How much practice is enough?
What the legends say
You should know what Leopold Auer had to say about practice time. He was perhaps the greatest violin teacher who ever lived, training virtuosos such as Milstein and Heifetz. Auer said “It is better to play with concentration for two hours than to practice eight without. I should say that four hours would be a good maximum practice time… and that during each minute of the time the brain be as active as the fingers.”
Heifetz didn’t advocate over practicing either. For those of you that think he practiced all day, every day: “I do not think I could ever have made any progress if I had practiced six hours a day. In the first place I have never believed in practicing too much—it is just as bad as practicing too little!” Heifetz goes on to say that over practicing can get in the way of easy execution, and that not good for creating flawless, musical playing.
In college I was once telling my friend Jagal about my practice woes and how I slaved away daily in the practice room, etc etc. Jagal was not a musician, but was a cool guy because he was really smart and well read. He tried to calculate over my lifetime if I had practiced 10,000 hours.
“Studies have shown,” he told me, “that after 10,000 hours of practice you become an expert!” Cool. So evidently, at the time I had accumulated 10,000 hours of practice — but wait, how come I was still struggling on the violin?! 10,000 hours of practice only counts if each hour is made up of quality, deliberate practice. It’s not only about how much you do it, it’s how well it’s done.
Practice like a zombie, play like a zombie
In a typically zombie game or movie, the zombies are these mindless creatures that eat people’s brains. Bad practice is quite similar. If you practice like a mindless zombie, you will play like a mindless zombie. You’ll feel dull and like your brain cells are deteriorating (it’s a zombie effect).
Repetition can never trump careful thought. I have many students who come to me and are not practicing with a method: they simply rush through their pieces until they meet their daily time quota. They’re punching in and punching out.
Not only is this mind-numbingly boring, it’s also ineffective. Who likes to waste time when learning? Children especially don’t like hard boring work and will do anything they can to get out of it.
Learn don’t churn
When we practice, we want to learn. Yes, it will involve repetition, but each repetition is very intent on accomplishing some education goal. “Practicing” is passive while learning is active. Is this type of practice easy? Not really — in fact it will be quite exhausting if you’re doing it right. I can remember countless times leaving the practice room mentally exhausted – like I had finished a punishing workout at the Wooden Center. Learning and teaching yourself when you practice is like training your mind in a mental gym.
“Learning is not child’s play; we cannot learn without pain.” ― Aristotle
Responsive, intentful practice
When I was in grad school, I could accomplish in 3 hours what used to take me 6 hours of practice. I felt pretty good after practicing too. My productivity doubled because I knew how to focus and learn. How was such efficiency accomplished? What’s the secret? This secret sauce was slow cooked over many hours and many lessons. Maybe we can speed up this cooking process through awareness.
It has always been the case that much of the process of learning is subconscious. What I advocate is actually using more of our conscious mind to solve problems. Think like you are a teacher to yourself at home, and give yourself a home lesson. Instead of just mindless repeats of the same passage, why not do yourself a favor and ask a few questions to self-monitor when you play? For example:
- Did I produce a good sound and overall shape when playing this phrase? Are they singing?
- How do I feel and understand the passage fingering?
- Why do I keep missing that shift?
- How can I coordinate both hands in this passage?
You might have heard the term “OEM” when getting something fixed for your car. But for music, we’re saying to observe your playing, experiment with solutions, and monitor your the results. OEM!
When you observe, you’ll need to carefully listen and watch what you’re doing to find out what exactly is the problem and analyze it. For instance, was your bow straight? Ah, it was not, my contact point is drifting. Then contemplate a potential solution. How will you fix it? Experiment and try out your imagined solution, then monitor. Did you fix it? Were you closer than before?
It takes a bit of thinking, but you should realize by now that good practice is not only playing, but also moments of intense mental work! You can do all sorts of things to help with the process. Use a mirror, record yourself, or have a friend observe and comment. Analyze! Remember, it’s not just how long you practice, but how SMART you practice.
How much should I practice?
Just as a benchmark, here are a couple of examples of practice expectations some of my teachers told me. As a youngster, my highly acclaimed Suzuki teacher was always trying to get me to practice an hour every day. It took me awhile to get that down…
When I took lessons from Ida Levin, a former Heifetz student, she said to forget about the hours and just practice until I finished my work. Needless to say, I didn’t practice enough when studying with her, and opted to play more gigs instead. Maybe I wasn’t mature enough to follow that way of thinking. If I had a time frame expectation it would have helped a lot to keep the practice routine in check.
When I was in college, my teacher Mark Kaplan told me that he expected me to practice a minimum of 3 hours a day, and that if I seriously wanted a pro career in music, to practice 4 hours. So I started with 3 hours because I was too busy playing gigs and making new friends in school. It was plain as pudding that I was not progressing at the rate that I should have.
Luckily, I was able to finish many courses very quickly so I could focus on my practice. By the time I was a junior I was doing 5 hours daily. I would split it up with a session at 6am and another at second round at 2pm.
With some research, I found a good general guideline for daily practice times (these numbers are geared for string players).
If you play for fun
Age five: 30 minutes
Age eight: 45 – 60 minutes
Age ten: 60 – 75 minutes
Age twelve to adult: 90 – 120 minutes
If you want to be a professional, or play at a highly competitive level
Age five: 30 – 45 minutes
Age eight: 90 – 120 minutes
Age ten: 2 hours
Age twelve: 3 hours
Age fourteen to eighteen: 3 – 4 hours
Violin major in college: 5 hours
For brass players, there are stamina issues to consider. I remember that my friend Logan, a trombone player, told me how he would have to be careful to not over practice so as to not blow out his lips. The key for him was practicing everything correctly and playing virtually no mistakes. I’ve encountered trumpet players from the Colburn School who’ve said the same, they have to practice very effectively in a short time.
Besides my OEM method, here’s a list of 5 things to help you keep your practice on track. Let’s call it SMART practice. SMART stands for being specific, musical, active, results driven, and timely when you practice.
1. Be Specific Be clear on what you are going to work on and what you need to improve. Use your music journal to gather notes from your lessons and also take notes on your practice. Mark down measures that need improving. Copy down what you are learning as you play so you can remember the fixes you develop.
2. Play Musically As you practice, always have musical intention. Don’t just run your hands on the instrument like a robot. Build in the music as you go. This also prevents practice from being overly stale.
3. Think Actively Your mind should have the energy and active nature of a mountain lion. It’s ready to pounce on anything that could be improved. Look for things to improve in your playing. Ask tons of questions to yourself (and teacher) – it’s a lot more engaging than just playing that same passage ten more times in the exact same way.
4. Be Results driven, and evaluate them. As you finish practicing one of your assignments, ask yourself if you produced any real result from your practice. Look at the result, and make a note of what you’ll adjust the next time you practice to improve the process. Use a log to measure your small increases in focused practice. Just like preparing for a marathon, you can increase your endurance but need to keep a running log to convince yourself that you are improving.
5. Have Timely practice. Practice when you have energy, instead of making it the very last thing you do before going to bed. If you’re practicing as late as 10 or 11pm every night, find a different time. Consider waking up earlier in the morning instead and practicing then. Some of my students have split practice to morning and evening sessions with great results.
Start with one thing
You may not necessarily have to change everything about your practice at once- just fine ONE thing that you can start working on today. Everybody works differently and have their own effective methods and tools for learning. Let me know what you or your teacher had to say about how long to practice. Good luck on your journey!