The title of this month’s post isn’t meant to sound flippant. We’re all taught that practicing is a very good thing. I’m not disagreeing with that at all. That’s exactly why I wish to point out that our main goal should always be to effectively reduce our practice time, not increase it. Please allow me to explain.
Nearly all of the technological advances made over the past 200 years contributed toward the goal of making the world economy more efficient. Efficiency is about increasing the amount of output per input. This concept has been highly successful throughout human history, yet many musicians often do precisely the opposite with their practice time.
Instead of figuring out how to reduce the amount of time it takes to accomplish something, they try to increase it. Bragging rights go to those who “spend 5 hours practicing just three notes.” After all, practicing like that proves that one has the highest artistic standards for themselves. Does this apply to other areas? What do we think of the office secretary who spends 5 hours trying to decide on the first three words of an email?
Sure typing an email may not be the most artistic accomplishment, but then again neither is practicing an instrument. Sure, musical interpretation is all about making good artistic decisions. However, daily practice is mostly about learning and refining various skills. If it takes someone 5 hours to play three notes the way they want to, perhaps they have some serious issues with their instrumental technique that require some immediate attention.
This brings me to my first point about practice. Every time someone attempts to play a given note a certain way, there is a probability distribution of what’s actually going to happen. We might intend to play a high D with perfect intonation and a beautiful vibrato, but we might actually get a chipped note that’s flat with a tight quiver.
No amount of practicing can control what actually ends up happening when we try to play something. All we can ever do is affect that probability distribution. It makes almost no sense at all to hammer away at three notes in a practice room for 5 hours until we finally get them to sound the way we want them to. It makes much more sense to figure out why we’re having trouble controlling those three notes, and then try to fix the underlying problem.
If we can fix the underlying problem, we will increase the likeliness of getting the sound we want when it counts. It will also save a lot of time that can be better spent doing something else productive. People who practice like this get better. People who waste 5 hours hammering away at three notes do not.
The second thing to understand about effectively reducing practice time is the law of diminishing marginal returns. The amount of progress we make in the practice room working on some aspect of our playing diminishes sharply over time. The first 10 minutes of working on harmonic minor scales is more productive than the next 10 minutes, which is more productive than the 10 minutes after that.
Eventually, whether we have accomplished our goals or not, it becomes more productive to give up and go work on something else. Again, it’s a waste of time to spend 5 hours working on three notes if the first hour didn’t seem to accomplish anything. Eventually it even becomes worth it to quit practicing for the day. How do you know when to do that? Well, that brings me to my third point about effectively reducing practice time.
Not all practicing is good practicing. Every time we attempt to practice some of what we do makes us better, and some of what we do makes us worse! Focused/positive practicing requires a lot of direction from our brains. It’s a lot like experimenting in a research and development laboratory. We test ideas to figure out what works and then attempt to incorporate into various exercises in the hopes that it will infiltrate our regular playing.
However, our minds tire easily over time. Taking frequent short breaks can help with this. Eventually our minds stop directing our practice and old habits creep back. Mindless/negative practice should be avoided, as it pulls us away from our goals. We should practice until negative practice exceeds positive practice (that is, until the point that we are making ourselves worse).
Sometimes we can get back to positive practice by working on something else. Other times it’s time to quit for awhile. Two hours of positive practice trumps 4 hours of inconsistent practice. Negative practice is worse than not even practicing at all.
And finally, here’s my last point about effectively reducing practice time. Not everything in our playing can be cured in the practice room. Practicing is about developing and maintaining the skills necessary to play our instruments. Music itself involves far more than this. I admit that I rarely “practice” for more than 2.5 hours a day. I spend a great deal of time outside of that studying my music, analyzing my music, and deciding about how I wish to interpret my music. So much of what we really need as musicians is best developed away from our instruments. I do this so that I can have highly productive practice sessions in the limited time I usually have these days for uninterrupted practice.