Does Practice Make Perfect? Why Methods Matter

Musicians always seem to wonder how much practice is “enough.”  An hour a day?  Two?  Three?  As many as you can physically tolerate?

Well, there’s no simple answer.  I’ve heard some experts say no more than two, and others have said four is just right.  And then there’s the 10,000-hour rule that says it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill.  Break that down, and it comes out to be about three hours a day for ten years.  (Check out Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers for more on the 10,000-hour rule.)

I think the optimal amount of daily practice varies for different musicians.  I’ve met some piano prodigies who say they only practice for forty-five minutes each day, and then I’ve also known people who’ve played for twenty years but are way behind them.  What’s going on here?

Perhaps more important than the number of hours you practice is how you practice.  If your practice consists of only playing through a piece over and over again from start to finish, then you’re not making the most of your practice time.

The best way to get a piece “under control” is to focus on playing small chunks–especially the hardest parts.  It may be a phrase or a measure–or even a couple of beats–depending on the song.  Slow down those sections and work them until you can’t play it wrong.  Don’t worry about speed–think about accuracy.

Another thing that helps is to master your scales and arpeggios.  I know, I know…  Music is bits and pieces of scales and arpeggios, so once you master those, your technique and accuracy will probably get better, too.  You’ll be able to learn new pieces more quickly.

And practice the dreaded sight-reading.  You won’t get better at it unless you practice.  If you practice your scales and arpeggios a lot, that should help with sight-reading, and if you practice sight-reading, too, that’s even better.

And for jazz musicians, don’t forget to practice your ii-V-I’s, too.

With music school auditions approaching, I’ve had to figure out how to make the most out of the limited amount of time I have.  I’ve realized that after four to five hours, depending on the day, practice is no longer productive for me.  You reach a point where practicing is actually hurting you because you are fatigued.  It’s not even about the pain–it’s the fact that if you ignore it, you can get injuries over time.  Been there, done that.  Playing injuries are an awful road to go down as a musician, so don’t go there.  If it hurts, stop.

Keep notes about sections you're struggling with.
Keep notes about sections you’re struggling with.

So with at most five hours a day with four pieces to prepare for auditions, there’s a lot to keep track of.  Another helpful practice tactic is to keep notes about the problem sections of each piece.  I keep notes about my mixes when I’m in the studio–problem measure numbers/markers (and/or SMPTE position), plugin notes, what I did to the mix that day, etc.  (More on studio documentation later…)  I figured that maybe I should apply my studio documentation strategies to piano practice.  You may think you’ll remember to go back the next day and work on something, but you probably won’t–especially if you’re working on multiple pieces.  So I made a “practice pad” file for taking notes.  Just for you, readers, I’m going to let you download the template.

When you start keeping track of what is most challenging for you, you may start to notice a pattern.  For me, it’s usually rhythm and tempo.  We all have weaknesses, so whatever your weakness is, make a special effort to strengthen it.  I have to do a lot of work with a metronome.  If #11 chord voicings throw you off, then spend extra time working on them.  If you always forget that B major has five sharps, then study it more.

I’m also finding that having a plan for practicing helps a lot.  Decide how long to spend on each thing.  If you can, set aside a consistent time when you can practice undisturbed by your pets, siblings, and that rowdy neighbor next door.

Finally, taking breaks and staying hydrated is important, as well.  Think of yourself as an athlete.  And don’t forget to eat.  You can get so focused on the task at hand that you don’t even realize that you’re terribly hungry, and you haven’t eaten in ten hours.  And then you wonder why you’re becoming so irritable and unfocused.  That’s why I take breaks, because in the end, it makes you more productive.

Well, that’s what I’ve been learning about practice lately.  A lot of the strategies we use in the studio translate well to practicing an instrument.

So what are your approaches for practicing?  How do you make the most out of limited time?


4 thoughts on “Does Practice Make Perfect? Why Methods Matter

  1. I don’t really have any organized practise routine. Maybe that’s why I suck so much at music. Drawing though, I make sure I spend at least 15 minutes on shapes a-day as well as drawing doodles (random stuff) and then 20-30 minutes on more serious drawings.

    Perhaps that’s why my drawing improves and my music doesn’t. Thanks for the advice. Maybe I could go back over music and see if reorganizing my practise routines could help.


    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I do think it’s important to be organized, but I also think it can be good to just “mess around” sometimes and not be constrained. That being said, the organized practice is what allows me to be more creative when I’m experimenting in “free practice,” so that’s why I spend the majority of my practice time on routine things.

      Practicing music can be like what you already do for drawing; you can try spending a few minutes on musical rudiments like scales and/or chords and then spend the rest of the time working on actual songs.

      I hope this blog post will be helpful to you in your practice!

  2. Can’t fault you on this, Shelby; a very determined and enterprising effort by the sound of things. I particularly agree with the play-it-slowly-until-it’s-right approach. Do it any other way and you’ll just practice your mistakes, which is the dumbest thing a musician can do. I’m a bass trombonist so I’d like to give a brass player’s point of view.

    When we train muscles in the body, including, in my case, face and lip muscles, the fibres in the muscles tear down. It’s the replenishment and repair job undertaken by the body that builds fresh muscle. This means that, in the early days of building range and endurance, practice duration is more or less governed by our own bodies and this, as you quite rightly say, varies from one person to another.

    Trumpet players building the extreme high register will tend to practice every other day to allow time for the body to do its job.

    All this is in the ideal world, of course. A pro doesn’t have the luxury of thinking like this but then he or she will probably have built their playing base by now.

    Players of low brass instruments have another ‘enemy’ – breath control. When I first started to try and play long phrases in the low register all in one breath, which uses a huge amount of air, I used to feel slightly dizzy sometimes. Now I’m fine, for some unknown reason.

    Thanks, John

    1. It sounds like you are already more used to training like an athlete–understanding the process of training your muscles and realizing your limits. I think for pianists, it’s not as obvious when we’ve over-practiced since we’re not using our breath or even holding an instrument. Sometimes we don’t realize we’ve overdone it until the next day. Maybe we need to realize that our muscles get torn down and need time for repair, too…

      Thanks for the informative comment! It’s always nice to hear the perspective of someone who plays a different instrument.

What do you think?