Music is not learned in a day. Practicing many hours one day does not make up for missed practice on other days. Most learning is done while you sleep. There have been many studies that have found that a night of sleep can trigger significant performance improvements to a motor skill.
The More Difficult the Skill the More Important Sleep Is
One particular study tested participants on finger-tapping exercises. They found groups that did simple patterns with one hand improved 17.7% in speed and had 47.8% fewer errors after practice and sleeping. The groups who had the most difficult exercises with both hands together had a more significant 28.9% increase in speed and 62.2% decrease in errors after practice and sleep.
These performance improvements were found to only increase with sleep. No improvement was found with the same amount of time passing in waking hours. When another group practiced in the morning and were tested 8 hours later, they had an increase of speed of 4% and a decrease in accuracy by 25%.
A similar study found the same results with specifically piano practice. We can assume that playing the piano, or other instruments, are even more complex skills than the finger-tapping exercises performed in the original study, so the sleep gains are likely even more dramatic.
Why Does This Matter?
We all sleep. So if you practice, you will get the sleep benefits regardless of what you do. But you won’t reap the benefits of sleep as often as possible. If you sleep without practice, no amount of sleep will help. So in order to gain the most sleep benefits from practice, we need to make sure that a good practice session is happening every day.
Sticking with Music
Studies show that 80% of students quit before their 4th year. The goal for music teachers should be to make musicians out of their students. We want our students to reap the rewards that life long playing of music gives to us. Students who quit early don’t get to feel the joy that comes from playing a musical instrument as fully as those who really become musicians. As musicians we know 3 years of lessons does not a musician make.
Students should practice, at the very least, the amount of time needed to become proficient musicians. Interestingly, practice time has been found to have a direct correlation to the likelihood that a student will drop out of music lessons.
In one study, students that quit lessons were found to have practiced only 80 minutes a week. The study cited weekly practice, so we don’t know if that was consistent daily practice or one day a week, or somewhere in between. As mentioned above, it does matter. For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume it was consistent daily practice.
80 minutes comes out to about 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week. The study found however that students who did not quit music lessons practiced on an average of 155 minutes a week or about 30 minutes a day 5 days a week.
It may seem obvious that those who practiced more stayed with music. Perhaps the students who practiced more already enjoyed lessons more. Perhaps the extra practice helped them progress faster and therefore made them enjoy it more. Regardless of the reason, we can see that 15 minutes of practice just isn’t enough.
If you’re a parent or a teacher, your ultimate goal should be to help the student continue with their lessons long-term. One way to help with this is to make sure that the student is practicing for at least 30 minutes a day.
What Are Your Goals
Now that we understand the importance of consistent practice, and that practice time does matter, we can look at the goals of the student. If music is just another extracurricular, then 30 minutes a day is plenty. But what if you want to be the absolute best musician that you can be? Do you want to know how much you should be practicing daily to make that happen? Let’s look into it.
Quality Over Quantity
The great violinist Leopold Auer once said, “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.” Your time is likely better spent studying the best practice methods and applying them to your practice then practicing mindlessly for hours and hours.
Exactly how you should be spending your practice time is out of the scope of this article, but if you have already spent the time, and you feel confident that you can get the most out of your practice time, then you shouldn’t worry about limiting the actual amount of time you’re practicing. More is likely better.
But practicing the same sections of music over and over again is not. In order to make the most out of the time practiced, practice a little bit on many different sections of music. Don’t go back to sections you have already practiced and practice them again and again the same day. This is over practicing and is not helpful.
While more is often better, we need to make sure the exception is defined. If you’ve practiced for 4 hours and are absolutely worn out, but you have to hit that 8 hour mark, just stop. Poor practice is actually going to make you worse. You do not magically become better. You become better with focused deliberate practice. When you start practicing inefficiently because you are tired, you start learning mistakes. Practicing mistakes will only make you worse. Never do it.
What Professionals Have Said
Finally, let’s look at how much professional musicians practice, including how much they practiced when they were young.
One of the most famous living classical pianists, Lang Lang, said in an interview that from the time he was 5 years old his father would schedule out his entire day. His day included almost 6 hours of practice separated into multiple sessions. Some sessions would be as long as 2 hours and some as short as 45 minutes. They were separated from other activities like school and homework.
Separating the practice time into multiple sessions is helpful to reduce mental fatigue and burnout. Interestingly, Lang Lang said that if he could go back, he would have softened his father’s approach when it came to his practice, but he wouldn’t have reduced the practice time.
Glenn Gould reportedly hated practicing, and by some accounts said he very rarely practiced at all. He liked to practice mentally away from the piano. Walter Gieseking, another notable pianist and teacher, also reportedly practiced piano mentally perhaps more than physically.
Practice Time of Professionals
Here is a list of some notable musicians and their typical practice time
Lang Lang Piano 4-6
Franz Liszt Piano 10
Vladimir Horowitz Piano 2-4
Arthur Rubenstein Piano 6-9
Valentina Lisitsa Piano 12-14
Stephen Hough Piano 4
Angela Hewitt Piano 3 as a child – up to 8 today
Joshua Bell Violin 2-5
Pamela Frank Violin 2
Sarah Chang Violin 4
Charlie Parker Saxophone 11-15
We could go on and on about how much professional musicians practice. In the end, it’s not really important how much someone else practices. You have to experiment for yourself to see what will help you progress the fastest. It all comes down to staying focused. If you only have the ability to stay focused for an hour of practice, that’s the most time you should practice. If you can stay focused for 8, then practice for 8.
If you feel like you don’t have as much focus as you would want, then learn how to focus better!
Lang Lang famously said that when learning an instrument 90% is practice and 10% is talent.
So how much do you practice? Let us know in the comments!