble. In addition, put a post-it note  with the date of each upcoming performance (if pertinent) on each pile of music.  It might sound a bit obsessive, but for me this really helps prioritize practice time. Realistically I can’t get through everything each day, so having a running schedule of what is coming up lets me know how to structure my practice sessions. For example, in my “upcoming performances” stack I have post-its for March 24, April 6, April 14, April 16, and April 18.  As I make my way through the practice rotation for these performances, I try to touch on everything over the course of a week or so, while emphasizing those works which are coming up soon.
  4. Make lists. Make daily “to do” lists and long term lists, maybe even separating the long term list into items you want to complete within a semester, a year, or just “sometime.” As you complete things, mark them off the list. When it comes to tasks that invite procrastination, there’s nothing like seeing them on a list to spur me into action.
  5. Keep your professional/academic activities organized and up to date. This means keeping your C.V., résumé, references, or other materials current and easily accessible. Organize and archive audio and video recordings of your performances by date and/or category so that you can easily find them. If you update your vitae regularly, you won’t have to spend hours editing and revising things when you want to apply for jobs, music festivals, etc.

These are merely some suggestions. If you have your own system that works, then by all means use it. One of the most important things about organization is that it helps you divide your workload into smaller, more easily manageable portions. Taken in small pieces over time, even the biggest tasks become possible.

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Ever since the year off between my undergrad and graduate work I have made use of a binder. The current moment it has material I use for daily exercises, etudes I’m working on, my solo repitiore and ensemble music fits in the back sleeve. I break it up into sessions (for my exercises) so I know when I sit down for a practice session I can get right to work.

To keep things fresh I rotate the material every 4 – 6 weeks from a collection of exercises I have found to be the most useful to me in the past or with totally new things to work on certain skill sets.


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