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To Time, or Not to Time (Your Music Practice), That is the Question


There is a debate among independent music teachers about how long students should practice their instruments each day. It is part of a larger conversation about music practice in general -- not only how many minutes or hours per day, but also how many days per week.

Let's focus on the former -- how long to practice each day? -- with a look at the prevailing schools of thought behind the question.

Should practice be specified for X minutes per day? If yes, how long?

If not, should other considerations (play each piece X times per day, or play certain passages X times) be established?

Or should practice be entirely open-ended and variable each day?

PRACTICE FOR A SPECIFIED TIME PERIOD EACH DAY

Many instructors who set practice duration guidelines base their decisions on how old or how advanced their students are. This makes sense, as music gets longer and more complex as students progress through the years.

But ask any number of music teachers, in person or on an online forum, "How long should my ten-year-old who's studied for three years practice each day?" and you may get as many different answers as number of teachers you query!

It gets especially challenging to calculate how much time is needed for older students playing longer works, and who may or may not plan to pursue a music degree in the future. Is there a minimum time needed to achieve a particular future goal? Is there a daily practice length which, if exceeded, results in the student regressing by the end of each practice due to mental fatigue?

Most teachers who prescribe practice length guidelines will say that determining an appropriate duration will depend on each student's unique circumstances. It is wise when instructors consider each student as an individual, and then develop guidelines for each child, rather than use a formula to apply to every student.

PRACTICE FOR AN UNSPECIFIED TIME PERIOD EACH DAY

One distinct advantage of having no pre-set length for practice is that a student won't be distracted by a clock. How much time have I practiced? How much time is left? Some students concentrate better on the musical goals the teacher has written in the assignment book when they're not concerned with the time elapsed.

The music is the focus, not the clock.

For beginner students with shorter pieces that don't require as many weeks to be played well, their pieces will often have a faster turnover rate, i.e. the student gets new pieces regularly. Which means that the early part of their practice week will contain less familiar music to them, and it will take longer to play those pieces, going slowly, than when they are more familiar with them and likely playing faster in the later part of the practice week.

If a daily practice length has been set, then that may not take into account the natural fluctuations in practice length that occur based on how familiar the music is. A student who has gotten pretty comfortable playing his/her pieces by the end of the week may find a lot of extra time left on the timer, and could be tempted to engage in mindless repetition to fill the rest of the time.

Conversely, in the early part of the practice week, when a beginner student may have a number of new pieces, he/she has to work harder to coordinate the many aspects of playing unfamiliar music and may experience mental fatigue well before the timed practice session is up.

For these reasons, I believe that having no specified practice length is good for flexibility in the early years of study. Students gain some autonomy that way, as well, with the added benefit that some will naturally gravitate to longer practice sessions of their own making -- a real delight to see when the idea to practice longer is their own decision!

PRACTICE THE MUSIC X TIMES PER DAY

Sometimes instead of a teacher or parent setting a duration for a day's practice, one or the other may say, "Do this part (or every piece) X times a day." Or a variation of that may be, "Play this passage until it is correct, plus once more." Or, "Until it's correct three times in a row."

Some of those methods work occasionally, but other times they become a numbers game that might distract a student from playing musically.

I don't advocate an approach in which students play their assignment (or any part of it) X number of times per day, regardless of how successful the student is by the end of the repetitions. It doesn't get to the heart of attentive practice, and often renders the practice session as simply something to get through.

"Required number of reps finished, now I'm done." There are better, more musical ways to practice, a topic I will discuss in my next post.

WHAT IS THE ANSWER?

Like many things in life, there is not one answer that fits in every case. I'm all for experimenting to find what works for each student.

Some will need more structure. Some will flourish in their creativity with fewer constraints.

Some will do well with encouragement to aim for a certain length of practice time, with any additional time determined by the student.

Parents know their children best. Communicating with the music instructor(s) about their children's lifestyles, personalities, strengths, weaknesses, musical goals, and the like will help inform the teacher's plan development for each student.

And that is a win-win-win for students, parents, and teachers alike. Time after time.

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