Learning a musical instrument is unlike almost any other endeavor a young child attempts. Virtually no other activity requires the same kind of weekly private instruction, the intense individual effort that must continue over a period of several years, and, most of all, the daily practice that is so essential to learning to play piano, guitar, violin, or any other instrument.
Quite simply, music education requires practice. And not just sitting down at the instrument for five minutes. Playing a few notes and declaring yourself done doesn’t do it.
Importance of Practice Routine in Learning to Play an Instrument
While music teachers may differ on the specifics depending on the student, the age, the level, the instrument, and the teaching philosophy, teachers almost universally agree that practice should be part of a regular, preferably daily routine. Last-minute cramming works about as well in music education as it does with any other subject, which is to say, not at all. It is better to practice in routine small chunks than in sporadic, intense, long outbursts. The brain simply processes musical information better that way.
In a day and age when every family seems busier than the family next door, finding time to practice in between soccer, homework, and play dates is admittedly difficult. It’s even more difficult if parents don’t have their own personal experience with, or are ambivalent about, music education and the sustained daily effort it requires.
To be effective, practice has to be viewed as a primary activity, like doing homework, eating lunch, or going to school. Parents need to understand that daily practice is not an easy habit. (And any parent who thinks practice is, or should be, easy, should take a hard look at his or her own exercise habits. Practicing every day is just as difficult as keeping New Year’s resolutions to go to the gym).
Children need to be reminded and encouraged to practice their instruments, just as they need to be reminded to brush their teeth or do their homework. One effective solution that works for some families (but certainly not for everyone) is for the child to practice in the morning before school. Just as with exercise, this gets the job done and out of the way. If there is time for more practice later in the day, great. If not, at least the minimum practice requirements have been met.
How Much Practice Should a Music Student Do?
The amount of practice required to progress depends on three things: the level and age of the student, the student’s ambitions, and the instrument.
The level and age of the student are the first issues. Often teachers will suggest a time of 15 to 20 minutes of daily practice for very young beginners, 30 minutes for school-age elementary students, 45 minutes for middle-school intermediates, and an hour or more for advancing students.
The student’s ambition is another factor. Is the student planning to major in music? Where? If a student’s ambitions soar toward institutions such as Juilliard, then several hours of daily practice will be required at the high-school level simply to prepare music for the audition. If the student is thinking about majoring in music education at “Typical University,” competence is required, but not virtuosity; the practice required to get in will be commensurately less. Teachers should ensure that any stated goals are in line with actual practice time. Students often have no idea of how high the bar is for professional performance or advanced study. Watching a few YouTube videos of talented students of similar ages to your students may be a hard dose of reality, but it’s important for an ambitious student to know that the competition is not lazy Larry down the street; it’s a focused student who is playing concert music at age 11.
Finally, each instrument is different. For example, piano practice times tend to be longer than practice times for other instruments, in part because the repertoire and demands of the instrument are so vast. Also, it is physically possible for pianists to play for longer than it is for trumpet players (whose embouchures cannot survive a six-hour practice session) or vocalists (who can damage their voices). Still, any instrument can be over-practiced to the point of injury. Regardless of the instrument, at the first sign of muscle strain, tremors, aches, or stabbing pain, talk to a teacher.
In addition to time and routine, two other elements contribute to successful practice: A comfortable practice space that encourages practice and a mindful approach to practice that effectively and reliably solves technical and musical problems.