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Practice Friend or Practice Enemy: The Great Cell Phone Debate

It’s gone beyond a fad.

In 2015, Fortune magazine reported that 54% of e-book buyers were reading them on their smart phones. In 2017, Fortune reported on a newer survey that showed that 85% of adults were reading their news on a mobile device. And smartphone ownership and usage continues to rise. In fact, the chances are good that you’re reading this on a smartphone or mobile device right now.

Chances are also very good that you have discovered the many ways that your smartphone or tablet can help you in your musical studies too. I have found that an entire bagful of equipment and music can now be reduced to a single device. Technology is amazing and wonderful. When it works.

For all the many ways your cell phone can be convenient – and indeed, smart – tool to help you practice, it does have a couple of very significant drawbacks that could actually sabotage your practice efforts. If you’re aware of them, however, you can take steps to make sure that your phone stays a practice friend instead of becoming a practice enemy.

Let’s begin with a quick review of some of the many conveniences your mobile device offers a musician like you, starting with the features built directly into it.

The voice recorder or memo function and the video recorder are powerful tools for any musician. You can check your work as you practice or prepare for performances. You can send video or audio clips to a teacher for review, or to a friend who needs a little music to brighten their day. You can create and send audition recordings or save your favorite performances to share with your family.

The stopwatch and timer functions are useful for timing the length of pieces you want to add to a program, or timing your practice sessions. And of course, the alarm function can help you keep moving in your practice session so you don’t get bogged down on one piece and end up with no time to practice the others.

And then there’s the web browser, your keys to an unlimited amount of information. Whether you love YouTube or Wikipedia or sheet music websites or just being able to learn more about the harp, anything you need to know is a couple of clicks away. This kind of resource was unimaginable just a few years ago.

Let’s not forget the apps. You can digitize, read, store and catalog your sheet music. You can leave those extra tuners and metronomes in their boxes, because they are all on your phone. There are apps to help you practice and learn theory and connect with other harpists. You can even have your app “play” a piece of music for you so you can hear what it sounds like before you buy it. Almost everything a musician could need is available in an app somewhere; the only thing left for you to do is to actually practice and play.

So where’s the bad news? How could such a powerful device have a dark side?

Let me warn you in case you haven’t experienced it yet: your cell phone, tablet or other device has a dark side and it is perhaps even more powerful. It is a sneak thief. And what it steals from you is time and focus.

According to the U.S. edition of the 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Survey from Deloitte, the average American adult checks their smartphone 52 times per day. If you spend an average of 70 seconds each time, you have spent an hour just checking your phone. That’s an hour you don’t have to spend on anything else.

But the issue isn’t really that one hour. The bigger problem is that each of us is building a deep habit of looking at our phones many times a day. We scroll through Facebook when we are in line at the bank. We respond to text messages and emails during family time. It makes it second nature to check Instagram before we turn on the tuner or take one last look at email before we start to practice.

Even worse, that text notification becomes our cue to stop whatever we are playing and to check the text, “just in case it’s important.” It’s not a loss of one moment to check the text. It’s the loss of focus and the time it takes to find that focus again to get back to work.

As one friend of mine told me recently, “I love my practice app. But the problem is that I can pause it. So I can rest between pieces, pause the app and check Facebook. It’s hard to resist.”

So what are we to do? It seems a shame to banish this powerful tool from our practice rooms, but the pull of distraction it offers is takes a lot of effort to resist. I don’t have a perfect solution to offer you, but I can share my own strategy.

Only very rarely do I take my cell phone into my practice room. I go “old school;” I use my older tuners and metronomes and keep a written practice journal rather than use a practice app. When I need one of the other functions of my smartphone like the stopwatch, I am very careful not to succumb to temptation to look at the latest post, text or update. My phone is on silent and all my notifications are turned off. Airplane mode and I are best buddies.

One easier solution is to have a dedicated music tablet which has no apps at all on it that aren’t music-related. That means no email, no social media, no games, no newsfeeds. Just a tuner, a metronome, a music-reading app, a practice app and the like. The fewer apps, the fewer distractions you will face.  

My best advice? Be aware of the danger and do your best to put that smartphone out of sight and reach. Even better – be smart about your smartphone and simply turn it off!

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