The 80/20 Rule of Music Practice and How It Will Transform Your Playing

Have you ever heard of the 80/20 rule? It’s a pretty simple concept. It states that 80% of your results are produced by 20% of your work. That’s basically it. If you’re a musician, constantly practicing the days away, you’re often looking for ways to practice more efficiently. Of course you are. If you can get 2 hours worth of work done in twenty minutes that could really change things for you.

If you consistently work on applying the 80/20 rule to your practice time, and even just your life, you’ll find time you didn’t know you had.

Where It Came From

I promise I’m not making it up. The 80/20 rule is also called the Pareto Principal. It was named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. In 1896 he found that around 80 percent of Italy’s land was owned by just 20% of the population.

As he expanded to study many other nations in the world, surprisingly enough this ratio held true for the ownership of land in other countries as well.

Before we get into a political debate of whether this distribution of wealth is good or not, we need to realize that this law applies not just to land ownership, but to just about everything.

Where Can It Be Applied

Pareto didn’t stop with the planet earth’s land ownership. He went on to test this rule in many different situations. Over the years, the principal has been studied many times and the same conclusion is always reached.

20% of the peapods in Pareto’s garden contained 80% of the seeds. 20% of athletes compete in 80% of the competitions. 20% of the people control 80% of the wealth.

It’s often applied to businesses very often. 20% of customers are responsible for 80% of revenue. 20% of sales people make 80% of the sales. The list goes on and on.

The Ratio Isn’t Important

Before we continue, you need to understand that the 80/20 rule isn’t a strict mathematical principle found in nature like you would think of the Fibonacci Sequence.

The 80/20 ratio itself became the name for this principal because it was the ratio of input and output that was apparent from Pareto’s first studies. The ratio itself is not important. The ratio could just as well be 95/20 or 65/5. It doesn’t need to add up to 100. Pareto himself more accurately defines the principal like this, “in any arbitrary set of elements, that try to achieve something a subset small in numbers will have the biggest effect.” According to this definition 5% of the effort could provide 65% of the results. The point is that the ratios are not set in stone, just the principal.

Small effort equals big results.

How this Applies to Practice

I bet you can already start to think of how this can apply to music practice, but let’s break it down.

If 80% of your practice time right now is only giving you 20% of your results, then you should be spending less time on the activities that give you fewer results and more time on activities that give your better results.

Activities to Spend Less Time On

How long is your warm up typically? Does it need to be that long? Do you actually need to warm up at all? It may be important for vocalists, but is it really necessary for pianists? Does warm up really give you any results? I’m not saying yes or no either way, but it’s something to think about.

Do you practice a lot of technical exercises? What are your goals in your practice? Is it to play a technical exercise perfect? If so, why?

How are you practicing your music? Are the practice methods you using effective? Which one is the most effective?

I know I’m asking a lot of questions, but far too many musicians don’t think like this. Often we just get into practice habits. Many of these habits don’t help us progress much, but we do them anyways. Maybe we do them because we were told to when we were little. Or maybe we don’t even know why we do them. Question yourself and everything you do during practice, and you’ll find many more opportunities to maximize your time by reducing the practice clutter.

Some activities that produce very few results, like warming up, may still be important, but if they don’t produce results the time spent doing them should be greatly reduced.

Don’t Just Think About It. Do It!

Now you’ve probably thought of a few activities even beyond the examples above that you can cut out of your practice and others that you can add in. That’s great. But if you let it stop there, nothing is going to change. Real change takes action. So let’s take action.

In order to make this idea real, you need to write it out. Start with making a list of every activity that you do while practicing. Be as specific as possible. For example, don’t just list “scales”. You should list how you practice your scales. List individual pieces you are working on, and under each piece list how you are going to practice them.

Are you going to work on some difficult technical sections? If so, how? Dotted rhythms? Grouping? Slow practice? List everything.

Define Your Goals and the Results You Want

Now that you have a list of what you do when you practice, you should start really thinking about what you want to accomplish. Is your goal to play your technical exercises super fast and accurately? What type of practice will give you that result the fastest. Think deeper than that though. Why exactly are you focusing so much on these exercises? With perhaps sight reading being an exception, you work on technical exercises because you want to play music better.

Although there are some performance etudes out there, for the most part technical exercises aren’t performed. It’s because they sound horrible! They weren’t written to sound good. Technical exercises are then the perfect example of spending your precious practice time doing something that gives you very little results.

Wouldn’t it be much faster to practice the actual pieces you want to improve, rather than practicing a technical exercise that you will never perform? Technique can always be learned in actual music. The difference is the technique you learn by practicing music can be performed and used.

Find More Practice Time By Applying it to Other Parts of Your Life

Don’t stop at just applying this rule to your practice time. The rest of your life can directly influence how your musicianship, because it influences how much time you have to practice.

If you’re in school, what study habits help you the most? Is it group study time? If so, spend more time on that! Even if your overall study time is reduced because you have to spend time looking for people to study with, if you learn much more during those times, it’s worth it.

If you’re a private teacher and 20% of your students pay 80% of your income, cut out the students that don’t take lessons consistently and replace them with students that do. Now you make more money and have more time.

Whatever you may be doing in your life, be efficient. You’ll have more time to practice, less stress, and better focus.

Conclusion

If you start cutting out parts of your practice routine, and your life, that don’t produce much, you’ll start producing more, or you’ll have to practice less with the same results. Both outcomes are desirable. Be deliberate with your practice time, and you’ll find you progress much faster than you did before.

Go ahead. Try it out. Let us know about your results in the comments.