Practicing: frequency, scheduling, and duration

Yes, it does need to be discussed — how long should a student practice, how frequently, and how does it become a good habit? I’ll answer all of these questions.

Unfortunately, I cannot simply give a pat answer here — there is no “silver bullet” music practice regimen. However, from my own study of music and twenty years of teaching others, I’ve learned a few things over the years about practicing music.

The weekly goal of practice sessions should be 5-6 times per week. Life happens, and not all of our intentions pan out — with a goal of 5-6 times per week, the student should end up with no fewer than 4 practice sessions per week. My experience has shown that a student that regularly practices fewer than 4 times per week (one time per day) will not make meaningful progress from week to week.

For this reason, I generally provide students with practice records, outlining what needs to be covered in practice and how to do it, with room to mark off each day that it is done. This helps facilitate communication about practice between student and teacher. Also, as a teacher, if a student comes to lesson and clearly has not learned something from the prior week that was included in the practice sheet I need to know whether or not this lack stems from (a) lack of understanding of the material or (b) has simply not practiced sufficiently to master the concept. How I address the issue as a teacher differs greatly depending upon the underlying problem.

This brings up another issue — frequency of practice. As a general rule, it is crucial to practice either the next day after the lesson, or at most the second day after the lesson. This is because the student needs to be able to remember what was covered in the lesson in order to practice it effectively. Yes, a practice sheet helps, but it doesn’t completely solve this problem. Practicing the very next day or the second day after a lesson should be worked into the student’s general schedule.

Which leads us to scheduling. It is important to schedule music practice into your day. If it is left as a “I’ll practice when I get around to it” — most likely, the student will not regularly get around to it. This is the same for children and adults, irrespective of how much enjoyment they derive from music practice. Young children will require a parent to help work music practice into the household schedule, and may require support from the parent to practice effectively. Plan for this. Older children may still need a parent to help add practice into their schedule, to prompt for practice, and perhaps even work rewards for music practice into the usual schedule. For students of any age, it works best if music practice comes regularly after or before other scheduled activity — such as, music practice starts about 20 minutes after getting home from school, once a snack has been eaten or 30 minutes after returning home for work. After music practice, another enjoyable activity starts such as video games or dinner.

Last, we get to duration of music practice. Generally, attempt to get to all of the assigned practice, within the limitations of the student’s attention span. A very young child (age 6 and under) may only practice for 10 – 15 minutes. Some kids with short attention spans may be benefitted by two 10-minute practice sessions daily. Older students and adults will have the attention span that is longer. A half an hour of daily practice can be expected, with a lot of personal variation. Some students may breeze through most assignments, and require little time. Some students may struggle through most assignments, and need a break after 30 minutes. (And the same student may fit into both of these categories on different weeks!) Some students may enjoy improvising or “playing around on the piano” after completing assignments, or reviewing past pieces — other will not. All of this is normal. I suggest focusing on quality of practice sessions — was all of the material covered? were all of the steps followed? — rather than on quantity of practice sessions. Practice records can facilitate parents in following up with their children on what was practiced.

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