3 things you need to know about practice

3 Things You Need to Know About Instrument Practice

13/09/15 Post by
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When, for how long and how?

Practice is a very complex subject. Every musician wants to find out what the best ways are to improve practice and to make it as efficient as possible. Many have done research in how the great masters like Horowitz, Perlman and Lang Lang practised, for how long and what methods they used. This is a difficult task as sources are rare and frequently clouded through myths, but also because practice is such a subjective thing.

 

1: How long should I practise?

This is perhaps the most common question. Many musicians tend to feel guilty when we are not practising, as if every hour we don't spend practising our instrument is a waste of time. Arthur Rubinstein, when asked how much a musician should practise, said: "Never more than three hours a day! A musician needs to embody culture, arts, literature, and not be a robot!". Rubinstein raises an important point, which is that musicians need to know more than how to move their fingers. By "embodying culture" he means that understanding the artistic context is important so that a musician has to have something to say, otherwise the playing is empty and doesn't convey much to the audience apart from mere finger-acrobatics.

 

What can we take away from this? It isn't just practice that make us good musicians. Life experience, knowledge of arts and literature, all these elements feed in to enriching the way we understand, interpret and convey music to our audiences and ourselves.

 

2. Quantity vs. Quality

Another common way of thinking about practice is the approach "the more the better". I strongly disagree with this, and so do other musicians such as Rubinstein. Of course, during certain times when many concerts with different repertoire happen in the space of a few weeks or even days, you can't help but practise more than three hours a day. But particularly during those times, efficiency is crucial!

 

In his autobiography, Daniel Barenboim says to only ever practise at full concentration as everything else is a waste of time. Endless repetition, sight-reading through an entire piece over and over again, not identifying, targeting and solving problems effectively and - most importantly - not LISTENING carefully and critically enough to yourself: all those are results of unfocused practice and indicators of IN-efficient practice. Instead, focus on small sections at a time and make sure all aspects of playing are exactly the way they should be. Don't tolerate anything less! Details of practice will be different depending on the instrument you play: be it intonation, support, posture, phrasing, articulation, evenness of fast passages or quality of sound.

 

You should always aim to be able to play an entire piece at 50% speed and at 120% speed. But more importantly than the 120% is to be able to play it at 50%. Slow practice helps to identify the problems, regardless of repertoire and instrument. When doing this it is crucial that you still play the piece exactly the way it will be at full speed. Don't suddenly play it like a robot when practising slowly. The reason why slow practice is important is because it allows you to focus on details. And it's known that the brain can't absorb musical information when playing too fast. Dynamics, articulation, phrasing, sound quality, balance between hands (if you're a pianist), and so on. All these details are much easier for the brain to process and for the ears to pick up when you're playing slowly. If all you manage on one day is one page or even less, it's fine. At least you actually did some satisfying work rather than reinforcing mistakes.

 

3. How often & when should I practise?

As an experienced musician I find the most efficient way of practising to be by breaking the daily amount of hours up into two or three sessions, for example two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. This way, everything I learn in the morning can settle in for a while and then be refreshed eight hours later rather than 24. In addition, concentration goes down significantly after two hours - provided the two hours were spent "practising" as opposed to merely "playing".

 

It is important to understand your own internal body-clock in order to find the best time to practise. According to Dr. James Maas, author of Sleep for Success, sleep is a crucial factor in being productive. Sleeping enough and understanding when you are most alert and when your peaks and low-points are helps to schedule your practice hours. Two hours of practice when you're awake and fully focused can be much more productive than four hours when you're sleepy.

 

Regular practice is important. It is infinitely more effective to practice one hour a day every day than seven hours one day a week. Try to find a regular time to practise, ideally every day. This way, you will achieve far more than by cramming all your missed hours into one day. The brain can't process this amount of information and not much will stick. If you take a lesson every week, the most valuable times you need to book for practice are right after your lesson and the day after. If you want to take a day off, that's fine. But never the day after your lesson!

 

Summary

I hope you have found this helpful. Remember, the most important aspects of good and efficient practice are:

  1. Practise slowly at first, until every single detail is in place
  2. Focus on small sections at a time, stop yourself from sight-reading through the whole piece even though you can't play it yet
  3. Listen critically to yourself, don't tolerate mistakes
  4. Get enough sleep and try to practise only when you're fully focused
  5. Two to four hours a day is a good amount for a professional musician or music student, but try to break them up into two sessions and make them count. Adults with full-time jobs should aim for one hour a day

Please share your views and suggestions below and share this article if you found it helpful.

Happy practising and don't forget to subscribe to our blog!

Tags: #immanuelvoigt #instruments #music #musiccentral #pianist #practice #practising

Comment

  1. Excellent advise! Efficient practicing is key for someone like me, who started playing as an adult with a very busy job

    Prof Paola Borri, Cardiff University

  2. Hi Immanuel,
    Nicely written. Short and clear with good reasoning. But,I still hope this guideline is only meant for professional musicians. If the practise hours are required for fully working mothers or fathers, they will get the feeling of starting to learn an instrument is not worthwile as they never have that amount of time available (like my feeling right now). Parent’s question very often is also regarding a guideline for their child, taking into consideration school, home work, sport, play, etc. I think, it also depends on talent how quick one sees a result.
    Thanks, Berit

    1. Thanks for the comment, Berit. You’re right, this is aimed at the professional musician or music student. However, the practice techniques apply even to the young student or the adult learner who only has an hour a day to practise. Learning how to practise is the most important thing, especially when time is limited. Beginner’s guide to practise for children will follow soon!

  3. If a music teacher is willing, for the student, recording on a smartphone his or her (slow) renditions of phrases,with the dynamics, is more useful by far than trying, unsuccessfully, to follow the instructions in a piano lesson. The recording at home is gold dust, particularly where there are difficult triple/duple time challenges in the piece.

    1. Great advice. A slow recording is very helpful. Also, recording yourself as a student is great and then listen to yourself playing while looking at the score to see what you are and aren’t doing right.

  4. Good ideas and all very useful. I do have some things I would like to add for those who are interested.
    I would agree with practicing after your lesson but picking up and playing again is not always useful as some instruments like viola, cello, French horn, trombone, and certainly more brass and string instruments have more physical limitations than say piano or flute. For these instruments (And all instruments) I strongly suggest keeping a journal and writing in it. After my lessons I found it quite useful to write or outline my lessons points and write down a day goal followed by a week goal.
    Another useful trick and something we ALL have is a smart phone with a video capability. Record and watch yourself play. Not only does this highlight the sections you struggle in but it also allows you to see yourself as a performer. For parents to this can be an advantage as you can bring some of your child’s mock performances to the lesson and ask your teacher for further advice.
    Thank you International Music School Cardiff for this great article and congratulations on your new opening at the Kings Monkton School.

    1. Totally agree, Kyle. Out of this reason I always keep a lesson notebook with each of my students (including you, would you decide to not forget it most of the titme!). I keep track of everything we do during the lesson, homework assigned etc. so we can keep track of progress. Also for the student it is very helpful to have a record of what we did during the lesson as many details will slip your mind even the day after the lesson.

  5. Well said! I’d add always look for the music. Search the music, chase the music, the sound, the phrasing, even when sightreading a piece for the first time or when rehearsing a difficult passage because music has ultimately all the answers.

    1. Very true. However, the way to listen to music and how to understand music is a skill that needs to be developed through guidance from a good teacher. Teaching the student how to listen carefully is the most important thing.

  6. I draw up a timetable in their note book with headings of Scales/Technique/Pieces/Theory. They have two scales to start alternating each day. I alternative each piece and technical exercise, seems to work you’re not repeating the practice everyday, so it doesn’t get boring.

  7. Learning to listen, and to trust ones own ear and musical judgments, and being a musical detective, are the backdrop to this. Until that can happen, practicing is ticking boxes and only has limited value. Obviously young children and beginners find this particularly difficult, and this grows with experience. Teaching pupils the tools with which to evaluate their practice is crucial, but also helping them to trust their own musical instincts. Madeline Bruser, and William Westney are both excellent on this subject. Well worth a read.

    1. This is very interesting. Would you recommend these reading to someone like me who is a beginner and started learning playing piano as an adult? I have a very rational approach to practicing and I feel I haven’t found my musical instinct yet. Thanks, Paola

      1. Definately the Westney. He also has a website with some interesting ideas on it. He pioneers the UNMASTERCLASS, which is a novel concept. Madeline, I would say is perhaps a little more for the experienced musician, but she will help you along the path of musical self-discovery, which I personally think practice is all about. I do understand that practice for many music learners, and practice for the aspiring professional, is quite a different thing, much as reading for the school child and reading for the phd candidate is a similar but different process, the activity has many aspects which are the same, but the focus and purpose with which you do them can be subtly different, and it is the subtleties which can in fact make a huge difference. It should be borne in mind that professionals practice differently in different situations too. I think it may have been Jorgensen that made the point that many professionals do routine practice however their practice spikes nearer to a concert and declines after, and that there is a difference between part-time performers who perform as part of a portfolio career and those who exclusively perform. It is a vast subject. A fascinating one.

    2. Have you ever considered writing an e-book or guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog centered on the same topics you discuss and would really like to have you share some steoros/infirmation. I know my subscribers would appreciate your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an e-mail.

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