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Yet again a new school year is in full swing and with practice questions floating around my studio, I thought I’d take some time to add on to a blog post I wrote about the topic last year. If you’ve read that post you’ll notice that some sections are repeated while some are new and in some I dive a little deeper. I’m a year older and wiser on the topic! Enjoy!

With 2-4 hours of homework a night now for many kids and teenagers, and 40+ hour workweeks for many adults, it can feel really hard to also fit in an hour or two of music practice every day, especially during the week.

Most students and parents think of practice as something they have to do for x number of minutes or hours - often too long to feel really excited about diving in to, especially after an already long day of work or school. Unfortunately, one day missed can easily turn into two. If we’re not careful, before long it’s already time for our next lesson or rehearsal!

I’ve noticed that students often don’t seriously consider the quality of their practice and how improving this quality as well as their focus during practice could help them accomplish more in the limited time they might have to play each day. Quality of focus also helps the learning “stick” better, so student’s aren’t repeating the same mistakes day after day thinking x many repeats of a song, mistakes and all, will somehow magically yield results. Recall Albert Einstein’s quote “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? Athletes following the typical “practice” style of many music students would be likely collapsing from exhaustion and injury left and right.

I’ve been encouraging my busy students, as well as students who might be currently plateauing and feeling less than motivated to play, to try interspersing their practice time throughout their day, between homework assignments, before and after dinner, during a lunch break at work, etc. Many students assume practice needs to happen all at once - we start, we run through our scales, etudes, pieces, tunes, hours later we finish, we close the instrument in the case, we’re done!

Sometimes we need to create the illusion of time, as well as an “out” for our creativity, practice, and hopefully enjoyment of music making…! Research has shown that we actually focus, learn, and retain more information when we learn in chunks of ten minutes or less (see for a brief overview), so the marathon practice many might consider a requirement for musical progress may indeed be outdated.

For accountability and honest practicing, my favorite method that has helped students who often forget to practice, is to set a timer for literally five minutes and only allow yourself to play/practice for those five minutes. Whatever you’re playing, even mid-song, when the timer dings, put down your instrument for the day and don’t feel a pang of guilt. You’re done. This may come as a big relief, particularly on days you might feel very busy and stressed and don't feel like you actually have the time to play that day.

Many are pleasantly surprised to discover how quickly the five minutes pass, and more often than not, might even feel the practice time is over way to soon. They just want to just keep practicing... showing us that it may be more of an inertia problem than an actual practice enjoyment problem.

If you try this approach to help jump start a regular practice habit, and do feel you have the time and want to practice longer, some minutes or hours later, still stop and honor the timer, then set it again and go for another five minutes.

Down the road you can leave the timed practice, but if you plow ahead in this initial phase of reworking your relationship with practice you’ll likely reach burn out again fairly quickly. Best to gradually build a strong foundation of excitement around practice that will come from minding the timer and stopping when you still “want more”.

If you’re in a busy or low motivation time in your life, do timed practice for five minutes a day for at least two weeks. Don’t sleep until you’ve done your five minutes, even if it’s the last thing you do each night (though a set time each day when you’re happy, rested, and alert is best). Thereafter, continue until you don’t feel any reservations about picking up your violin or viola and diving in.

The purpose of all of this is to again, create the time (and a timeframe that is doable on even the busiest of days) and to give an “out” so guilt and inadequacy don’t become interconnected with your playing. Maybe some days you’re really not in the head space to play. Absolutely fine. You’re still on target in helping create the habit of regular time for music. Think of it as a prayer you say each day.

I’ve found that just the act of setting the timer can also become an anchor, reminding us to mentally orient to a productive mindset. With the built in stop time that’s far less than the time it takes for the typical brain to “check out”, it encourages us to make the most of every second. On the contrary, “stopwatch” type practice that asks us to “play for as long as possible” can quickly deteriorate into mindless motions and checked out ears.

Down the road, using the timer in chunks strung together over longer periods of practicing can also help us break up our practice into very specific tasks. We set a goal, focus on accomplishing it until the time’s up, then take time to reflect, maybe with a “yay, I did it!” or a “well this aspect worked, but I still need to work on this” and then perhaps another 5 minute stretch with a more refined goal or a completely different one.

I also like how timed practice builds physical stretch breaks into the equation. I’ve personally enjoyed using a meditation timer on my phone that has the option of chimes at regular intervals over a longer stretch - so I might decide to practice a Bach Partita movement for a half hour total, with a chime every five minutes to remind me to watch my posture, breathing, and check for places in my body I might find tension creeping in.

Accomplishing very specific techniques and/or practices we plan out ahead of time during these short, timed chunks, is also wonderful for increasing our playing self esteem. My other favorite piece to add to the timed practice is to end each practice session with a written note (preferably in a dedicated practice journal) about what you were pleased about in your playing that day - something you heard getting better, an insight, a technique that you couldn’t do weeks or months before, etc. and then to add what you’d like to especially work on next time. Be very specific, especially for the later question. Maybe something as specific as, “the next time I play I want to make sure my pinkie on the bow hand doesn’t lock up because I hear the tone suffer when it does” or “I want to make sure my third fingers are in tune and will be using such and such method to check”. Wonderful! Get ready to see what happens when one’s really focused and specific. It’s amazing what one can do in a short timespan!

And, the next day when you practice and focus on whatever your specific goal is, commend yourself afterwards for having done it, reflect a moment on how it went, and find a new aspect, or something totally different to be your next practice focus. Maybe whatever it was the day before is fixed, or maybe it will take more time, but by acknowledging the good and planning ahead for the next practice you 1) create and log measurable results, 2) create a snowball effect of positive feedback for yourself, 3) after the first time doing it you will never have to wonder: “what should I work on today?” The journaling shouldn’t take more than a minute or two, as long as you don’t overthink it.

A word of warning: this technique is really powerful for other areas of your life as well so only use if you want to make a positive change and feel really empowered ;)

As far as total practice time, I tell my beginning and/or young students under eight years old to do 10-20 minutes a day. Advancing beginners and/or kids eight to twelve get the goal of 20-30 minutes. Intermediate students and teenagers/adults are at the point where 45 minutes to an hour will see significant progress. I feel that two-three hours for advanced and/or professionally minded students of all ages covers all the bases and assuming TV and computer time are kept to a minimum (!!), still leaves time for school and work lives, exercise, etc.

Of course, this is a guideline and some students need more or less time to see results. The expectation that a professionally minded player would need to practice eight hours a day, however, is outdated. More research is needed, but some research suggests that the brain starts to max out after about two hours.

If practice is focused and deliberate - actively looking for problem areas, be they technical, musical, postural, etc., experimenting with how to fix them, chunking down pieces and tunes to precisely where the issues are, etc., then two hours is about the limit before aspects of our playing start deteriorating and we run the risk of practicing bad habits. I’ve personally found that three hours is the absolute maximum of really effective practice I can do in a day, and it generally only works if I do an hour or two in one stretch, then another hour later on, or an hour or two in focused personal practice, then an hour or two in focused ensemble practice. However, most of the time when I practice more than two hours, the last stretch works best when it’s fairly free-form - playing for just for the joy of playing music, experimenting with various interpretations, running through old repertoire, etc.. The brain can only focus that intently for so long!

I feel that days off every week or so are fine and often helpful, similar to an intensive exercise schedule where we need a day to recuperate. However, in general I recommend practice for even just 5-10 focused minutes a day, every day, rather than frequently skipping days or doing marathon practices on the weekends. I’ve found consistency, regularity, and focus to be much more important for progress then logging x amount of time over the course of a week.

Finally, clear goals and accountability, especially when it’s social, do wonders for creating regular practice habits. Students who take part in school music programs, youth or community orchestras, who perform with a string ensemble or band, who play with friends and family, or attend regular jam sessions, or sight reading parties, generally practice much more and progress much faster than the student who only plays at home or in lessons. Chances to share are everywhere! So if you’re alone in your playing, reach out and find some opportunities to share!

For more, here’s a good article on deliberate practice: And if you like what Noa Kageyama has to say here, check out the podcast interview I did with him back in late 2012 through the above link as well.

Happy Practicing!

Please email me at if you have a violin, viola, fiddle, music biz, or practice related question you’d like answered in the blog or on a podcast, have a story or insight to share, or if you’d like to inquire about violin, viola, or fiddle lessons with me, in-person or online via Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom.

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Laurel Thomsen

Violin, Viola, Vocals
Performance, Instruction, Recording

Based in Santa Cruz, California

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