I’m not going to sit around here and drill the cliché of “practice makes perfect”. As a musician (or any artist, athlete, etc.), we all know you have to practice just as the scientist must research in order to discover new things and meet expectations. This is a fact. But how much practice is too much? There’s a fine line between an expert level of work and pushing yourself to an anxiety attack, no matter your skill level or years of experience on an instrument. Here’s my take on the whole thing.
On average, I practice for four hours a day. I usually spend three hours on the piano, and one to two hours on the bass. I never practice on Sundays because you need at least one day off to gather your thoughts and give yourself a chance to go outside and take a walk in the woods. And to dust and clean the studio, that’s also important. Of the six days leftover, on piano I balance it between classical music on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and jazz, blues and improvised music on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. I play my standard bass on classical days and my piccolo bass on jazz days so that I can get to everything on both of my principal instruments.
Some people may say this is too little, and that a true musician (here comes that “No True Scotsman” fallacy again!) would never practice less than eight hours a day. Yet, I get to everything I need to in that allotted time frame, including reviewing older works in my back catalog, technique exercises and highly difficult classical works and jazz improv (and on two instruments). I’m not having any trouble, and no, I’m not some exceptional wizard, I’m just like you. What it comes down to is this: if you need more than four or five hours of practice a day, either you are working on too much at once, or you are not practicing correctly.
I was watching the documentary Virtuosity a few months ago, and I remember the winner of the Van Cliburn Competition was a young man who admitted to practicing eight hours a day. This is a man who is simply playing too many pieces at once and requires that much time to get to all of them in a single sitting instead of breaking them up over the course of the week. This is not psychologically healthy practice, and is a good recipe for a nervous breakdown later on in his career. While he’s highly skilled, he is placing that all at risk by putting more on his plate than he can eat in one meal. That is not a proper approach to rehearsal, even for a touring concert pianist.
This is what got me thinking about how many hours one should sit at their instrument and just work. These people, most of them the same age as me, are spending nearly their entire waking day playing exercises or playing excerpts of well known concertos and etudes as exercises, and it made me feel that maybe I was doing something wrong. Then I started researching well known concert musicians who have already “made it” in the performance circuit, and found that the amount of time they put into their work was almost always half that of any of these kids in the Van Cliburn Competition. It looks counterintuitive at first, but there’s a reason for this.
A professional musician needs to know how to practice smart. Spending eight hours a day pounding away over the same thing is not going to do anything but hurt your body, damage your confidence and torture your psyche. And if you develop arthritis from all that overworking, your goals are going to end up moot from the very process you used trying to reach them.
The first rule I follow is to never practice any one piece longer than one hour. What you’re working on should be divided into smaller segments, such as four to twelve measures depending on their difficulty, and then working on that one little segment for ten minutes. After those ten minutes are up, move onto the next segment, continuing to do so until the hour is up. You will learn more of the piece, learn it more accurately and accomplish more in an hour than you could in a single day. For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep a digital clock (because they’re quiet) nearby so you can keep track of how long you’ve been working.
The next rule is to practice slowly. Whether you’re playing Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit or Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”, always practice each segment very slowly (about half time, maybe a little slower with those bebop tunes) and then gradually work the tempo up until it’s in time. For this, you’ll need that dreaded metronome, but don’t worry, if you do it right, she’ll become your best friend! In one piece I had composed, I was having some difficulty getting very fast runs down. I had the tempo, but was missing the accuracy I had wanted. The piece is 80 beats per minute in 3/4, so I kept the metronome at that tempo but played at half the speed, so I was now playing each click as eighth notes instead of quarters (it has lots of sixteenth tuplets, believe me, subdividing helps!). Within a week I had worked the entire section up to eighth notes at 160, or quarter notes at 80, the target tempo, and had gotten the accuracy I was craving.
Without using the click, this would have taken at least three to four times longer and with iffy results at best. The trick is to gradually increase the metronome by two to five bpm every few times you play it (once you have it under your fingers), and before you know it, you’re playing it ten to twenty bpm faster without even realizing the transition had happened! Keeping this up lets you reach your target, which brings up the next point.
Set your goals for each day, or at least the whole week. Make a list of everything you need to do and on what days you’re going to do it. Check them off as you accomplish them so you can keep a solid track of how many hours you’re working. When working on getting a piece up to tempo, set a target tempo for the next day, and slowly push towards it. Note what tempo you were able to reach by the end of your allotted hour, and adjust your next session’s advancement accordingly. Set how many pages or measures in a segment you are going to work on, then keep track on how many you are able to get through. Don’t make your goal “Learn the Mephisto Waltz”, make it more like this:
Practice first 28 measures, slowly with metronome.”
Remember to keep track of what metronome mark you finished on. Then repeat for the next several measures, and put them all together, so on and so forth until you have the entire piece playable.
If you’re having difficulty with a particular passage, don’t overwork it! This is something I did when I was younger and I can safely tell you it only leads to frustration, frustration leads to anger and anger leads to you never wanting to play again. Yoda warned you of this sort of thing in those crappy prequels. Instead, walk away! Take a breather from that one section or just move onto something else. If you need to, even take a break from it for a couple days and look at it from other angles, see what other players have done to produce desirable interpretations and experiment for yourself to find a solution that works for you and your body. More often than not, difficulties on one section of a particular piece are the result of too much playing and sore hands/lungs. Coming back after a rest will likely produce better results.
These steps are crucial in smart practice over plain old practice. Work on a single piece no longer than an hour (half hour for youngsters), and only work on smaller segments within that piece at ten-minute intervals. Use a metronome to gradually work up to the target tempo, subdivide where needed. Set realistic goals for each piece, and keep them in check. And above all, stop playing too much when things get frustrating or difficult, relax, and step aside. You need time to get out and have fun, socialize and grow. It helps you interpret written scores, gives you stories that can lead to improvisations or compositions and prevents you from going stir crazy in front of an instrument. Anyone who tells you four or five hours a day is too little to be a professional, or practices twice that himself probably doesn’t even have his own shit together. A great performer on the stage doesn’t necessarily mean a great, disciplined student in the practice room.