This is almost always the first question about music practice that students ask me. And with busy schedules loaded with school, work, financial responsibilities, and family responsibilities, it’s a smart question to ask and one to which we should definitely have an answer.
All of us know that we need to practice to improve but let’s be honest; most of us would rather move quickly through the practice bit and start playing ASAP. Of course, this perspective has the potential to create serious motivation problems and negatively affect the quality of our practice. So, to counteract this we need to address 4 important points: 1) perspective & goals, 2) consistency, 3) enjoyment & 4) practice strategy.
Perspective & Goals
My wife and I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu several years ago. It was a very challenging hike with lots of rain combined with a very high altitude, low oxygen levels, and really steep and narrow trails. It took us 3 days and 2 nights of 6-8 hour hikes to get to Machu Picchu and when we finally made it we both felt amazing! Even though the hike was grueling at times, we realized that we enjoyed the journey as much as, if not more than, Machu Picchu.
Similarly, in music, we need to think of our journey (i.e., practice) not only as a challenging process but as one that necessarily ends in gratification. Of course, practicing a musical instrument should never feel physically grueling, but it can certainly feel mentally exhausting and even a tiny bit physically demanding. That said, if we base our goals on improvement rather than time or repetition amount, we will naturally celebrate this improvement at the end of every practice session. Try it this week and let me know how it goes in the comments below!
The second thing we need to do is to be as consistent with practice as possible. Improving in a musical instrument is like anything else we want to get good at. Our desired results manifest with consistent improvement over time (which, in music, could be 5 to 20 years depending on your goal). I haven't run across any research that has studied a minimum amount of days required for high proficiency in music — if you find something let me know — but there's plenty out there that have studied expert musicians. Turns out that they all tend to practice around six days a week for 2 to 4 hours a day, almost every single week.
Anecdotally, I have seen students make significant progress with as little as two days of practice a week for a maximum of 60 minutes per day. This practice occurred almost every single week for about 3 years. I'm not suggesting that this should be the minimum or even an ideal practice schedule but it’s certainly a good reference point.
What I have seen in the last 20+ years of teaching and playing is that consistency in improvement practice rather than practice time is what makes the biggest difference in someone’s progress. Ideal practice time is different for everyone and depends a lot on the complexity of our music, our endurance, and all of our other life responsibilities.
With that in mind, this week, make your goal to practice for a minimum of 10 minutes at least every other day. You're free to practice only up to 60 minutes in a given practice session but no less than 10 -- and no more than 3 practice sessions per day. If you have to miss a day or even a week every now and then, it's really not a big deal. Just pick it back up as soon as you can and do your best to be as consistent as your schedule allows. And, of course, instead of checking off practice on your to-do list at the end of the 10 minutes, check it off only if every repetition you completed was aimed at improvement.
The third thing we need to do is to always include playing for enjoyment and expression in our daily practice routine. Personally, if I only have a few minutes left in my practice time, I'll stop working on improvement and play for fun with an exclusive focus on expression. I find that this is a great way to stay motivated and remind myself why I got into music to begin with. When you do this, just make sure to pick pieces, etudes, or exercises that you enjoy and can play easily. Make sure to ignore mistakes and instead, focus on enjoying and expressing your music.
Strategy: Repetition Amount & Practice Time
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to learn how to work smarter rather than harder in the practice room. In addition to exerting more physical effort, working harder is often equated with more repetitions and more time in the practice room. As I mentioned before, it’s okay if practice feels mentally demanding — it will most of the time — but it should never feel physically exhausting. (Check out my previous post on how MPE and MME help you improve faster).
Fortunately, scientific research on this topic shows that we can get way more out of our practice by making our goals improvement-based rather than time or repetition-based (like I mentioned earlier). For example, instead of planning on practicing for 30 minutes and doing 10 repetitions of each phrase, we can make our goals much more specific. Here are a few examples:
Select 3-5 challenge spots (CSs) and play them with rhythmic accuracy and clear dynamics.
Memorize the fingering for the first musical phrase of a specific piece.
Select 3 CSs and play them slowly & with a good tone.
Develop 3 dynamic shapes for the first section of a specific piece.
Select 4 CSs and, after being able to play them smoothly at a slow tempo, work on increasing the tempo a bit for each of them.
*NOTE: The key is to be specific and to keep your goals simple and attainable.
What you will find with this approach is that you will make more progress in less time than you would have with a time-based or repetition-based goal. Practice time and repetition amount are certainly important but we need to think about them in terms of a limit rather than a goal. For example, limit your practice sessions to a maximum of 60 minutes (e.g., it could be 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, etc.).
Do the same thing for repetitions. Aim for a maximum of 6 repetitions per CS where the last 3-4 reps. are all memorized and played with the correct expressive shape and mechanics.
If a repetition feels too easy, increase the tempo or exaggerate your dynamics to add more challenge to your phrase. If a rep. feels too hard, dial the tempo back a bit. Try these strategies this week and let me know in the comments below how they work for you!