Hours A Day
There is a difference between monotonous practice, and focused practice. Sometimes, players get into the habit of practicing for a certain number of hours per day, and expect great results. But practicing monotonous exercises or familiar works for a few hours a day does not guarantee any progress. Sometimes, we may even get into the habit of practicing poorly, making mistakes over and over until we get something right. In other words, we practice making mistakes. So what is focused practice? And how many hours should we practice?

I read through dozens of online articles on that topic, and found that most professionals claim that no more than three to four hours of focused practice a day is all that is required. Focused practice requires an individual to strategize before practice even begins as to what he or she aims to achieve during practice. This could be increasing the speed of playing something, or mastering an exercise with more clarity or dexterity.

Take, for example, playing scales. I have been trying to improve my ability to play scales in four octaves, in parallel and contrary motion, blindfolded. I do this because I want to have complete mastery of the twelve keys, and to be comfortable playing in any key without looking at the keyboard. I usually struggle the most with C major, because there are no black notes, and without looking I tend to stumble. The idea behind monotonous practice is that after enough repetitions, for an hour a day, over the course of weeks, I will improve, no matter what. This isn't accurate. Focused practice requires me to be more specific. I must identify the issues at the source. Perhaps the mistakes occur when my hands are in contrary motion at opposite ends of the piano. At that point, I have to stop and consider what went wrong. Perhaps my thumb moved prematurely, and my fingering was displaced. Next, I don't repeat the exercise, but rather, I work out a new exercise that specifically addresses the issue, and start slow. This might just be playing a single octave scale in contrary motion at opposite ends of the piano, with added attention to the cross-overs. Ideally, one would audio or video record their practice, and review it later. Keep a practice-journal to write down observations, and to have a record of your improvements and struggles over time.

Luminaries like Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker were said to have practiced for over ten hours a day. But others like Arthur Rubinstein advised not to practice more than three or four. Lang Lang stated that his father devised a six-hour-a-day regiment, that he followed strictly for years. I read a study that claimed the top performing musicians at certain schools had something in common: 50 hours per week of practice (that comes out to about seven hours per day).

My advice is write down your goals, and categorize the them. I read an example where someone's goals were broken down into improving technique, practicing repertoire, working through linear construction, and finally performance. Technique was purely mechanical: scales and arpeggios. Repertoire was playing through material that you should be ready to play at anytime, and that you are improving. For a jazz musician, this would be your standards. Practice would involve studying chord changes, and working through certain areas of a piece. Linear construction would be taking a motif and working it through every key, or improvising continuous scales over certain changes, in every key. Performance should entail playing through a work without stopping, as if you were in concert. This is different than the "repertoire" section, where you work through ideas. I think it makes good sense to dedicate some time daily to just performance, which also builds confidence and informs the performer if he or she is actually ready for performing.

Once you have your goals written down, make an attempt to go through everything, and keep track of how long it takes. Pick one thing to work on for technique, two or three things for repertoire, one idea for linear construction, and maybe two things for performance, daily. Divided this way, and with focused practice, it makes sense to me that a musician can make real progress having only dedicated between three and six hours a day, depending on the player.

I've spent three hours today memorizing the third and fourth chorus of Keith Jarret's piano solo on "Too Young To Go Steady" from Standards Live (I just finished the transcription this week). Definitely valuable, but I think a few other ares of musical growth need my attention today. Good thing its only 6:30pm. Time to go.