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  • Writer's pictureSandy Coursey

I Don’t Care How Much You Practice

The classical music world is often littered with the idea that the more time spent practicing equals a more dedicated, and therefore “better” musician. Many times, I’ve heard the typical brags of spending hours and hours practicing, even for upwards of 6-8 hours a day. For many musicians who also teach, go to school, and have bills to pay, this is unrealistic and can feel discouraging. That, coupled with the frequently cited 10,000 hour rule of time spent to become an expert is enough to make any musician feel inadequate. (By the way, the 10,000 rule has been shown to be false.)

These impractical and arbitrary standards are how many musicians, and especially music students, can get caught in a conundrum of “not practicing enough.” That is why many of my piano students (and their parents) are surprised when my answer to the common question “how long should I be practicing piano everyday?” is: I couldn’t care less.

This is why I don‘t care: practicing piano, or any other instrument relies on the quality of practice spent— not the time spent at the instrument. I often think back to myself in elementary school as a piano student. My teacher required I practice 30 minutes a day, and log it in my notebook to bring to lessons each week. Quickly, I learned that I could easily out-wit the kitchen timer that sat on the piano counting down my practice time (by silently resetting it to 15 minutes instead, hoping my parents didn’t notice). Naturally, I did everything in my power to do anything but practice during that time.

As an adult, I avoid the dread of spending time practicing by not keeping track of the time I spend at the piano. Instead, I keep track of what I’m practicing, what I need to be practicing, when I need to get which repertoire learned, and what methods I should use to achieve my goals.

After spending much of my fall semester studying the methods and results of deliberate practice habits, I have found some themes that seem to echo from study to study on expert performance, consistently providing results in performance quality and in achieving expert performance:

The Amount of Time Spent Practicing Does Not Matter

Adding up the total amount of time spent practicing doesn’t positively correlate to performance quality. Instead, the vigor and focus of the practice matters. In general, the time spent practicing does not affect performance quality unless the time spent was used to practice deliberately.

Receiving Frequent Feedback is Imperative to Successful Practice

Feedback can ideally be from a mentor or teacher, but this is not necessary. When practicing alone, the practicer must also become the teacher: it is not enough to play through a piece all the way through, without stopping for errors. A deliberate practicer will be searching for their own mistakes, and then choosing a method to fix those mistakes.

Take a Diagnostic Approach to Improvement

Not sure how to give yourself feedback in your practice? Improving a performance requires two things to happen: 1. Identify the problem (Aka “diagnose”) 2. Create a solution based on the problem (Aka “prescribe”)

Push the Boundaries of Current Ability

Similarly to working out, which requires pushing muscles beyond what is comfortable to grow stronger, practicers should always be testing new realms of ability to achieve improvement in performance. This could mean anything from testing how fast or slow one can play, to if the piece is memorized. It could even mean adding difficulty to the practice, such as inserting rhythms into a fast passage, practicing with different articulations, or changing any other element that could make playing the passage harder than usual.

Set Goals for Each Practice Session

Sometimes the hardest part about practicing is feeling overwhelmed by everything that has to be learned. Avoid wasting time fretting over the amount and difficulty of materials and come up with a goal and plan to reach that goal for each practice session.

If All Else Fails... Practice at the Speed of No Mistakes!

If one phrase has ever changed my practice habits, it’s this one. Often, it can be difficult to get from the “diagnose” stage to the “prescribe” stage of practicing. If it is unclear what method might be best for fixing an error, “practicing at the speed of no mistakes” is your cure-all remedy! Practicing for performance is a game of probability: the more times a passage is played correctly in practice, the more likely it will be played correctly in performance. Unfortunately, this is also true of mistakes. That is why if anything, practicing with the intention of increasing the likelihood of accuracy is a sure-fire way to get a good performance result.

So no, I don‘t care how much you practice. But I do care how you practice. Next time you find yourself practicing in a rut of time spent, should-haves, could-haves, and going through the motions, I challenge you to practice deliberately, thoughtfully, and without watching the clock. The time will pass, whether you use it wisely or not.

Do you have a practice habit that has changed your life? Let me know in the comments, or send me a message through my website!

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