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Saturday, April 30, 2011

How Much Time Should I practice?

Recently a university level student emailed me the question of how much he should be practicing. I find this question to be a tricky one to answer for several reasons.

If you practice without paying attention to what you are doing, you are not really practicing the music or skills or whatever is before you on the music stand. Instead you are practicing how to have a wandering mind or lack of focus and concentration. I actually run into this problem quite a bit with incoming university freshmen. Somewhere along the way these students have heard that they should be practicing a certain number of hours per day, and to their credit, they valiantly tried to meet that time goal. Unfortunately, the way they went about accomplishing that time goal did not serve to improve their musical technique. Instead, these students mastered the art of "eyes glazed over." To correct this problem, I give strict instructions not to practice for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time or whenever the student finds their mind beginning to wander away from the task before them. At that moment, the student must do something physical to interrupt the pattern: stand instead of sit, sit instead of stand, turn around in a circle 3 times (like a dog), get a glass of water, visit the restroom, walk around the room once or twice. Then if the student feels he or she can get back on task, the student may begin to practice again for another practice segment or until the next wandering mind occurs. Just as with a young beginning student, this technique will grow the ability to concentrate and focus at an exponential rate.

Once a student is able to maintain concentration and focus well, then the question of how long to practice can be answered more easily. My husband is fond of telling his students that they need to practice only as much as is necessary to accomplish the assigned homework practicing task. This type of answer might work well for many of my husband's students, but I have several students that might need more direction.

I find that I get more from my students if my goal is to help them establish and reinforce good practice habits. Here are three practice habits that I work on with my students on a regular basis:
  • practicing or playing the instrument every day (100 day challenge, practice log or journal)
  • correctly and carefully identifying the practice issue (is it a missed shift, wrong note, incorrect rhythm, missed bowing, out of tune note, which side of the body is responsible for the error or problem)
  • having an excellent quiver of practice arrows that can be shot at the practice problem
I like to divide my practice time up using the method that Galamian suggested: technique building, interpretation time, and performance time. I warmup with my technique stuff (scales, etudes, Ševčík!), and then look at a piece I am learning and work on the sections I have set out for the day. I might try "performing" something I've been working on to see how it is all coming together.

It's an art form to deciding how, when, and what to practice. Let me hear about some of your routines and ideas.

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