How Long Do I Need to Practice My Instrument?

One of the things that I’m often asked is, “How long do I need to practice my instrument?” Or, by parents, “How long should my child be practicing their instrument?”

The answer may seem like it should be straight-forward, but it often isn’t.

Consider the following:

How long and how often you practice your instrument depends on your goals. If you’re just starting out, you may not yet know exactly what your plans are for music.

Is this something you want to do professionally? Is music a career you want to pursue? If you’re still in middle school or elementary school, this may not be a decision you’re ready to make. If you’re in high school, it’s a question you likely think about, but even then, you still may be unsure.

So how long do you practice?

If you’re unsure about how music will play a role in your future, I suggest practicing with the assumption that a career in music is a possibility. Don’t shortchange yourself early on because you’re uncertain about whether or not you’ll continue to pursue music five years, ten years, or even twenty years from now.

Of course, it’s also important to keep a good balance in mind. Don’t burn yourself out early on by practicing to much. If you go at it aggressively too early on, you may find that you no longer enjoy doing it.

So how much practice is too much? How much is too little? Where do you draw the line?

Things to consider when deciding how long to practice:

1) Practicing the wrong things, no matter how much time you spend, won’t benefit you. To quote James Clear in an article he wrote for Business Insider, “Putting in a lot of time might make you tired, but simply working a lot (even if it’s 10,000 hours over the course of your career) isn’t enough to make you a top performer. It’s not the same thing as practicing deliberately.”

2) Practicing several times a day in short intervals can be more productive than practicing for a long block of time. It also gives you the time you need to digest the material you were working on and the energy to practice longer (five 15 minute sessions give you 15 minutes more time than one 1 hour session).

3) Keeping a practice journal with notes about aspects of your playing you want to work on can be a huge benefit to the time you spend practicing. It gives you direction. It also gives you something to look back on six months or a year from now to see where you were. Sometimes it’s hard to see how much progress we’ve made. Looking back at the things you couldn’t do a few months back (that you can do now) can be a huge motivation. It confirms that all the time you spend practicing isn’t for nothing.

4) It’s okay to take a break. But don’t let a day or two away from practice turn into weeks. The longer you wait to resume your practice, the harder it will be to turn it into a habit again.

5) Practicing other aspects of your musicianship can help improve your ability on your instrument. Studying theory or composition or ear training can help boost your skill on your instrument. Time spent doing other musical tasks can count towards your practice time. But don’t let these activities dominate your practice time! If you want to improve your abilities on your instrument, the most important time is spent with that instrument.

6) Mindless practice is a waste of time. Repetition without focus on why you’re repeating a passage or exercise is a waste of time. Playing without making an effort to push yourself is a waste of time. Create goals for your practice sessions. “Today I want to work on ______ because I need to _______.” Give yourself a reason, a deadline, and a specific time to work on it. Figure out what problems you’re having and arrange your practice so that it solves your playing problems. If you’re not sure where you’re struggling, or if you need some direction, take a lesson or two. A good teacher will be able to point out the areas of your playing that need some work.

7) Practice when you have the energy for it. Are you a morning person? Schedule the bulk of your practice time for the morning. Are you a night owl? Practice at night. Pay attention to the times of day when you are the most productive and slot your practice into that time.

8) Apply the two minute rule. If you really don’t feel like practicing, or you feel you’re short on time, just commit to practicing for two minutes. Maybe you do a few longtones or run through your scales. Or maybe you sit down with a passage you’ve been struggling with and play it slowly once or twice. You’ll find that two minutes quickly turns into ten minutes which quickly turns into thirty minutes without you even realizing it. The hardest thing about practice is sometimes just starting. So just commit to a short time. Or if you need some more tips on how to practice even you don’t want to, you can read this.

A Few Apps to Help You Keep Track of Your Practice

1) Ask Me Every // This is the application I use to keep track of how long I practice. It motivates me to avoid breaking my “streak” and it averages out the total time I practice per day. I love looking at the month view and seeing all the lovely blue numbers that illustrate how many days I’ve spent time practicing.

2) Coach.me // This app is a community based tool for tracking your goals and getting encouragement.

3) The Teen Jazz Practice Journal // We’ve designed a free, printable PDF to help you keep track of your practice goals. Get it here.

4) A Notebook // If you’re looking for something simple, a plain notebook will do. I keep a composition notebook with notes about what I’ve practiced, things I’ve noticed in my playing that can use some attention, and songs I’d like to practice (or that I need to learn).

Conclusion

So just how long should you practice?

Let’s take a look at what a few music educators have to say on the matter:

I tell my beginners that 20 minutes a day and my college students are required (but rarely do) to practice at least 14 hours a week. As for me, I aim for about 4-6 hours a day. – Monica Schriver, http://www.monicashriver.com

Beginner – 15-20 minutes daily
Intermediate – 30-45 minutes
Advanced/HS/College bound – 1 hour minimum 3 hour max
Shorter daily practice is better than longer with skip days. For advanced players it’s better to get in a 15 minute warm up than skipping a day. But they will need a couple sessions longer than an hour a week to progress to the highest levels. – James Barrera

Definitely what James said. Most of my middle school students do 20-30 minutes and my HS students do 60 minutes plus. 30 minute lessons = 30 minutes of daily practice, 45 minute lessons = 45 minutes of daily practice, 60 minute lessons = 60 minutes of daily practice. Most students can do 5-6 days a week. Just like James said, 15 minutes a day is better than skipping a day. – Janelle Barrera

I take a different approach. One that is not based on time but with a focus on goals. I give them material and tell them to set daily goals or I set daily goals for them to make progress within the material. As long as the goals are met, they are fine. If they reach the goals sooner than later, I have them reinforce the material on the remaining days, or I provide them with new goals. Its much more motivational for them when they see themselves reaching goals and progressing. Sometimes goals take 20 minutes to reach, somtimes and hour or more. Length of time for practice is secondary and in the scheme of things means nothing and works negatively on the pshcye IMHO. I find that students believing they need to practice for a specific amount of time actually only “practice” for a small fraction of it because they confuse “playing” (noodling on material they already know) with “practicing” (working on new skill sets) . 10 minutes of practicing and 20 minutes of playing isn’t going to get it done. However, if they have goals, its different and they actually end up spending more time on the instrument trying to reach a goal than they would when they have a pre determined amount of time given to them to practice. As soon as time is up, they tend to put the instrument down with the feeling that they did their due diligence. The goal oriented approach seems to work very well for me and my students. I have been doing it for years now and the results are pretty great! – Fran Merante, http://www.cidrumming.com

So how long should you practice?

My answer, as long as you can, as productively as you can. Practice every chance you get, but only if you’re getting something out of that time. If you aren’t using your time productively, you’re wasting it. You’re better off doing something else.

But if you really want numbers, let’s put together an average based on the responses above:

  • Beginning Level (1 to 2 years of playing) 15-20 minutes a day
  • Intermediate Level (3 to 5 years of playing) 45-60 minutes a day
  • Advanced Level (6+ years of playing) 1-4 hours a day

For further reading, check out this post from Business Insider: The Most Successful People Practice Better, Not More

So what about you? How long do you practice? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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Published on: May 26, 2015

Filled Under: Music and Career Advice

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