Benjamin Coy


How long should I practice?

December 12, 2013 at 3:28 pm

The question music students ask most often is probably “How long should I practice?” We’d all like to hear some definitive figure, as in “If you practice six hours a day you’ll be successful, guaranteed,” but it’s clear such a clean answer does not exist.

One answer could be “practice until you’re tired.” But, sometimes becoming tired is not the objective. When a big performance is coming up, taking it easy on the chops can be worthwhile.

I sometimes like to say “practice enough that it’s inconvenient.” If your practice schedule is easy to fit in, you’re either not practicing enough or you’re not doing enough other work. The problem is, though, sleep is as important as anything else, and that’s the first thing to go.

While more nebulous than duration, it’s far more important to practice toward some goal, and stop only after that goal is reached. After all, when you take your car into the mechanic, you don’t say “please fix two hours of the problem.” You tell them to fix the car and give it back when it’s running properly. Like anything else, we must approach our work with the intention of getting something done.

Within that framework, though, a clock can be as helpful as a metronome in the practice room.

The most obvious application of a timed practice session is working on endurance. A full recital has about an hour’s worth of playing, and I find the hardest part of the exercise is not the nerves or the repertoire but simply staying fresh enough to get through the last piece. In preparation for an hour long recital, 45-minute practice sessions are not sufficient, no matter how many of them I do. To sound good after 60 minutes of playing, I must practice playing for 60 minutes or longer in a single session.

I also use a clock to force myself to raise the bar. There comes a point in preparing a piece that it’s pretty good, and I naturally start to relax a little. At that point, I can consistently play the right notes in the right order at the right time – but that’s not good enough for a performance or audition. When I allocate a set amount of time (15 or 30 minutes) for a short excerpt that’s already in good shape, I have to find something to work on to fill the time. There’s always something to improve, and prohibiting myself from moving on is a good way to inspire a little more detail in my critical listening.

Predefining a length for a whole practice session has limited meaning, since that is unrelated to how much actually gets accomplished during that time. A four-hour practice session is worthless if the time is spent aimlessly blowing through notes without focused, clinical work. However, a clock can help provide structure for specific goals within a practice schedule. As with everything we do in the practice room, it is important to know what goal we are trying to achieve by using a clock.

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