Practical Practice Tactics

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his
rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the
hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it,
but all that had gone before.”

-Emile Zola

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

It’s easy for me to get caught up in the abstract principles behind practice and the pursuit of excellence and leave out the practical, “do this” type of tips. After writing a review on Geoff Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated and critiquing this very thing, I realized it’s time to address some of these practical concerns, which is probably why anyone is reading this in the first place. So:

Many of the items below hold true not only across instruments, but across disciplines, too. So some of these tactics will work equally well for music, chess, and sport. The 10,000 hour rule is one of these universals. Namely, you need to spend around 10,000 hours of intentional practice to achieve mastery. Some items below might need to be tweaked a little depending on your specific situation and personality, but these are good general guidelines no matter what you want to improve. They should help you structure and think about your practice, or your child’s practice.

First of all, people who have risen to the heights of professional musician status have said their beginning experiences all involved an extended period of play. Messing around. Two or three years spent simply exploring sound and the instrument or instruments they’ve chosen. This sense of play is coupled with a teacher who is kind, forgiving, fun, and is excited about the teaching and learning of music. Later, the nature of the practice and the style of the teacher changes, both becoming more seriously focused on improvement. In still later stages, when skill levels and commitment are very high, this focus becomes even more intense, as does the role of the teacher and the demands made of the student.

What this means is that if you’re looking for a teacher, you should look for a teacher who has the right approach according to where you are and what you need. It’s quite common to switch teachers until you find one that is a good fit, not only in their approach to teaching, but also in their fit with you from a personality standpoint. This personality is more of an issue for beginning and intermediate students and is much less of a factor with more accomplished players.

Just as there is a clear progression in teacher quality, so too is there a progression in the amount of time spent practicing.


When speaking about time and practice, it’s helpful to think about it in two ways: when and how much. Let’s start with how much.

It will come as no surprise that the amount of time you spend on practice depends on how far along you are. If you’re a rank beginner, regardless of age, a twenty minute practice session a few days a week is perfectly normal. This allows you to remain excited about the new skills you’re learning and won’t make practice seem like a boring chore. Try to maintain the sense of play and exploration and openness that is so important at this stage. Of course, if you’re really on fire to play, there is little harm in practicing every day for longer periods, but the key is keeping that passion going. As you learn more, it will become more clear to you exactly what skills you need or want to improve and the time you spend practicing will gradually lengthen and become more regular. Most musicians practice daily, 5 to 7 days per week. There is an upper limit however, to how much you should practice per day.

You’re in this for the long haul and need the mind set not of a sprinter, but of a marathon runner. Improvement, especially to the higher levels of achievement, is a slow process. Several research studies (see below for references) have indicated that the upper limit for the amount of time spent in intentional practice is around four hours. Some practice a little more at times during their life, some less, but in general this is the upper limit. Intentional practice is hard work and your body/mind needs to recover and integrate what it’s learned. Practicing more than this over a long period can easily lead to burnout, which can lead to long periods of no practice at all, or giving up on playing music entirely. This, of course, is a bad thing. You can’t cram for a test on excellence. Let’s do some math.

Say that after the first 3 years of study on your instrument, you begin to practice 4 hours a day, six days per week. That adds up. In a year you’ll have accumulated 1,240 hours of practice in a year. Let’s be conservative and call it 1,200 for those times when life gets in the way and you take a little break. In 8 more years, you’ll have accumulated 9,600 hours of practice and have likely improved a great deal. This is oversimplifying the process, of course. Someone once said, “Practice is not like crop-dusting. You can’t just go over the same thing again and again and hope to improve.” There are specific techniques to make your practice effective, and it’s my goal to reveal these to you both over the course of this blog and in the book itself. But let’s keep it simple for now. Let’s consider the when of practice time.

When is an important consideration. This four hours of intentional practice I mentioned is not done all at once. That would be like trying to eat an apple in one bite. You’d choke on it and probably give up on apples altogether if it didn’t kill you. The four hours is spread throughout the day with the bulk of it happening (again this is a generalization) in the morning hours before noon. Another session is done (usually after a nap) in the later afternoon, and maybe a final brief session in the evening. Depending on your personal circadian rhythm, this schedule might be more efficient turned on its head. If you’ve got a full-time job, this is obviously not a schedule which will work well for you. Again, we’re talking generalizations. I’ll give you the details about circadian rhythms and what is usually practiced in these separate sessions in a later post.

Until then, practice like you mean it.


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


Ericsson, A. K., Krampe, R. T., Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisitionof expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), pp. 363-406.

Jørgensen, H., Hallam, S. (2009). Practicing. In Hallam, Cross, & Thaut (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 265-273.

more references available on request.

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