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How Much Do I Need to Practice to Get Good?

Updated: Oct 27, 2022



This is almost always the first question about music practice that students ask me. It was also one of the first questions I had when I started studying music. With busy schedules loaded with school, work, financial responsibilities and family responsibilities, it’s a smart questions 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 get to the playing bit ASAP. Of course, this perspective has the potential to create serious motivation problems and negatively affect how much time we actually practice. So, to counteract this we need to address 4 important points: 1) perspective, 2) consistency, 3) enjoyment & 4) practice strategy.

Perspective & Goals

Firstly, we need to think of practice not only as a challenging process but as one that necessarily ends in gratification. 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.

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 make our goal improvement — even if it’s only a little — 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!

Consistency

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 consistency over a large amount of 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 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 all of our other 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.

Enjoyment

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. Like 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). In addition to exerting more physical effort, working harder is often equated with more repetitions and more time in the practice room.

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 6 challenge spots (CSs) and play them with rhythmic accuracy.

  • Memorize the fingering for the first musical phrase of a specific piece.

  • Select 3 CSs and play them slowly & with 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 tempo a bit.

  • *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 is certainly important but we need to think about it 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 the same amount of repetitions it took you to play the phrase correctly in the first place and a minimum of half as many times. For example, if it takes you 10 attempts to memorize the fingering of a musical phrase, repeat that phrase 5-10 times correctly from memory before moving on to the next CS.

This ratio of incorrect to correct repetitions for improvement is supported by scientific research but it is not absolute. The same research suggests that doing more repetitions than the maximum may result in diminishing returns but it also points out plenty of exceptions. The key is to stay focused. Once distraction kicks in, it's time to move on. Try these two strategies this week and let me know how they work for you!

 

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