Thursday, August 1, 2013

How much should I practice?

A question I get asked a lot is how much should one practice to get better? This is an excellent question and is something anyone who hopes to improve at music should be thinking about. Unfortunately it is not an easy question to answer. Everybody is different and has different goals for their music and needs to approach practice with those goals specifically in mind. If you want to play guitar or banjo around the campfire with friends you don't need to practice as much as a classical pianist who's preparing to play the Metropolitan Opera House. Or do you? Surprisingly our beginner campfire picker will need to work equally as hard and in some ways even harder.

Time and again I've found several common threads in my research of books on how to practice as well as my interviews with great musicians and one fact about improvement is clear. You've got to practice if you want to get better. I've read (as well as conducted my own)  interviews  with professional musicians and a pattern emerges for nearly all touring musicians. They start young and practice everyday for at least 2 hours a day on average. And they do that for several years just to get over the beginner hump. THEN, they really start studying music more deeply and start the education necessary to become professionals. So what's the difference between our campfire guitarist and our professional? The campfire guitarist doesn't go any deeper once they can play some songs, but they still need to put in that time to get over the hump.

In fact, its my opinion that beginners have it the roughest. Everything is hard when you're a beginner. You're hands don't work well, your ears need to develop, and it just seems like your goals are far off. And maybe they are! That's a legitimate feeling to have. When I started playing music I think I knew how far off my goals were but somehow I didn't let it stop me. Actually I think I might have been in denial about it. I mean I started performing right off the bat and I can't imagine how bad I must have been. Well, I can imagine. I would write a song and take it down to the open mic and play it the next week. Sometimes I did OK and sometimes I made dogs howl. I played bluegrass gigs when I barely knew the songs and often couldn't keep up with the speed. In other words I was faking it. I wouldn't recommend going about developing like I did but I wouldn't discourage it either. Looking back it seems maybe I thought I could get there faster if I tried hard. I couldn't. It takes a long time.

So you see even for our modest campfire guitar picker, they need to put in the time to get to that point. Just like a concert pianist did. The difference is that our amateur guitar player doesn't go any farther. They just coast along after they get to where they can play. OK,  I digress. So how much do you have to practice? Well let's see. Maybe try this, you'll improve guaranteed or your money back!

  • Strive to practice 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day. AT LEAST! I would say this is the minimum you need to practice to get better. 
  • After years of practicing for hours and hours a day I think that you can't really do to much more after 3-4 hours a day. This is if you are PRACTICING. Practicing is slow, and its often tedious. If you are really practicing you'll be to tired to do more after this much practice.
  • A better goal to shoot for would be 1.5-2 hours a day.
  • Playing for fun should be a big part of your development but don't confuse it with practice.
           A big part of getting better with a musical instrument is just getting your body adjusted and strong enough to play. Focused practice can certainly help and is necessary but just getting your instrument out and having fun can help too. Especially for the beginner. If you're a beginner guitar player, get your guitar out and goof off while you watch TV. Leave it out so you can just pick it up and make some noise. When I was a kid I loved to pick up the guitar and just make sound with it. I wasn't practicing but I was learning and figuring out how my hands connected to the guitar. I'm sure that helped me later on.

  • Finally don't underestimate the benefit of going through a really focused "hardcore" period of learning your instrument. Almost everyone I know has done this.  You get serious for 5-6 months (or more) at time and really buckle down and practice everyday. Work on your weak spots. Struggle. Get Frustrated. Overcome. This is how getting over the beginner hump works. You just can't really avoid it. Get serious for a while and your playing will really improve and stay with you for a long time to come.

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