How much should I practice?

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from students/parents is “how much should I/my child practice?” As every teacher will tell you, while this depends on the student’s age, natural ability (sometimes referred to as talent), current skill level, interest level, personal goal and reason for studying piano, and family circumstances, the simple answer here is “how good do you want to be?”

Music practice is kind of like exercise: everyone needs it regularly, some people enjoy it more than others, some people have a rigorous routine, others do the bare minimum. The amount required depends on body type, current health conditions, personal interest, and external factors such as training for an event (marathon, tournament, competition). It is not hard to find some sort of a table for suggested practice amount required for students, in fact I made one up to satisfy this frequent inquiry, but such a table really is superficial – the people that will practice do not need to be told how much they need to practice, and the people that will not practice will not do what the table says anyway!

Music practice is not always “fun” – it is hard work that requires a tremendous amount of focus and will power. In the beginning, it does help if parents are involved in the process. Very few children will just jump onto the piano bench and start practicing by themselves – it is an acquired habit. Much like exercising, the hardest part is to just get started – to get on the treadmill or put on the running shoes. Once you get started, you don’t really need to think about the actual time, your body will tell you when you have done enough. But there are so many distractions in life that pull us away – I will do this first, then I will exercise; I will do that first, then I will go practice.

Some students will watch the clock and do exactly 30 minutes of practice or whatever number they are told. Some people are efficient, and can get a lot done in 30 minutes. Others not so much. To help my beginner students get into a practice routine, I have developed the following strategy:

1. In their first lesson, I ask them how old they are. I give them however many number of assignments they are able to handle in the lesson (1-3 exercises/pieces depending on age and natural ability). Then I tell them to practice every assignment the number of times according to their age, so if they are five, they need to practice every exercise five times everyday. If they are older, they have to practice more times.

2. In the next lesson, I check that the previous assignments are accomplished. Usually they are, so we move onto new assignments. Again, everything that’s new has to be practiced five times a day or whatever age they are. In addition, they still have to keep practicing all the old exercises/pieces, but only ONE time a day, and if a particular assignment from last week is not mastered, then it needs to be practiced like the new songs.

3. After a while, the student will have learned quite a number of songs in a book, and if they have been doing step two above, they will inevitably ask me if they still have to keep practicing the first song or exercise I ever gave them. This is when I ask them if by now they have memorized that song. They usually are very happy (and proud) to show me they can play it without looking at the music. This is when I tell them they no longer need to practice it once a day, unless they just want to. If they do not know it by heart yet, then I tell them they still have to practice it once a day.

4. Eventually, the student will have several books they are working on, and the number of songs they are supposed to practice exceed the amount of time or energy they are able to devote to their practice session, so I get the question again “how much should I practice?” Now I tell them they must still practice the new assignments according to their age, but they can work backwards from the newest song, and choose “x” number (their age) of old songs to practice one time a day. The emphasis here is they must always practice the newest assignment in a particular book, then work backwards and practice some of the older pieces.

Students eventually figure out a practice routine of their own, and as they become more advanced, the emphasis shifts from mere quantity to quality, so it is not how many times a song is practiced, but rather how well everything is executed, and that standard gets higher and higher. But one thing is for sure: like everything, practice gets easier with practice!

I hope the above tips help those of you that still wonder “how much should I practice?”

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