We’ve all had at least one teacher tell us, “Practice makes perfect!” We nod, smile, and promise to buckle down and spend even more time with our instruments. But how much practice is truly beneficial and at what point does taking a break actually help our minds and bodies more?
Maintaining realistic and manageable practice habits can lessen your risk of injury, increase memory, and keep you energized instead of burnt out.
What actually happens when I practice?
In broad terms, practicing relates to the repetition of the same motion to increase proficiency. Each time you play a scale, sing a phrase, or change your fingering for a chord, your brain is increasing the size of the neural passageway to the muscles involved in the motion. Muscle memory is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s not your muscles remembering the action but your brain. The more times a passageway in the brain is used, the faster and more efficient the motion resulting from the passageway becomes. In other words, your brain keeps and protects the code to functions your body performs the most.
What should I be practicing?
The most effective practice comes from repeating small chunks of motion. Break down your music into manageable portions, especially sections that are heavy with intricate technique (fast mallet movements, coloratura, two handed scales, etc.). Start slowly to accurately coordinate the changes needed to make each note sound. Once the foundation is laid for the phrase, you can begin to add speed, dynamics, and style.
So, how many hours a day do I need to practice?
Effective practice is about quality not quantity. Spending eight straight hours at the piano rehearsing a piece without taking the time to iron out tricky parts might not be as productive as four hours broken into thirty minute chunks of precise technique work.
Your brain and body need time to digest and store new information. Additionally, to avoid injury your practice times should be based on the demands of your instrument. A singer will only sing full out for 1-2 hours a day, while a violinist might play for 4-6. Both musicians should allot time to stretching and rest to avoid overworking small muscles.
And all musicians can benefit from mental practice just as much as physical. Visualizing technique, listening to repertoire, translating lyrics or reciting diction, are all ways to improve as a musician while resting playing muscles.