March 30, 2012

Practice Length

The following post is from my blog for students and their parents.

One of the most common questions I'm asked is advice on how long a student should practice at home. There are a number of factors that to into determining the answer including age, skill level, and learning style, but the the issue of quality over quantity is always part of my answer.

The most important concept to solidify with your child is the difference between a "run-through" and "practice".

A run-through can be defined simply as "starting at the beginning and playing through to the end without stopping." The most common pitfall in the practice session is to focus only on run-throughs. Run-throughs are mainly useful as an evaluative tool, to see which areas need work. For larger works, a run-through can also mean working on one large section, for example, the trio of a waltz, or the development of a Sonata.

"Practice" means focusing on small, isolated areas that need work. A good limit to set is no more than 8 measures for more advanced students, and no more than 4 measures for beginners. Sometimes, this bar needs to be set even lower for particularly tricky or slow pieces. Setting this limit before practicing will help immensely and will eventually become standard procedure when sitting down at the piano for the day.

I recommend the following procedure for practicing a particular piece:

1. Evaluative run-through: do a preliminary run-through to decide what needs work.
2. Focus on an area: Pick out one of the areas that needs work and practice it until it's learned. Repeat just this area and no more until you feel comfortable or until you get frustrated enough to let it rest for a bit. It's crucial that students resist the urge to keep playing through to the end from their starting point.
3. Repeat step 2 for all pertinent spots
4. Another evaluative run-through: This can also mean practicing connection the areas that the student worked on before.

I realize that step #2 is somewhat wide open, and I'll address that area in another blog post. Use this as a starting point.

As far as actual time goes, students may find it easy to drill a small area for a good amount of time. I have found this procedure to be very freeing, because I can get very in-depth with small area rather than getting frustrated with big pictures all of the time. The amount of time that is spent at the piano should be flexible depending on the concentration level of the student. Distracted time spent practicing is not actually practicing at all. I recommend practicing in small chunks with breaks.

 For younger students this could mean two practice sessions every day, each at 10-15 minutes.
Middle-school students should spend 30 minutes at the piano with a five minute break.
High-school students (depending on skill level) can expect an hour at the piano with a 5-10 minute break halfway through.
Very advanced students will spend 2-3 hours at the piano with breaks when they need them. In college and graduate school I found a very good system of 45 minute sessions with 15 minute breaks. Using this I was able to have good practice for 4-5 hours every day.

Nothing is more frustrating in music than trying to hack your way through a piece over and over again with little to no improvement. By separating the practice from the run-through, it gives the student more structure and allows them to bite off smaller chunks of music.

Stay tuned for more posts about practicing!

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