Time may be passing by in equal amounts to us all, we are not all equal in the amount of time we have available to ourselves. We have jobs, duties, distractions, interruptions, the need to sleep, and yet a day is only made of 24 unstretchable hours.
And here we are, enthusiastic about music, in a pursuit of mastering our instrument and bettering ourselves with it. Let's talk about how to make our practice fit in our busy schedule, as we may be desperately wondering: "To achieve the level that I want, how long am I supposed to be practicing for?"
1. "How Long Should I practice for?"
The straightforward answer to that is... "it depends" (oh boy it would have been too easy, hey!)
It depends on several factors:
our capacity and capability to focus (includes cognitive ability and mental health factors)
our current instrument skills
our personal goals (includes set goals and personal taste or interests).
That's quite the list of variables. Of course, some of them go together: As we are kids we have LOTS of energy, goals are made for us, skills and capacity to focus are still expanding but likely limited, (with some exceptions to a handfull of lucky gifted people) and mood may be unpredictable.
As grown ups, the focus is much stronger (where there is a will, that is), the mood may still vary but more predictably and can even be used as a channel for expressing musicality, but the energy and capacity to learn and retain what we've learned at the core of our being is not necessarily as permanent as it is for younger learners.
The main factor to determining the duration of our practice would be our very own personal capacity to focus. Focus is flexible and can be trained, but stretching it beyond its limits will affect the very intention to reach our goals. And to use up our entire focus span every single day would be pretty exhausting, unsustainable in the long run...
The other factors such as our mood, energy levels, goals, (Not much can be done about age, unfortunately!) are our own responsibility to manage, to take the best care of, by sleeping well, eating well and healthy, excercise regularly, and surround ourselves with positive and inspiring things. If those factors are in check, our efficiency will remain at its best with few exceptions, as our focus span will be optimum to your own capacity every day in our strong "average" self (average in a timely sense of things).
2. Our Recommendation for Kids
It's safe to say that the large majority of our sweet children have a natural curiosity for music, as we believe music to be a universal language present in each and every one of us. Kids are naturally drawn to music, they prove it all the time by stopping to listen, dancing, and throwing themselves at every single instrument they can get their hands on. At 4 years old a child is said to have an attention span of 8-12mn (Mahone et al, 2005) and growing every year on average by 2 minutes, reaching 32-48mn at 16 years old. Repeating the excercise of focus everyday in a constrained way can train and improve the focus span but can also exhaust it, especially if some of this focus reserve has been all used up in school during the day.
Only so much information can be absorbed in one session, and what's worse, we forget stuff that is out of sight. The remedy to that is the repetition of what has been absorbed over time that will make it successfully retained, not the length of the session itself. The time of undivided focused attention is limited and if we go beyond it, we can hurt the personal interest for music altogether, making it a dull and painful constraint rather that the fun and satisfactory expression of a natural curiosity that practicing a musical instrument should be.
With experience we recommend a focused and organised practice varying between 10 to 15mn every day for children in general, with an optional bonus of unlimited free play as the child volunteers by themselves to it. The free play (free from any instruction, guidance or adult intrusion) is also preciously beneficial for experiencing with harmony, dissonances, articulation, and acquiring a "practical" understanding of early music theory and ear training, in a Montessori-style way, trusting the natural learning skills of children who like to experiment and test the laws of physics by touch, and sensory play, mapping out an intimate grasp of the systemic world around them.
3. Recommendation for Grown ups
Teenagers: the focus capacity is getting much stronger, and so is the capacity to intellectualize new notions, new music, therefore the time for practice can be longer than the one of a child. However, teens will typically have lots of school homework and perhaps other activities as well, not to mention that at this age, they tend to prioritize everything around building their social life outside of the family circle. So, it's okay not to be spending the whole 48minutes focus power on our instrument daily when we are 16 years old! But maintaining (hopefully daily) sessions of 20 minutes seems to be an achievable target, especially for intermediate to early advanced musicians who started as a child and are experienced in managing their own practice. Timing or setting up a stopwatch to 20mn could be a powerful motivational tool, as we know that we can let go of watching the clock, (especially if you have other engagements after) the alarm will tear us out of practice at the end of the allocated time. Let's make it a 20mn "date" with our dear instrument every day after snack!
Adults: We can easily make it sessions of 25 to 30 minutes (providing the distractions in the house are kept under control). For the overachiever with higher goals, keeping sessions to 30 maximum is recommended, adding breaks in between, before resuming to another 30mn session of focused practice. The human brain is a wonderful thing, it will keep processing and re-organizing an optimal neuronal path to all that new information acquired during practice as a background ongoing task while we are oblivious of it and doing other things, like having coffee, making a phone call, cooking dinner, or getting some fresh air. When we study hard on the instrument for 30 minutes, stop and take a break (even going to bed for the night) we notice how better it magically suddenly became, resuming right after a break! Repeat as many 30mn study-15mn break sessions as necessary to our heart's content is a robust stragety for a regular practice. I like the pleasurable feeling of the "volcano brain" when we feel the explosion of ideas after having pushed our practice a little harder...
4. Have a Plan
Whether you'll practice for yourself or help your child with his/her own, it's a good idea to start exactly knowing what to do. It's okay for practice times to be shorter than your lesson duration, but we are at an advantage if we start the practice session with an agenda in mind. The agenda may vary week by week or even day by day, but let's try to allocate a warmup time for technique (the eternal scales and arpeggios), the bulk of time to learn the new chosen pieces, and many more possible ideas like transcribing, sightreading practice, improvization, studies, etc. We like to discuss a plan during our lessons, so at home we know exactly what to do, and just apply it at home. With a plan, the practice time will seem to fly and perhaps not enough to satisfaction!
5. Find the Balance that's right for you
Mindfulness is key to this idea - This is all about knowing ourselves and being aware of when homework practice stops being fun and starts becoming more like just work. It's a red flag if some of the pleasure has been lost, and it's time to re-evaluate our practice strategy. Do I still love my instrument? Do I love the tunes I am working on? Do I have the right technique to go about it? Do I think I have to practice for hours hours in a row for little results?
If we get bored or discouraged during our practice, chances are we'll want to drop out of it. The way around that is to keep it varied and oriented to the music genres we love, and cut the practice sessions into smaller chunks.
These cuts should make sense. We wouldn't want to stop or take a break in the middle of a musical phrase, rather, we should select a whole musical sentence and make it our sole objective for the day.
The sensation of time is also relative to fun... If it's a lot of effort, the minutes seems to drag on and on, but if it's a blast, time flies. To make sure the clock ticks by, we can also keep the amount of effort balanced with the share of comfort zone in our practice plan. A portion of the practice time should be focused and dedicated to working out new challenges, but another portion of the time should stay on the recreational and comfortable side. After all, music is and should be a delight, even if (even more so if) we aim to make it our future profession. This point of mindfulness and listening to oneself links to the next practice duration fact:
6. On Motivation...
Okay we have a plan, we have an idea of our ideal focus time, we know when to stop, we even have a habit with it but some days, we just don't want to do any practice at all, because this has been a long day, we are feeling under the weather, the brother-in-law has been impossible, we don't feel like it, and today, we just won't justify ourselves about it.
It's okay to occasionally ditch practice, but this can lead to simply breaking a good and established habit and as a result, progress momentum, which is often the reason why we feel like we are stagnating on a learning plateau...
On those "off" days, we should bare with the habit of taking a rewarding snack right after work, but always come to say hi to our beloved instrument, daily, even for 5 small minutes, even for just playing a tune we already know. Comfort zone is made for what it's called for: comfort.
My father used to say that his guitar was pouting at him when he had ignored her for a couple of days. I think he's right, the guitar will be angry. the wood will be cold. The strings will stiffen. The sharpness of our musicianship, no matter the level, is a living thing. It will decrease when neglected, it will grow when fed regularly.
The best ritual for me on those low-energy days is, to grab myself a warm cup of tea, and get at it, for minimum 5 minutes, or playing just 4 measures. no more. no less. We have set our alarm clock every day at 6pm. Today it will be 5 minutes because I went to the grocery store, my paper bag tore and all the blueberries scattered on the dusty garage floor. I pick them up. It's not my piano's fault. 5 minutes it is. I can do this.