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How Practicing Less Can Foster Musical Growth

Research says that quality over quantity is the way to go.

Photographer Zach Goldstein
Source: Photographer Zach Goldstein

As a teacher and a parent, I've had to remind (nag?) many young musicians about the need to practice. And I continue to advise other teachers and parents on strategies to encourage more of it. So I'm not of the belief that excessive practicing is some kind of epidemic among music students, and I’m not about to deliver the message that practice is not that important after all. I do, however, believe that most musicians can make their practicing more efficient. In doing so, they can give themselves a motivational boost and free up time in their lives for other activities that also can advance their musicianship.

Although the amount of practice done on one’s musical instrument (including the voice, for singers) is likely the single greatest contributor to performance success, it's not just a matter of logging time on that instrument. Researchers who have studied music performance expertise have defined practice as an activity that is effortful, usually done in isolation, and specifically designed to improve skills (Lehmann & Jørgensen, 2012). To get the full benefits of practice, musicians must enter it with a well-developed plan and a focus on tackling the problems that stand between them and their performance goals.

So as important as practice is, how could less of it ever be a key to musical growth? First, consider the motivational realities of practicing. Because it can be difficult solitary work focused on weaknesses, it's usually extrinsically motivated. It's like dieting or leaving your bed at 6:00 a.m. for a treadmill at the gym. Though practice is not an enjoyable task, musicians understand the value of it and know it must be done. Some people who’ve made music their life’s work can come to feel an inner pressure to practice. Constantly thinking about all that they should be practicing — scales, fundamentals drills, ear playing, technical exercises, etudes, repertoire — they may believe that they’re never getting in enough time. An obsessive orientation toward practice has been linked to feelings of guilt and anger and an overall dissatisfaction with one’s musical life (Bonneville-Roussy et al., 2011).

Even with the will to do it, large amounts of practice come with other risks as well. The physical toll may lead to overuse injuries to instrumentalists and vocal nodes in singers. These conditions will stunt the benefits of practice and can eventually force a stoppage of all music-making so that the body can recover. Also, early-bird and night-owl practicers should make sure that the schedules they keep are not interfering with the efficacy of their practice. A growing body of research has established that sleep is crucial for new musical psychomotor skills to become permanent (Duke & Davis, 2006; Simmons, 2012). From one day to the next, musicians can lose some of their newly acquired skill without the memory consolidation that happens with adequate sleep.

Instead of trying to carve out more time in the day, musicians can excel by making modest levels of practice more productive (see Jørgensen, 2004, for a review of strategies). Efficient practicing begins with thoughtful goal setting. Not only should musicians enter practice sessions with a plan for the sequence of activities (e.g., 1. warmup, 2. run scales, 3. work problem spots in concert pieces, etc.), they should also target aspects of performance where improvement is sought. Broad goals, like “I want to sound better,” are not nearly as helpful as specific ones, such as “I want even rhythms on arpeggios in both fast and slow tempos.” Efficient practice also demands that potential distractions are eliminated. Of course, this can be quite a challenge in our age of smartphones and iPads. While these devices do offer apps that can be used constructively in practice, they also can tempt us with the diversions of social media and games, among other things.

Maintaining mental focus is critical, as musicians allocate their attention among various tasks. Conscious effort is required to execute new skills, while simultaneously monitoring what is heard and felt during performance. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, they must choose strategies to address deficiencies. Error detection and correction is a special hallmark of expert practicers, as compared to novices (e.g., Duke, Simmons, & Cash, 2009). These are the processes during practice in which musicians serve as their own teachers. They must evaluate their music, diagnose performance problems, and prescribe solutions in real time. None of these is an easy task by itself, let alone while doing them all concurrently.

Considering the mental energy required for effective practice, it’s no wonder that so many opt instead for the ineffective approach of mindless repetition! The most focused experts are subject to mental fatigue, especially when trying to power through a marathon practice session. This is why several shorter sessions spread throughout a day (i.e., distributed practice) is a better option than a single prolonged session (massed practice). Distributed practice is employed by many who go on to reach the highest levels of performance expertise. However, even among the most advanced musicians, who are careful to take breaks between sessions, about two hours per day is an optimal amount of practice; about four hours is the single day max. These figures are based on a landmark study by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993), who reported that the training practices of elite musicians were similar to those of professional athletes and chess masters.

Choosing to focus on practice quality over quantity can free up time for other music activities away from the instrument, which ultimately can make practice more effective. For example, score study is a useful exercise done by classical musicians to become familiar with compositions they are preparing for performance. And musicians can always benefit by increasing the amount of music listening they do. Listening is a primary means by which we encode into memory what “good music” sounds like. It is how we build the aural perceptual skills needed to accurately evaluate our own music production during practice. Especially when it comes to listening, time not practicing is not lost time in the pursuit to improve musicianship.

There are no shortcuts around practice on the path to musical expertise. But I encourage music teachers to not just tell their students to do it, but instruct them how to do it efficiently. And I implore more advanced musicians to not get caught up in an "arms race" of practicing, thinking that more is always better. The constant struggle to find practice time can cause stress, and excessive practice can take a toll physically and motivationally. By focusing on quality over quantity, musicians can avoid burnout, enjoy their musical lives more, and maximize their growth.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody


Bonneville-Roussy, A., Lavigne, G. L., & Vallerand, R. J. (2011). When passion leads to excellence: The case of musicians. Psychology of Music, 39(1), 123-138.

Duke, R. A., & Davis, C. M. (2006). Procedural memory consolidation in the performance of brief keyboard sequences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 54(2), 111-124.

Duke, R. A., Simmons, A. L., & Cash, C. D. (2009). It's not how much; it's how: Characteristics of practice behavior and retention of performance skills. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56(4), 310-321.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

Jørgensen, H. (2004). Strategies for individual practice. In A. Williamon (ed.), Musical excellence: Strategies and techniques to enhance performance (pp. 85–104). New York: Oxford University Press.

Lehmann, A. C., & Jørgensen, H. (2012). Practice. In G. E. McPherson & G. F. Welch (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of music education, volume 1. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199730810.013.0041

Simmons, A. L. (2012). Distributed practice and procedural memory consolidation in musicians skill learning. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(4), 357-368.

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