The Most Effective Ways to Practice an Instrument

When it comes to learning an instrument, exactly how much practice is too much practice? Or on the other end of the spectrum, how much practice is enough?

These are the two questions that will probably haunt you as you’re trying to learn how to play your chosen instrument.

Classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein once said that no one should have to practice more than four hours a day. He elaborated on this by saying if you needed more time than that, then you’re probably doing something wrong.

The late Leopold Auer, a Hungarian violinist, conductor and composer, used to tell his students “Practice with your fingers and you’ll need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 ½ hours.”

Chances are, if you pose the question ‘how much time should I spend practicing my instrument?’ to a number of musicians, you’ll receive varying responses. This is because effectively learning to play an instrument isn’t a question of time; it’s a question of technique.

Different Types of Practice

If you’ve ever spent half a day playing the same song over and over again trying to get it right, you’ll understand all too well how practicing too much can be just as detrimental as not practicing enough. Why? Because playing the same song repeatedly without any improvement is extremely frustrating!

But why aren’t you improving? Surely a full day of practice would yield some form of results, even if they were only minor? Well, not necessarily. This brings us to our first type of practice, mindless practice.

Mindless practice often involves simply repeating the same thing over and over again. To an onlooker, this might look like practice, however, it’s actually just mindless repetition. Another form of mindless practice is playing something, hitting a part that doesn’t sound right, repeating that part until you get it right, continuing on, and then repeating this process again when you get to another part you don’t like.

While mindless practice is a commonly followed technique, it’s not going to achieve the best results, and it definitely isn’t a technique that’s adopted by seasoned professionals.

A much more effective form of practice is deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a systematic and highly structured activity that adopts a more thoughtful, hands-on approach to learning.

Deliberate practice is a form of hypothesis testing, where the main goal is to look for solutions to the problems being faced.

This type of practice is usually fairly slow moving, and involves identifying the exact reason your piece isn’t working – you might be missing a chord, or the opening note of a song doesn’t sound quite right – and then actively working to fix the issue. This means that instead of mindlessly repeating half a song while you’re continually making the same mistake, you’re identifying the mistake, and only practicing that one small fragment until you get it right.

An important part of this process is monitoring your performance, both in real time and via recordings, and continually looking for ways to improve. You might think the opening note is too sharp, in which case, how sharp was it, and what can you do to fix it? When you’re following the principles of deliberate practice, these are the types of questions you’ll be asking, and your answers to these questions will be what helps you improve.

The main thing to remember when you’re learning to play an instrument is that it takes time, but if you’re practicing effectively – practice makes perfect!