When I started playing, especially seriously, I remember thinking and hoping that progress would be nice and linear like this:
The reality, however, is quite different. If done incorrectly, progress starts strong but often averages out to something of a plateau like this:
If done correctly, learning and improving at a musical instrument looks more like a rising stock market with seemingly random peaks, plateaus, and valleys as in the graph below:
The linear model isn’t realistic because we don’t just have 1 variable (i.e., practice time) to contend with during practice. Instead, there are multiple variables at play that significantly affect our progress which, in addition to practice time, include our memorization speed and capacity, our natural and acquired physical abilities and limitations, the refinement of the mental representations of our music, our bag of problem-solving skills, stamina, general health, age, life events, the difficulty of our music, proper rest and sleep, etc.
The Incorrect Approach
The more common plateau tends to occur when we get really excited about learning and start out practicing every chance we get. Then life gets in the way and our consistency begins to suffer.
One week we practice for 2 days, the next week for one day… Then we get frustrated and try to make up for the lost practice time by practicing every single day, determined to get back on a consistent practice schedule. And then....we have to work late, deadlines, the kids, school, housework, social time… The cycle continues.
Other reasons for inconsistent practice are burnout, frustration, and injury. As I've experienced, being too gung-ho about learning something without having a practice plan, clearly defined goals, or a clear set of practice strategies can quickly make us feel overwhelmed and lead to injury. This is especially true if the piece we want to learn is too advanced. For example, in my first year of flamenco guitar, I tried starting with Paco de Lucía.
It didn't go well at all! 🤕
Inconsistent practice, for many of us, is very common and completely understandable; especially for us adult learners with kids who have limited free time to begin with. So given our limited time, is there really a way to make significant progress in music? Well…yes, but honestly, I think the amount of progress we make ultimately depends on what's going on in life for each of us at any given moment.
Before I had kids, I practiced 3-4 hours a day, 6 days a week. When each of my kids was born, my practice time dropped significantly. As time went on I figured out how to schedule in 2 to 2.5 hours of practice a day for 5-6 days/week almost every week (which, by the way, is still my current schedule). My pre-children practice time isn't possible anymore which necessarily means that my progress is slower than before. But that's okay because, despite the significant reduction in practice time, I'm still making progress, still enjoying the process, and still meeting my goals.
Of course, I also understand that for most people, daily practice is not an option. For example, my wife loves flamenco and only has time to take a 1.5-hour flamenco dance lesson once a week. What's amazing is that she still makes significant progress despite the fact that she can’t practice at all!
So what gives?
The Correct Approach
The number one reason, simply put, is consistency. But consistent practice does not necessarily mean daily practice. It just means practicing on a consistent and relatively unwavering basis. It really doesn’t matter how many days per week we practice, as long as we do it every single week (+/- a random week or two every now and then).
Naturally, the more days per week we practice, the faster our progress will be. But it’s also important to consider our current life circumstances when planning our practice and musical goals. I am a professional musician, so 5-6 days a week of practice for me is mandatory. On the other hand, my wife is not a professional flamenco dancer nor does she aspire to be one. A single dance lesson a week is what her schedule allows, so that’s what she does….every single week. And, as a result, she keeps making progress and loves it.
Practice Plan & Practice Strategies
Aside from consistency, we also need to develop a good practice plan and strategies to ensure our practice sticks. This is where our teachers come in. In every lesson, there should be some discussion about, and examples of, effective practice strategies for memorization and skill development. There should also be a discussion about practice goals and planning for the week.
For those of us that have time for only 1 lesson a week, a good idea is to make our practice sessions 50%-75% practice and 25%-50% new material. This is where your teachers can guide you through a practice session while teaching you the same practice strategies that they use in their own practice. Having clear goals and effective practice strategies will help you progress in every practice session.
Fewer Repetitions and Less Tension
Excessive repetitions and tension are medically and pedagogically contraindicated. They can lead to mild or severe repetitive stress injuries (RSIs), and once we developed one of those, consistent practice comes to a hard stop. To avoid practice injuries, please make sure to use effective injury-prevention strategies like interleaved practice, a light touch, and plenty of breaks while keeping your repetition amount low.
Learning & Enjoyment Balance
One of the hardest things about learning an instrument is to balance out enjoyment and the learning process. Overall, I think it should all be enjoyable, but the truth is that learning anything worthwhile requires work and can be pretty tough sometimes. I have certainly had my share of “miserable“ practice sessions where I felt like I had regressed rather than progressed. But remembering what progress really looks like -- see the orange line graph above -- has always helped me through the rough patches.
It’s also tremendously helpful to understand that, despite how hard practice feels one day (or one week), those very feelings of difficulty and frustration are exactly what allow learning and progress to occur. I often think of my hard practice sessions like workouts: I might feel like crap during the process, but afterward, I actually feel really good about the effort I made knowing that it has helped me improve.
Please keep these ideas in mind this week during your practice sessions.
As a bonus, one of my favorite tools for gauging my progress is to record myself at the beginning and throughout the learning process. When you learn a piece, randomly record yourself playing a few passages and take a look at your recordings again about 2-4 weeks later to compare. Once you have an entire piece memorized, record yourself playing it and take a look at it again about 3-4 weeks later. Keep doing this until your piece is completely polished and ready for performance. It’s a great way to gauge your progress throughout the entire learning process.
If you find yourself stuck and feel like you are not progressing, please contact me for help!
For guitar lessons, lectures, workshops, and educational performances please contact me below as well or at firstname.lastname@example.org.