Every musician ask this question. I did ask it myself for a long time. It is human: we all want to learn as fast as possible. We do not want any road blocks between us now and the future ability to play as well and freely as we can imagine. But the more we practice, the better, right? Well not so fast.
So how long should I practice my instrument every day? For a beginner, a regular 30 minutes a day are enough, whether adult or children. A student in music should practice around one hour and a half to two hours, not counting preparatory work, of course. For exams or concerts, 3 to 4 hours should be a maximum for a limited time.
This is not a lot, many people say. Well, it is commonly and wrongly admitted that the more you practice, the better you get in the fastest way. But there is a lot more to it, and many other parameters play an important part other than just time. Read on.
How to determine practice time
My teacher, my master, should I say, is of Russian origin. And I was taught the Russian school of violin playing in which mind and psychology play a great role. These great masters have studied science and psychology and have applied its principles to violin teaching. Not only Vengerov but also many virtuoso from the States, for example Isaac Perlman have come to the same conclusion. What do we exercice when practicing?
We do not exercise the muscles, we exercise the mind.
Then it is quite simple: we shouldn’t practice longer than we can focus. If we feel in a good shape, we can extend our work hours, if we feel weak or tired, we should shorten our routine.
A student should maybe work longer than the instrument practice time. There is a time to prepare, to think about what to play, musicality, fingerings. This has to be accomplished comfortably seated at a desk. The mind is working. And then, the arms and fingers will join the mind to operate under its control to practice. Only practice what is prepared. Always analyse your play. Always focus on your goals, on what you have envisioned beforehand.
When you feel your concentration is slipping, your mind flies away while your fingers hit the fingerboard blindly, then it is the right time to stop. But stop right away. Whether a break is enough is up to you, but usually you should preserve your force for the next day.
Why you shouldn’t practice too much
Why do we practice in the first place? To be good at what we do. What are the wrong reasons?
- to please our parents
- To please our teacher
- To reassure ourself
- To impress ourselves and other people with extra long work hours and be proud of it.
But only the result counts, not the way or the means. Nobody will care eventually if we work really long hours, but our own pride.
But it is of common belief that the more you work, the more serious and the better you are. Wrongfully so. Violinists of the famous Russian school of playing usually avoid to answer how much they practice. Because not many people will understand.
This is the subject of another article. But here I can say in a nutshell the main reasons why too much practice can be bad for you.
What do we put at risk along the way?
When we play the violin or any other instrument for too long, our muscles and tendons get tired. This can easily lead to crispation. Then pains can occur. Our moves are not fluid and regular anymore. Our sound suffers together with our musical interpretation.
That can lead to chronic pains and everything that comes along with it: fear to practice, suffering, inability to play, lost of interests, lost of pleasure, and so on.
Crispation is enemy to any good technic anyway. Bad intonation, bad sound. Slow fingers, out of tune double stops : the list can go on and on.
If I concentrate wrongly on say the bow arm and then I play out of tune, then basically I learn and practice how to play out of tune. If I repeat bars in a loop, I don’t learn how to shift and get to that bar, I just practice the loop. If I tighten my right hand fingers because I have to play double stops, then I practice again and again how to play double stops with a stiff hand, without vibrato, risking to be out of tune.
Don’t forget that, if the violin is often considered a difficult instrument, (I have discussed why in that post) regularity is key.
Why 30 minutes are enough for beginners
Beginners don’t have enough material to practice longer than that. Usually they have got a couple of exercices plus a little tune to learn. You can’t play the same line 3 hours : you could become mad ! Beginners also risk stiff arms quicker than anybody else. They risk injury and discouraging more than anything else.
If anything , a beginner should practice twice 20 minutes more than 30 at a time.
90 to 120 minutes for students
That duration is divided in several parts.
First, a couple of minutes to awake your body, your sense; to get your blood flowing in your fingers and arms. Some easy exercises offer great help in that matter.
Then, for the violin, practicing scales and double stops for the left hand and then bow arm for sound should last around 30 minutes. We are already 35 minutes in.
Then, you should practice a new piece, slowly, bar after bar, for 30 minutes. Don’t forget to practice musically even at this stage.
You must have a piece that you technically know all right. There is time to be better musically: prepare all the details, bow lengths, dynamics, tempo and phrasing. This is why you want to play, and this part of your routine together with the following one is what drives you. But keep cool, don’t just play a concert to yourself and analyse your playing for technical glitches and parts to ameliorate. 30 minutes.
You then still have to play some of your already known repertoire to keep it ‘at your fingertips ‘ which can be done for around 30 minutes. This also shouldn’t be a concert to oneself. Even though playing a tune from start to finish on tempo is a good habit sometimes to prepare for a concert.
Tips on how to know how long to practice
1- Only practice as long as you can concentrate. Your mind should always look after your body and check several technical things on top of the musical part of playing, which should be prevalent. When you feel you play one autopilot, then you know it is time to put down your instrument.
2- Mental exhaustion: because you train your brain when practicing, if you practice too much for a long period of time, you risk exhaustion. And consequences will be pretty bad for your playing. You will loose then precious time and wish you had practiced less. Which leads us to the following point:
3- Learning an instrument is a long process. Regularity is maybe the best quality of all. You have to manage your energy on the long run. Knowing how long to practice and when to stop is an important starting point. If you practice too much at the beginning of the year, you won’t have any juice left for your exams, exactly when you need to work more.
5- Get a routine: it is the best way to practice the same hours every day knowing what to do, what to emphasize, and where to focus your energy.
4- Learn how to practice. When I was a kid, I used to do how my teacher then told me: to count. I did that Sevcik exercise 10 times and spend my time counting in my head… Then I was obviously practicing counting while playing on autopilot. My Russian teacher told me how to practice effectively. I have developed that subject on another article dedicated to practicing.
1- 30 minutes is enough for beginners. They discover their instrument and have little material to work on. Twice 20 minutes is far better than an hour.
2- One hour and a half or two hours for students. This is the sweet spot on the long run. We have detailed above a typical routine.
3- 3 to 5 hours for students in periods of exams. You have to push more, work more. But because you have managed your energy during the year (on the long run) you still have that extra boost.
4- 60 to 90 minutes for professionals or amateurs. They usually need less time to learn new pieces. They need to play and revise their repertoire.
To conclude, by practicing, we only talk about time spent on the instrument. Writing music, transcribing music, finding fingerings, dynamics, and so on, can and must be prepared without the instrument and as such don’t count on practice time.