It’s September again and with an influx of new violin, viola, and fiddle students as well as many longterm students getting back into the swing of lessons after vacations and time off over the summer, there’s been a lot of talk about practice lately - how to fit it into increasingly busy lives, and how much is enough to see progress and get the most out of lessons?! 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 practicing every day, especially during the week.
I’ve found that most students 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 into, especially after a long day. But one day missed can easily turn into two, and if we’re not careful it’s already time for the next lesson!
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 time they do have to practice, as well as helping the learning “stick” so they’re not repeating the same mistakes day after day.
I’ve been encouraging my busy students to try interspersing their practice throughout their time at home, between homework assignments, before and after dinner, etc. Many students assume practice needs to happen all at once - we start, we run through our scales, etudes, pieces, tunes, we finish, we’re done. However, this doesn’t have to be the case, and research has shown that we actually focus, learn, and retain more information when we learn in chunks of ten minutes or less (see http://www.brainrules.net/attention?scene= for a brief overview).
For accountability and honest practicing, it can be really helpful to set a timer - maybe just 5 minutes at a time so the timeframe feels totally achievable. This can be a big relief particularly when we feel very busy and don't feel like we actually have the time. more often than not the five minutes are over way to soon and we find we want to just keep practicing! I’ve found that just the act of setting the timer can become an anchor, reminding us to mentally orient to a productive mindset. With a built in stop time, it encourages us to make the most of every second, whereas “stopwatch” type practice can easily deteriorate into mindless motions and checked out ears.
Using a timer over longer periods of practicing can also help us chunk 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.
I also like how timed practice builds 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 - so I might decide to practice a Bach Partita movement for a half hour, with a chime every five minutes to remind me to watch my posture, breathing, and check for places I might find tension creeping in.
Accomplishing very specific techniques and/or practices during these short, timed chunks is also wonderful for increasing our playing self esteem. When we’re really focused it’s amazing what we can do in a short timespan, and if we review our progress after these chunks of time, it’s amazing how much more progress we begin to make and how much happier we begin to feel!
As far as total practice time, I tell my beginning and/or young students under eight to do for 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 at least will see significant progress. I feel that two 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.
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, 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!