How much should I practice?
I get this question all the time. People want to know how much I practice, how much they need to practice to make progress, etc.
I am a professional musician and so I make a lousy benchmark by which to judge your practice time on. It's my job to know my notes and sound good so I practice until I'm done.
Generally speaking I am a fan of goal oriented practice. Before you pick up the instrument, figure out what you want/need to accomplish during your practice session and ignore the clock until you've accomplished that goal.
'Cramming' for lessons is about as useful as cramming for exams. Practice over the course of days is more effective than all at once the day (or hour) before your lesson. More often than not those who 'cram' for their lessons show up and promptly fall apart in front of me.
If you simply must have a chart, here are my general recommendations for minimum practice:
Beginner, Very Young- 60 minutes over the course of a week.
Beginner, 7 to adulthood- 20 minutes a day five days a week
Intermediate Student- 45 minutes five days a week
Intermediate to Advanced- 1 hour six days a week
Advanced students with youth orchestra, school orchestra, regional orchestras, college auditions, gigs and such should count on adopting the 'until I'm done' method.
Where to practice:
Pick a quiet spot to practice, away from the TV, phone, computer, siblings and anything else that has the potential to distract you. Try to practice in a space that is large enough for your sound, the more space you have to fill with your sound the better. Put a mirror (preferably full length) in your practice space. Make sure you have adequate lighting.
Anything else you may need such as a chair, music stand, pencils, recording device, glass of water, practice log. Etc. Make sure you have all of these BEFORE you begin.
When to practice:
Pick a time when you are mentally alert. Practicing after a meal is probably not a great idea, though if you are starving by all means grab a snack before you begin. If at all possible schedule your practice time. For example, on a Sunday night figure out when you will have time to practice during the week, write it down and stick to it! Be protective of your practice time. If your favorite TV show is on, tape it. If your crush calls, tell them you will call back after your practice, etc. Be careful of who and what you let into your practice time. By this I mean anxiety about a test, an argument with your parents, a break up, etc. Leave your problems at the door and enjoy your time away from them.
Lies we tell ourselves: “I don’t have time.” And “I’ll do it later.” Answer: Yes you do, and no you won’t.
If your life does not permit you to schedule regular practice sessions it’s fine to break it up into smaller sections. Example; If you’re waiting for someone to pick you up, and you’ve got 20 minutes, pick a short section of music (a few bars or so) determine exactly what it is you need to work on to make it beautiful, and go at it.
“I don’t need to practice, I’m awesome!”
Answer: Hey, EVERYONE has to practice.
Dealing with a lack of motivation: Go to a concert. See an awesome soloist.
Get inspired! Listen to a recording of a piece you’re working on, read a book, go see a great movie, whatever it takes to WAKE YOU UP. Record yourself. It may be ten times worse, or ten times better than you expect but it will motivate you.
If you’re really tired, sick, cranky or whatever and you haven’t practiced yet make a deal with yourself. Example; take a piece or passage you love and spend twenty minutes on it. If you feel like going on after twenty minutes, do so. If not, put your instrument away and pat yourself on the back for being so wonderful.
Ideas on how to practice:
Repetition is an important part of becoming a better player. HOWEVER, mindless repetition is a waste of time and can cause some serious damage to your body and your motivation.
Determine what to work on: Isolate the problem. Example; you’ve got a tricky passage that involves a large shift (or string crossing). Take a bar before the shift, the bar of the shift, and a bar after the shift. Those three bars are what you want to work on. AFTER you’ve solved the technical issues, go back and put the passage into the context of the phrase.
Building relationships between your fingers, hands, arms, ears, shoulders etc. is another important part of becoming a better player. When you’re getting ready for a shift, as in the previous example, you must anticipate the motion. Make sure your left hand is in the correct position and ready to move, be aware of where you are and where you need to be in the bow, hear the interval in your head etc. Likewise, what comes after the shift is also important. Are you crossing strings? Downshifting? Rhythms:
Use the Galamian rhythms, and accents to teach your hand where the notes are.
Determine your ‘beat fingers’; That is, determine which fingers are on the strong beats, and which are on the off beats. Take turns accenting them. Often we have runs of notes at the like, figure out where the big beats are and break the run into sections accordingly. Be conscious of which finger you are playing with and where you are in the bow when you are on the strong beats.
It may seem like common sense, but always be aware of the sound that you are making. Regardless of the technical issues, make a beautiful, full sound and follow the phrase.
Playing slowly and building up tempo gradually is very effective. BUT! Be aware of the final tempo, even when playing slowly. Make sure that the amount of bow you are using, your sound, the position of your left hand, the distance your fingers are from the fingerboard, and the position your bow is in relation to your strings are close to what you will be using at the faster tempo.
A bit at a time:
Take a few measures at a time and focus on them. Intonation:
If you play a note out of tune, do not sit on it and adjust it until you’re convinced that it’s in tune and then move on. Remember that you need to build relationships, go to the note previous and try again. Determine what is preventing you from landing on a note correctly. Do you need to bring your wrist around? Is your hand ready for the shift? Etc.
Practice with drones, and when crossing strings, practice the interval.
Do not play arhythmically:
Play with a pulse. ALWAYS! Even if it is painfully slow.
Rock and Roll:
Is your left hand moving up, down and across the fingerboard? If your left hand is seized up in one place it makes playing quite difficult. What are your thumbs doing? If your left thumb is gripping like a vice to the neck of the instrument, there will be a lot of tension in your hand. Also, if your left thumb is grabbing, your right thumb will be doing the same. Tension in your right hand, particularly in the right thumb makes string crossings, accents, and spicatto inconsistent and difficult.
Be ‘on top’ of your game:
When you are playing tennis, you move to where you see the ball bounce BEFORE you hit it. Likewise with playing. Anticipate what is coming next with both your right and left arms/hands. Put your fingers down, and leave them down if you’re coming back.
The Law of Three: Repeat a passage three times PERFECTLY before moving on, or bumping up the tempo.
Dealing with frustration:
Each one of us deals with frustration. Realize that you are not stupid or untalented because you have difficulty playing a passage.
If you are frustrated, SLOW DOWN! Try to simplify the passage. Example; String crossings. Don’t play the left hand.
Focus on your right hand, using open strings.
Determine where the pulse is. The pulse unifies your playing. Discover which note the strong beat occurs in your left hand, which direction your bow is going, where you are in the bow at the strong beat, and exaggerate it.
Examine your fingerings and bowings. Is there a better way to do it?
If you feel like smashing something…something expensive…walk away. Think of the problem you are having and try to identify at least two different ways of approaching it before you return to your instrument and try again.
Ask for help. Your teachers and your peers are there to help you out! Nobody realizes their full potential alone.
A final word:
This article is only a fraction of what there is to know about efficient practice. Your private teacher and your peers are your best resources. Be aware that in your private instruction you are not only learning HOW to play, but HOW TO PRACTICE using problem solving techniques that will help you become a self-sufficient musician.