How Much Should We Practice?

One of the most common questions we get as teachers is, "How much should I (or my child) practice?" This seemingly benign question can actually be pretty charged and stir up a lot of emotions.

Many of us remember lessons as a child and having to set a timer to finish our required daily practice. It could make music lessons pretty painful. We often associate this experience so strongly with music lessons that we can project it onto our students or kids even though we hated it when we were doing lessons.

At CMA we know that to get better at music (or anything) it takes dedication which usually manifests itself through the amount of time we spend practicing. However, filling a daily quota of 'practice time' doesn't necessarily lead to a better player or student. We all know musicians or students who practice a lot but progress much slower than they should or simply never reach their potential.

The most important part of the equation is what we do with each repetition. It's not that we simply do the repetitions. We start with this and then have that inform how much time a student should spend at a piano.

For example, let's say your child is in lessons at CMA. During the lessons they do a series of games and activities with the teacher to help them get in the habit of doing meaningful and progressively difficult repetitions. The students are equipped to take this experience home and practice in the exact same way. Meaning each repetition will become more challenging and engaging. This is the path to growth - which is the whole point of our lessons.

Once the students get into this groove, they will probably be able to finish their assignments in a fraction of the time it took them when the piece or process was new. At this point it is the teachers' responsibility to adjust their workload so they stay challenged… Maybe they (or you) will be assigned more music or more difficult music.

We really want our students to learn to do 30-minutes of work in 10 minutes of practice time. Then we can adjust as teachers and give them more challenging assignments so that they are still practicing 30 minutes but getting in 60 to 90 minutes of work in. This is because eventually the pieces will get so demanding that simply doing a lot of repetitions for several hours won't be enough - they will never finish learning the more challenging pieces. Good practice is about efficiency and engagement. We try to encourage this from the earliest lessons a child has all the way up through to our advanced students.

Rather than looking at the clock as the authority, let the music and engagement be the authority. The clock is simply a reference. Parents, you can still set aside 30 minutes for your child to practice but if they get their work done in 10 minutes we'll simply increase their workload so they aren't just trying to fill a quota. There is no need to force them to sit through the rest of the session doing mindless repetitions - that will actually hurt more than help over the long-term.