What's The Best Way To Practice A Musical Instrument?
How Much Time Should You Really Put In?
Practice, for me, is one of the hardest things in music. Don't get me wrong, I understand what it's for and that it's important for any serious musician to do but, I've always had a problem being consistent with practice. I remember, very clearly, first encountering the idea that more hours practiced meant better practice. Amongst my musicians friends, we used to have a sort of verbal badge of honour to wear by saying things like "only five hours today, I should do two more". For a short while I was able to keep this up but eventually I was left with the feeling that my seven hours were often directionless. Quite a few times I would find myself just clock watching, just waiting to reach the seven hour mark for no other reason than I could say that I did it. It did leave me wondering though, what's the best way to practice? Is it true that more hours on the clock means a more productive practice session? How long should you practice?
Finding A Goal
I have hit this wall with practice many times before. The last time I remember well. I was having trouble practicing technique but I couldn't face any time doing exercises or scales because it would bore me too much. Instead I began to learn a Bach piece, the Gigue from his D Minor Partita. I found myself happily spending hours on this piece, but, interestingly enough, I wasn't just working on the technical aspects of it. Because I was genuinely interested in the music, I began to make my own interpretation, I began to study different ways that I could phrase and I also started to study other recordings. The key here was that had a genuine interest in what I was studying. I wasn't just putting in time because I felt I should. The lesson here is this. Don't be pressured (by peers, the Internet or anyone else) to study things that don't naturally interest you. As a bass player, I've heard so many people say to me that I "must listen to Mark King" or that I "must transcribe Jaco Pastorius" and, in truth, I've never really done either. Not because I don't like their music, but because I have never felt compelled to study them. It doesn't mean they are bad musicians, on the contrary, Jaco is on the most celebrated bassists of all time. All I mean is that their music doesn't quite catch my interest in the same way, nor to the same depth, that Bach's does and as a result I'm much less likely to give it my full attention when I go to study it. Yes there are certain things that all musicians must learn (notes, chords, scales) so there definitely is a balance to be struck but, what's crucial to understand is that we use these essential areas of study, like scales, chords, arpeggios and music theory, to pursue our own interests and this is always worth keeping in mind when deciding on the next thing to practice. It can mean that properly focussed practice sessions can come and go a little sporadically, but, it does mean that, when they arrive, they are worth a lot more than mindlessly wracking up the hours.
The Myth Of Hours
Because my practice now had me much more interested I began to notice that I was actually progressing much faster, not to mention that I was finding more things within my practice that I wanted to improve upon, than in a regular “I must do seven hours” style session. This new found, and quicker, progression I was making made me realise that, because I was much more interested in the material I was studying, I was also much more focussed and efficient with how I used the time I had put aside to practice. My practice time was actually of a much higher quality because it was focussed and I had a clear goal in mind. It's much easier to complete a task when you actually know what the task is. This sounds like a massively stupid and obvious thing to say but, when you think about it, if I were to just stand in a room, trying to busy myself with anything music related for seven hours, I am guilty of exactly that. I don't know what I am doing or where I am headed within my practice. It's not about the amount of hours you put in but the quality of your focus to the task at hand. I actually found it most beneficial to work in chunks of twenty to thirty minutes at a time. Granted I might do several of those chunks within a day (I never totalled close to seven hours in a day though) but, seeing as I was very focussed and seeing that I had a short amount of time in each chunk, I didn't waste any. There was no deciding what to do or taking a break to check Facebook. It was thirty minutes of solid, focussed practice and this is what made it good.
The Twenty Minute Rule
After my discovery, I did some research and found that many others (not just musicians) had also stumbled across the same thing which, broadly speaking, they referred to as the twenty, or thirty, minute rule. This is based upon some scientific research which states that your brain drastically decreases it's ability to compute the amount of new information that is being sent to it after somewhere between twenty and thirty minutes of activity. In shorter terms, your brain is only working at optimum capacity for no more than half an hour and it needs regular breaks to recharge itself. If you were to undertake mammoth practice sessions, such as two hours with no break like I used to do, then a great deal of the hard work you are doing is actually going to waste. It's a very inefficient way to work and, have you noticed that when undertaking such a large practice session, by the time you reach the half hour stage, you start looking out the window or checking you phone. No wonder we do that, we need a break! The lesson in this article is to first, decide on what to practice and then, be break it into smaller chunks so you can practice with focus and intention in sessions of no more than half an hour.
Hopefully this has been helpful and I also hope that this practice method will help you as much as it still helps me. If you have any comments or questions, then by all means leave them in the box below.