New Year's Resolution for Practicing: Be Careful What You Measure

December 28, 2018, 9:56 AM · The start of a new year is a common time to set new musical goals. For many of us, the desire to become a better violinist is the quest for the holy grail, ever elusive by design. The more our ears grow, the worse we seem, although the better we have already become. I have noticed a trend among my students that I recognize from my own past – setting goals that are related to how hard we work. In other words, they set new goals for the number of hours they lock themselves in the practice room. After many years of chasing the holy grail myself, I have to advise: be careful what you measure.

24hour clock, Split, Croatia

The number of hours we spend practicing is not what will make us great players. Some hours are required, to be sure. And counting hours is psychologically appealing – it’s easy and it’s so definite. It makes us feel as if we are doing our best. It allows us to assuage our practice guilt (you all know what I’m talking about), and gives us a measure of control in an otherwise rather vague and competitive endeavor. But it does not necessarily make us a better player.

If you are studying violin and have heard the same consistent issues surface in lessons, you know that what I’m saying is true. Instead of number of hours, worthy goals need to center on HOW we approach our work. Why? Measuring success by number of hours alone can keep us hovering at our status quo and ingrain errors at best. At worst, it can lead to pain and then injury...if not soon, then sooner or later.

There is another source of pain that comes from measuring ourselves by the number of hours: a deep sense of shame about our innate ability, i.e. feeling untalented and unworthy. I used to think "If I’m practicing this many hours, why am I not a better player? I’m not talented, or else I would be." So, to keep both physically and mentally healthy, we need to change our frame of reference from working hard to working efficiently. Efficient practice is defined by the greatest amount change in our playing produced by the least number of practice hours.

How do we make our practice efficient? Through concentrating on the process, not the hours – by striving for discovery, variety, and sources of inspiration. We need something fresh in our work all the time: a shift in perspective, a development of a new habit, or truly hearing something for the first time that we have never noticed before. Theoretically, practice is how we cement that which we have discovered.

Here are some examples of the types of New Year’s Resolutions that speak to discovery, efficiency, and transformation, i.e. goals that have to do with the process of learning, not the amount of time we devote to it.

Overuse is one of the greatest contributors to the epidemic injury rate of musicians, which among professional string players is above 80% during their lifetime. Put simply, we have to curb the hours, redefine what practicing is, and make more progress when we do practice. Efficiency makes us better players, and allows more time for other endeavors – like sleep – which is yet another way to keep injuries at bay by the way. Making our work fresh and assigning value our process, not our number of hours, makes us happier too. I think this holds true for all musicians - amateur, professional, students, and teachers.

The search for efficient and engaged practice is one of the reasons I started Violin Practice Blitz Youtube Channel for my students, itself a process oriented and slow endeavor for me. I wanted to give students many different approaches to the same old, same old problems. The channel is not meant as a teaching tool, but rather as an intelligent practice resource. Great practicing is like great performing – inspiration has to be at the core of it. Let our New Year’s goals reflect the spirit of music and the miracle of the never-ending quest itself. Happy New Year, and Happy Practicing!


December 29, 2018 at 01:34 PM · Wow. I need a different day job if I'm going to do all that. Like none at all. Lots of great thoughts, but I'll have to exercise some triage.

December 29, 2018 at 02:36 PM · You know, I've always wondered about the quantity factor in learning. The Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour theory is a bit overblown. The theory states that if you do something for 10,000 hours you'll become an expert. It's a bit dubious. Plus, adding The Beatles to that is quite a presumption. Gladwell states that The Beatles played for 10,000 hours and then became famous. Well, in reality they weren't even close. The mythology goes that they played 8 to 10 hour sets when they were starting out playing small clubs in Germany during 1960 - 1962. What is missing from the story is the fact that they were alternating with another band, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and not playing 8 to 10 hours straight. Even if that is true, whatever happened to Rory Storm? After all, his group was playing just as many hours as The Beatles. Only the drummer of his Hurricanes made it big - a guy named Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Starr.) The Beatles drummer, Pete Best, was fired because he couldn't do very much, and Ringo was hired by The Beatles. So what happened? Well, it seems The Beatles mythical 10,000 hours - more likely 5,000 hours (if that - sorry Gladwell) - were spent writing songs, trying different styles of music, and focusing on growing tighter as a group. In other words, they used their time well. If you've only got an hour a day, use that hour as well as you can. How much time you practice is helpful, but how you use that time is vital. This article was well written, and well said. Thank you.

December 29, 2018 at 04:12 PM · Thanks for the ideas.

I'd make a small rebuttal--for many (probably not those who are in conservatory), the time goals are a means to carve time out of a busy schedule in a useful way. So I set times for scales, exercises, etude, "learning" piece and "polishing" piece, both by day and by week. The times are flexible, but if I don't have time goals I'm likely to use up all my limited time in ways which, at the end of the week, I realize was unwise.

December 29, 2018 at 05:19 PM · Tim - excellent point! I agree completely that time goals give us the structure that we need. Often, I go so far as to schedule when I'm going to practice, or else I end up doing much less than I want to or less quality because I don't have a substantial time chunk available to really get in the groove.

December 30, 2018 at 01:16 AM · One thing I am reminded of in reading this article, is how much our approach to teaching has evolved over the past few generations. No wonder we have so many brilliant performers on the planet today, thanks to approaches like these outlined by Susanna.

Of course, "the devil is in the detail": as many of the strategies listed above are turned into actual work, the specific opportunities we all have to improve are magnified considerably.

No matter. We should listen to the advice offered, and go happily (and positively) into the realm of evolving and refining our practice.

December 30, 2018 at 03:04 AM · I think what we do with the hours is indeed the thing, and it's such an individual thing, and of course changes by the year. Though it should be said that I am envious of folks who got in hundreds of hours before I even started playing :).

I didn't mean, btw for folks to have such a long list - those were only examples of the types of things I was talking about. In full disclosure I should mention my three resolutions for 2019, and one of them does indeed have to do with time:

1) Stop navel-gazing so much when I practice (i.e. I need to move through material more quickly, I drill down into a few bars ridiculously deep and then am surprised in a concert when I don't feel like I have the big picture of a piece)

2) Schedule play for my colleague dates on the books in advance. Right now these sessions happen only very occasionally when we both have time, but they are always so much more fruitful than an hour or practice.

3) Practice every day at least some (I know, admitting too much... but with a family and heavy administrative load in my job, that's a noble goal with a big payoff for my playing)

December 30, 2018 at 09:25 AM · I personally find it necessary to set hours per day, otherwise I make excuses for myself - i.e. "it was good quality practice, therefore one hour is enough for today!"

Of course quality is always necessary within the hours.

December 31, 2018 at 05:35 AM · Oddly enough, I set goals for each session and work through them until I’m mentally spent. It works out to be the same amount of time, so my attention span sets the quantity limit, regardless of what I’m doing.

I love the suggestions, especially those that push the comfort zone.

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