I was talking to a student’s dad earlier today who wanted to make sure that his son, a beginner, was getting enough practicing done. Kuddos to this dad who is invested in his son’s musical education! The conversation inspired me to write this post and share my own thoughts about practicing, regarding both how much to practice and when to practice.
How Many Days a Week?
I generally suggest that students practice five days a week (I include lessons as a “practice” day.) So, that would be a lesson plus four other days. Some might be surprised that I suggest five days a week and not tell students to practice every day.
This is for two reasons.
First, practicing every day is just not going to happen. If I tell a student to practice every day and they fail to live up to that expectation, they’re probably going to feel bad. We don’t need to start off the next lesson with that bad feeling! Five days is more manageable. The student is given permission to take two days off!
But there are rules! Students must practice the day after their lesson, and they should not take off two days in a row.
Practicing the day after lesson is so important that the family routine may need to be considered when scheduling lessons. If the student has a lesson on Thursday, but Friday is always crazy and hampers practicing, there’s a good chance that could cause the student not to progress well. Try scheduling lessons on a different day, when you know the following day will allow for consistent practicing.
Obviously, illness and traveling interfere with practicing, and sometimes life just happens. But skipping practicing two or more days in a row should be the rare exception, not the rule.
The second reason I tell students to take off two days a week is that the mind needs some “down time” to process what the student is learning. Learning an instrument involves a process of training electrical pathways connecting eyes and ears and muscles. Similar to how our muscles need to rebuild after strength training, the mind needs to heal and knit together all the networks that are stretched and challenged during practicing. This will allow for more effective practicing after a day off!
How Many Minutes a Day?
The number of minutes a student practices is mostly going to be determined by their level of skill.
Longer, more complicated pieces require more time. I would recommend the length of practice time to be four to six times the length of the longest piece (or movement) of music the student is learning. Not every piece will be in the same stage of learning; some parts will be review, others will be brand new. Some sections will be easier, some more difficult. But multiplying the length of the longest piece by four to six times should allow a sufficient amount of time to thoroughly cover the lesson material over the course of a week.
For beginners, the time should be about four to six times the length of the entire week’s assignment. If the beginner has three little songs, and they add up to about three minutes of music, practicing for fifteen minutes a day is sufficient. If the student is not able to successfully learn the material in this amount of time, or if the student gets bored before the time is up, speak to the teacher about adjusting the workload.
Beginners are not only developing those neural pathways, but they are also learning how to sit and focus intently on one thing for an extended period of time. This length of time should grow as they learn but expecting them to sit for a half-hour when they start out is too much. Learning an instrument requires much more concentration than watching a half-hour TV show, which has more going on and even commercials to break it up.
What Time of Day?
The time of day does not matter, but the student should practice at a time when they feel refreshed and have energy. Being tired will not help the brain process the information nor send quality signals out to the fingers.
Practicing does not have to take place in one single session! Fifteen minutes can be split into two sessions of ten minutes and five minutes, or even three sessions of five minutes. Likewise, longer practice sessions can be split up.
Do what is going to make it easy to get practicing done. Is there time before school or work? Time before dinner? Right after dinner? It is helpful to tie practicing to other routines. For example, a child might always practice while the parent prepares dinner. Even listening to beginners is more pleasant than listening to the news!
Let me know if these tips help you or your child set up a system for practicing that is more manageable and effective. Keep up the good work!