The music world lives by the phrase “practice makes perfect,” but what makes the perfect amount of practice?
The path to musical expertise is a bumpy one, and practice is hailed as the golden ticket to success. When you’re aspiring to become an expert musician, it’s easy to feel like Goldilocks, struggling to find the sweet spot for your practice routine.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the “10,000-hour rule,” based on Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s research on expert performance, asserting that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill.
This claim is famous, but is it accurate? How do you define too little practice? Is there such a thing as too much practice?
Read on for how researchers, musicians, and even doctors respond to these questions.
Are You Practicing Too Little?
Parents and teachers know it can be hard to get young music students to practice enough. Particularly if a student has enough natural talent to make her among the top performers in her school band, it can be difficult to make her see the importance of practicing.
The reality is talent only takes a musician so far. In his book Outliers, Gladwell cites a study of violinists at Berlin’s Academy of Music. The study found the difference between the star violinists and the merely good violinists was an extra 2,000 hours of practice.
In another study, music students were divided into two groups based on their teacher’s assessment of their skill. When the students were re-assessed a few years later, the students who performed best were the ones who had practiced more, regardless of which group they had initially been in.
There’s good reason “practice makes perfect” is a long-lasting expression. If you don’t practice enough, you won’t reach your musical best. But what, precisely, is enough practice?
Experts recommend you practice for at least 30 minutes a day. This can be broken up into two sessions of 15 minutes each, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, or it can be one session immediately after school.
Are You Practicing Too Much?
Musicians with serious aspirations tend to devote themselves to practice, and most worry they aren’t practicing enough. Yet there is a such thing as too much practice — and it can have serious consequences.
If this sounds like you or your child, it’s time to ease up your practice routine:
You have physical pain or numbness in your joints and muscles. Spending too long hunched over a piano, holding a violin, or working a cello bow can injure the joints and muscles in your hands, arms, and shoulders. Doctors at the Louisiana State University Musicians’ Clinic identified a whole host of issues that arise from overpractice — carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and osteoarthritis being just a few. Sometimes musicians ignore pains because they consider it a normal part of being a musician, but this attitude can cause real long-term damage. Listen to your body; if your pain is intense or long-lasting, cut down on the hours you spend playing.
You find it a struggle to play your instrument, and you’re no longer excited about it. A lack of enthusiasm is a sign that you may be overdoing it. To play at your best, you need to enjoy playing; if your heart isn’t in it, your performance will suffer. If you’re wearing out your body or mind by practicing too frequently, your brain may begin to form a negative association with the activity of practicing your instrument. Don’t practice so much that you lose the joy in playing music.
So, when do you reach the point of too much practice? The answer is probably sooner than you think. A study by Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Römer found that about two hours per day was the optimal amount of practice. They suggest four hours a day as the absolute maximum musicians should practice.
If you envision yourself sweating it out with your instrument for eight hours a day, get that image out of your mind. While the tenacity is impressive, you’ll do more harm than good. If you’re consistently clocking more than four hours a day, dial back to keep your mind and body refreshed, and preserve your passion.
Finding the Sweet Spot
The sweet spot for practicing your instrument isn’t just about the amount of time you spend playing. It’s equally important to think about how you practice, and to consider when and how much you rest.
In your practice, seek quality over quantity. That means practicing deliberately, not mindlessly. Rather than running through the same scales for no particular reason (other than that’s what you always do), approach your practice with clear, specific goals.
Goals like, “I want to play better,” are not specific enough. A much better goal would be: “I want to play even rhythms on tremolos.” Specific goals like this help you to focus on honing skills, and experiment with practice methods.
If you’re having trouble with tremolos, brainstorm different solutions for improving, and try them out. See what works best for you. You’ll find it more effective (and more fun) than mindlessly playing the same chords over and over again.
Deliberate practice emphasizes problem-solving. It’s about working smarter, not harder. It takes the emphasis away from hours practiced, and places it where it belongs: on meeting your goals.
There’s something very important about Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule” that often gets overlooked. In the study that provided the foundation of that rule, Ericsson and his colleagues noted, “Deliberate practice is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day.”
The best violinists practiced only about four hours a day — but they never put in those four hours all at once. Instead, they played frequent, short sessions of about 90 minutes, with half-hour breaks in between.
Put another way: they knew rest was as important as practice. These top performing students also slept more than their less-skilled peers, and regularly took naps and long breaks. This aligns with what we know about the relationship between sleep and performance. Without enough sleep, musicians actually lose some of their newly acquired skills. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you won’t keep the gains from your practice sessions.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of Rest, puts it this way: “…we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.”
The sweet spot for deliberate practice is nestled among deliberate breaks and sleep. Don’t fall into the trap of practicing too much, or practicing in the wrong way. Adopt a mindful practice, anchored with clear goals, and prioritize rest as much as you prioritize playing. You’ll be amazed at the difference it will make.