Just How Much Practice Is Enough?

October 17, 2022, 1:58 PM · While violinist Jascha Heifetz and the "Heifetz sound" may no longer be as well known or even considered the gold standard by a huge number of professionals (as it was for my generation) it is still somewhat shocking to look at old footage of him playing with such fantastic ease and control. Nothing dated there at all. This while suffering quite badly from nerves on occasion!

I mention him because I am reflecting once again on Leopold Auer’s oft-quoted views on practicing. I can’t reproduce the quote verbatim right now, but basically he recommended three hours and suggested four, if one is a little stupid (violinistically challenged). To a large extent, this amount of practice would be met with derision these days and it may be that pedagogues such as Dorothy DeLay, who advocated more like five hours have established a more appropriate norm.

practice violin

However, I think Auer’s idea merits a little more examination. For example, there are absolutely outstanding violinists who did this amount of practice or less for much of their lives and did just fine. I notice for example, Rodney Friend talking about 2-3 hours, coupled with the words, "intelligent practice."

My feeling is this combination is what Auer was getting at. It is not only a question of intelligent practice, but also "focused practice." Looking at the question of intelligent practice, this is actually relatively rare from mediocre and even up to advanced level students. In a nutshell, it covers the issue of identifying exactly where the problem is and having/creating the widest range of methods to resolve that specific problem before reintegrating that spot with the whole.

Typical practice, even at conservatory level, often simply focuses on a short passage or phrase which is not quite right, with "x" number of repetitions making it sound "better," thereby adding satisfying minutes to one’s practice time and a misleading sense that one has solved the problem.

The question of concentration is perhaps the more complex of the two. When I was taking Alexander lessons from Vivian Mackey (the last pupil of the cellist Pablo Casals), she talked a little about her experiences. I was bowled over by the degree of intensity of concentration he forced on her so she could rebuild her enormous but damaged playing ability (so much for world class conservatoires) from the ground up. This level of concentration was so intense it often left her hard-pressed to do even 40 minutes of practice without taking seriously long breaks often involving just lying on the ground.

The figure 40 minutes correlates well with Auer’s views, but clashes with Ivan Galamian’s view that we could do 50. I think Galamian made a valuable contribution to pedagogy in getting us away from the obsession with "number of hours practiced," which is a number rather than anything to do with the issue of learning the violin. However, perhaps even he may have taken it a little too far.

In other fields it is very common to come across something called the Pomodoro Technique which argues for 25 minute blocks followed by a short break and then another block. The research cited to back this approach focuses on how we remember basically the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes of what we study, but not so much the bit in the middle, therefore short sessions lead to better learning and retention. This principle and strategy can certainly be usefully applied to violin playing. A beginner who practices 5 minutes correctly 3 times a day will make a lot more progress than one who practices badly for an hour and a half or more in one over-enthusiastic blast. Sadly, the latter is more common.

However, this is not the end of the story. There is also something called "deep learning: (discussed in depth by Carl Newport in his book Deep Work) which argues that we now typically inhabit a world of shallow learning and experience (multi-tasking sucks), and it is rare to find anybody with the ability to seriously concentrate on one thing for long enough to build up sufficient myelin in that part of the brain to engender serious learning.

In order to build up this "physical change" in the structure of the brain, one needs to work with intense concentration for a minimum of about an hour and a half. Furthermore, this kind of concentration needs to be trained and, interestingly, it is a finite resource that cannot be used for more than about three to four hours a day -- which brings us right back to Leopold Auer!

So, if I had to hazard I guess it would be that the true giants of the violin world usually (but not always) practiced significantly less than the rest of us but with both intelligence and concentration. When it was necessary (such as preparing for a competition) they could ramp up the number of hours while retaining this ability to concentrate and practice intelligently, an ability the rest of us perhaps did not develop well enough from a young age.

I guess they also had/have the ability to go into deep work on demand so that "grabbing five minutes practice" has a much deeper effect for them than for players such as myself.

Players will ultimately have to find their own way in terms of time spent practicing, but the decisions made will be more reliable if some consideration is given to the contribution of studies in learning and neuroscience that have taken place over the last few decades. Auer may have known intuitively that things are not so simple.

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Replies

October 18, 2022 at 02:06 AM · I wish this article had mentioned the word Love. The Love of the sound created, the music made, and the piece played. Even the Love of scales played every which way, that Heifetz always sought out in his students. Love of the special aspects of what it is to play the violin ennables concentration of the highest order, where Time is never thought of or noticed. And without this Love, the playing is just a task, maybe done better, or maybe a little worse than what one hears in others.

October 18, 2022 at 05:59 AM · "In a nutshell, [intelligent practice] covers the issue of identifying exactly where the problem is and having/creating the widest range of methods to resolve that specific problem before reintegrating that spot with the whole."

I'm going to hang that on the wall of my practice room. Thank you, Buri.

October 18, 2022 at 03:23 PM · There are different kinds of practicing. Technical practice maintains and improves your skills and does not need to take more than one hour per day. That is warm-ups, exercises, scales, arpeggios, and etudes. Memorizing repertoire is what really eats up time and mental energy. If musicians are athletes of the small muscles we need to learn something from the professional sports trainers; alternate heavy and light work-out days. Stressed and fatigued muscles need a day to recover, while damaged muscles and joints need a very long time to heal. For some reason, performing and ensemble rehearsal does not count as practice time. Professional players can be rehearsing and playing a massive number of hours per day, but if they skip the technical practice hour, they are vulnerable to a gradual deterioration. Take short breaks. Take an occasional real vacation away from the instrument.

October 18, 2022 at 03:26 PM · The discussion of practice times is a bit simplistic. While it is true that the brain needs time to consolidate a learned item - meaning that it is not ideal to study endlessly or in one long period - what is missing from this is that the brain is not a single-function organ. Thus, you can study for longer periods IF you change the subject matter. For example, you may work on speed of a section in a fast movement of a quartet for 20 minutes and then shift to expression in the second slow movement. I would guess that the more you diversify the tasks the better the brain will multitask, learning a new thing and consolidating an earlier one. Which is basically how I work. Don't obsess too much!

October 18, 2022 at 04:20 PM · Another aspect of practice which doesn't seem to be discussed much is that of studying, away from the instrument, not only your part intensively but also the orchestral score as well if you're working on a concerto, or the accompanist's score if you're working with a pianist.

I can think of a number of advantages of this: it gives that necessary physical rest from playing the instrument (see Joel's post of 18th October), you can identify problems in advance, the process of memorization should be easier, and in the case of concertos for example you should aim to be as usefully acquainted with the orchestral score as is the conductor.

October 18, 2022 at 04:35 PM · A really great article, thank you. As an adult returner to the instrument, I can say that how I practice now is much more effective than as a kid, even though I have significantly less time in which to practice. I think the "practice X hours" mantra focuses too much on quantity. Even with breaks and "micro-doses" of content, there is still too much commoditization of the practice session.

October 18, 2022 at 08:34 PM · Greetings,

Elise, one thing I respectfully gotta disagree with you here. The research on ‘multitasking’ is unequivocal in two respects:

1) Multi tasking reduces efficiency.

2) People who multi-task are completely unaware of this and refuse to acknowledge evidence to this effect.

This is actually one of those areas of research where agreement is pretty much universal.

I suppose if you are using it in the casual sense of doing different things that works.

I am pointing here that a lot of people -can- focus on something for a long period. Does a tennis player ‘in the flow’ start thinking about the shopping after 20 minutes. Check out the book I recommend.

Cheers,

Buri

October 18, 2022 at 09:15 PM · I think it's important to acknowledge also that playing the violin is as much a physical activity as a mental one, so there is an element in "practice" that is a little like yoga or exercising. You have to consistently exercise the muscles and execute physical tasks that you wish to be able to continue to do. So it's not entirely in the mind, if you will. Mind and body are connected, but the muscles do need repetition and exercise in order to remain strong and nimble. A little at least semi-"mindless" repetition after the mind has gotten things in order, this seems okay to me. "Just playing" does keep the muscles strong, especially playing already-well-learned pieces.

October 19, 2022 at 02:10 AM · Buri - I was NOT talking about mutitasking but serial tasking. I think the premise here is that we have a period of learning (practice) followed by a period of consolidation. What I am saying is that you can learn a second thing while you are (subconsciously) consolidating the first one. Thus, you are focusing solely on one task at a time.

According to your model of learning the brain cannot consolidate one memory while it is learning a new one. If that is right you should also recommend that we have a half hour meditation period (without any learning, if that was possible) prior to violin practice (else consolidation of the prior experience would interfere with violin practice). Can't say I've tried it - but I doubt that it is really necessary.

From my brief reading on this subject, consolidation of recent memories can be interferred with by a new memory but mostly if the tasks are very similar - this is why I suggested that you work on a different aspect of playing (e.g. fast note sequences followed by a session on slow expressive playing).

Perhaps we need a psychologists input!

October 19, 2022 at 04:36 AM · Buri makes a good point about three hours being enough if the practice is "intelligent" but first of all not everyone has the same quality of instruction in that kind of practicing, and even then some people can do it and others just aren't as mentally efficient or capable of the same level of sustained focus. Should they give up? Or can that be learned?

One thing I've definitely learned is that it's a lot easier to focus on something one actually enjoys. Recently I've seen a few YouTubes produced by Daniel Kurganov and his presentation style is very dry, but I could not escape the feeling that underneath he experiences an incredible sense of joy from very focused "intelligent" practicing.

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