A Good Practice Schedule
Over the years, I've come across many sources specifying how and when to practice. I have adapted my learning routine numerous times as I've progressed but, how often should we be practicing?
NOW'S THE TIME
As mentioned in previous blogs, learning to play an instrument takes time and patience, something we all know or should know if you're thinking about starting. As an adult, putting the time aside for practice amid work and other daily activities can be a challenge. As a child or young adult in education, it might seem easier to fit some practice in but, again, it depends on whether they have a part-time job or any other extra-curricular activities.
Many of us, myself included, have been guilty of being in a situation where we've realised, after a busy week, that, with our lesson coming up the following day, we've done no practice since the previous lesson. What do we do? We do a big 2-hour stint the night before in the hope of learning everything we were set in the last lesson and, ultimately, making it sound like we've been regularly practising during the week in order to fool the teacher. I actually got into a really bad habit of regularly doing this quite a lot during my year at Lancaster University. The point is, this is not a good example of practicing and puts you at risk of developing your skill at a much slower speed.
So, how much practice should we be doing? Throughout my 20+ years of playing, I've had teachers, books, web forums, and other sources all tell me slightly different things; I've even touched on this subject in previous blogs. The answer isn't always the same for everyone but one element that keeps cropping up, no matter where you search for an answer, is frequency.
DAY BY DAY
When starting from scratch, 'a little and often' is the guidance one gives to anyone learning something new. You don't want to burn yourself out too quickly or to tire yourself. With music practice, the same thing applies. Starting with 10 - 20 minutes a day is ideal but, as you progress, you should start increasing the length of each session.
Having said that, there is such a thing as too much practice. To try and do a 2-hour practice session each day is a difficult thing, not only to fit into your daily routine, but maintaining concentration levels and productivity for those 2 hours can be a challenge. The better thing to do is to split that big chunk into smaller chunks, whether that's two 1-hour sessions, or four 30-minute sessions, throughout the day.
Again, this can be tricky in a busy schedule and can depend on a number of things. Do you live alone? Do you have a quiet place to practice if not? Is there somewhere close by that you can go in order to do said practice? I ask this because if we feel that we have no time in the day to practice, we should try to make time. If you're serious about learning your chosen instrument, you'll find the time somewhere, whether it's by getting up an hour earlier to fit it in; to go to bed an hour later and fit the practice in before bed; or perhaps both.
Don't forget that taking a look at the music itself, away from the instrument, can be a form of practice. If you've tucked the kids in and have a spare half-hour to do something that evening, sitting down with the music you're learning, writing some notes, doing some research and analysis, can be a good use of your time.
If you're still determined to learn and you literally have no time whatsoever to practice, perhaps able to put in only 10 minutes on one day before your lesson, just be aware that it will be a long process but even the 1-hour lesson every week will help you progress. I say this because it can be so easy to feel like a lesson won't be worth it if you haven't had the time to practice. All that does, however, is increase the gap between the last time you picked up the instrument, making you feel very rusty and even stopping the level of progression completely, so I don't advise cancelling those lessons.
If you're struggling, just be honest with your teacher. They might give you less to do over the week, making practice more manageable, or talk through your routine with you, helping you find spaces where you can fit some practice in.
Ultimately, whether it's 20 minutes or 2 hours, keeping to a regular routine is the best way to see results when learning an instrument but don't be deterred if this isn't possible. Yes, the less regular those practice sessions become, the slower your progress will be but, if you enjoy playing your instrument when you can, don't let this slower level of progression frustrate you; learning an instrument is a fun experience, no matter when and how you do it.