This is a very common question for music students to ask, so here are few thoughts on the subject, starting from the assumption that the person asking the question has a real desire to make music and excel at their instrument (if this is not the case, my answers below may lead to some real soul-searching about whether or not to pursue practicing at all):
- In truth, there is no “should”; there is only what is best for you on any given day at any given time, and what is best for you will be different from what is best for someone else.
- Nobody else can tell you what is best for you better than you can tell yourself, if you are sincerely asking and quietly listening to the answer from your innermost self, doing your best to set aside ego. And that means being willing to give yourself time to listen, and time to hear the answer.
- Even if there IS a “should”, you “should” practice only for as long as you truly wish to, and as long as it is YOUR wish and not someone else’s wish. And I’m not talking about the lazy, superficial “you” that gets distracted and doesn’t want to focus; I’m talking about the REAL YOU that wants to excel at your instrument because you’re in love with it and with music, and all the goodness it brings you. Again, listen to the wish of your innermost self, not your ego.
- You should practice only for as long as you are sincerely interested in what you’re doing, so that you are giving it your undivided energy and attention. That means your whole self is involved in what you’re doing: your heart, mind, soul, spirit… whatever you think of as your “self”. That might mean practicing for shorter amounts of time more often (even five-minutes sessions may be the most effective way to practice on some days!)… or it might mean practicing less altogether. In this way of mindful, whole-hearted practicing, you will progress as rapidly and healthily as possible. We learn best when we want to learn. This has been proven by research.
- If you are practicing against your will, you will be a house divided, warring against yourself, with part of you tugging one way and part of you tugging another way. Inner resistance will set you up for practicing with more tension than necessary, and with less joy than is possible. AND…you’ll get really good at making music with excess tension, since that is what you’re practicing how to do.
- Excessive tension will lead you in the direction of pain, sooner or later; less joy will bring you in the direction of more depression and/or anxiety, sooner or later.
Asking the “Experts”
If you’re still wanting to hear someone else’s answer beyond your own, and beyond what you’ve already been told by others, you’ll probably go ask more experts – those musicians who have “succeeded” in some way at their instrument, such as musicians who have won an orchestral job or a competition, famous musicians, teachers, etc.
If you ask them, they’re likely to tell you how much THEY practiced, and you might deduce that the number of hours that they practiced is what got them where they are (they probably at least partially believe that, too), so you might figure that you can get where they are, too, if you do what they did. In addition, you may be swayed by the power of their conviction, since if they’re giving you a quantitative answer to your question, they probably believe their answer is right. At the outset, that seems logical, and perhaps it’s not all wrong. BUT…
There are at least three problems with this way of getting an answer: (1) the amount of time that someone else needs to practice is not necessarily the same amount that YOU need, because each individual is different, especially in HOW the practicing is carried out; (2) the expert you’re listening to actually may have been practicing much more than necessary, because he believed what HIS teacher/expert told him was necessary, even if that wasn’t the case; and (3) the expert’s life priorities and goals for playing his instrument may be very different from yours, so the number of recommended hours may bring you grief or pain whereas it might have brought him joy and pleasure – or vice versa. (Many, many professional musicians are suffering, by the way. Far too many, and more than you might think. Part of my mission is to help alleviate that pain and help prevent more of it.)
Despite what it may seem like, practice hours affect and are affected by all areas of your life (your body-mind-soul, relationships, etc.), and are not just about achieving technical skill at your instrument. So, it’s very important to listen to your whole self and understand how your music and the rest of your life are interconnected, in order to bring everything into healthy balance. This, by the way, is not necessarily easy. For me, enjoying balance of this kind is a life-long endeavor – and constantly fascinating! (Life is never boring this way, I promise, haha!)
By the way, if you’re going to ask an expert for advice on how long to practice, you might want to take into consideration whether she is in any physical or psychological pain in addition to her job or her technical facility at her instrument. Do you want to be like that person in more ways than simply how well they play their instrument?
You need to get clear…
Yes, repetition to learn any skill well is definitely necessary (research in neuroscience and learning proves this to be true beyond any doubt); but HOW you repeat a task is infinitely more important than how many times you repeat it!
So, how can you know what is the minimum or maximum necessary for YOU? Before asking yourself how many hours to practice, you might want to ask yourself a few more fundamental and extremely important life questions first, which can help lead you to your own best answer at any given time. In fact, it would be really excellent to ask yourself these questions any time you’re wondering whether you “should” practice or not – even several times a day.
Ask these questions first!
- WHAT is your goal – WHY are you practicing?
Why are you even a musician? What is your deepest purpose? How does making music fit into it? What are you priorities as a human being? Is it more important to you to become highly skilled as a violinist, perchance to become a famous violinist; or is it more important for you to be at peace and joyful in your heart in all that you do, so that you can bring your best self to others, shining that light through your music for all who may be lucky enough to hear you? Are you practicing out of fear or love? Desire, passion, anger, compulsion, anxiety, obsession, guilt, or duty?
- WHAT exactly are you practicing?
Look at the BIG picture. Every aspect of you is being rehearsed in every practice session. So if part of your body is in pain, you’re practicing how to play your instrument while you’re in pain – is that what you want to get good at? If you’re practicing while angry, you’re going to get better at making music while angry. Is that what you want, or is your goal to be happy, peaceful, and/or at ease while you make music? You are not just practicing your instrument when you practice, you are practicing your STATE OF BEING. So choose carefully. What you practice is what you will get better at. Personally, my goal is to enjoy music-making, so that is what I need to practice – in addition to all the “technical stuff”.
- HOW are you practicing?
Are you paying attention to your whole self? Are you using your mind-body-self in the most efficient way possible? Or are you wasting a lot of time? Are you getting good at mindless repetition, or are you stopping to think intelligently about how to improve what you’re doing? Do you know how to use yourself well? Do you know the best ways to coordinate your thoughts and your body for ease and efficiency?
- What are your life priorities, and how does your musical practice fit into them?
Is your life as a whole balanced? Ultimately, your music – your sound, intonation, agility, coordination, breath, etc. – reflects YOU. So if you want your music to be clear, organized, wise, intelligent, and incredibly gorgeous… well, then, YOU – as a WHOLE – must be that. There’s no way around it. To be a great musician means you must know yourself well, and be clear about what you’re doing and why. Look deeply, and things will fall into place. They must.
Well, I could go on and on…and on…… as you can see, I believe very strongly in the case for quality over quantity – in practicing your instrument as well as in everything else. Of course, quantity of quality will lead you the most quickly to your goal.
Now that you’ve listened to me for awhile (thank you for reading!) …. why not go find your OWN answer? “Seek and ye shall find.” So, what do YOU think??? I’d love to hear what you have to say below!