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?