How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?

2 hours? 4 hours? 8 hours? 12 hours? How much is enough? Is there such a thing as practicing too much? Is there an optimal number of hours that one should practice?

What Do Performers Say?

Some of the great artists of the 20th century have shared their thoughts on these questions. I seem to recall reading an interview with Rubinstein years ago, in which he stated that nobody should have to practice more than four hours a day, explaining that if you needed to practice more than four hours a day, you probably weren’t doing it right. Other great artists have expressed similar sentiments. Violinist Nathan Milstein is said to have once asked his teacher Leopold Auer how many hours a day he should be practicing. Auer responded by saying “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.” Heifetz also indicated that he never believed in practicing too much, and that excessive practice is “just as bad as practicing too little!” He claimed that he practiced no more than three hours per day on average, and that he didn’t practice at all on Sundays. You know, this is not a bad idea – one of my own teachers, Donald Weilerstein, once suggested that I establish a 24-hour period of time every week where I was not allowed to pick up my instrument.

What Do Psychologists Say?

When it comes to understanding expertise and expert performance, psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson is perhaps the world’s leading authority. His research is the basis for the “ten-year rule” and “10,000-hour rule” which suggest that it requires at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain — and in the case of musicians, often closer to 25 years in order to attain an elite international level. Note that the real key here is not the amount of practice required (as the exact number of hours is debatable) but the type of practice required to attain an expert level of performance. In other words, just practicing any old way doesn’t cut it.

Mindless Practice

Have you ever listened to someone practice? Have you ever listened to yourself practice, for that matter? Tape yourself practicing for an hour, take a walk through the practice room area at school and eavesdrop on your fellow students, or ask your students to pretend they are at home and watch them practice during a lesson. What do you notice? You’ll notice that the majority of folks practice rather mindlessly, either engaging in mere repetition (“practice this passage 10 times” or “practice this piece for 30 minutes”) or practicing on autopilot (that’s when we play through the piece until we hear something we don’t like, stop, repeat the passage again until it sounds better, and resume playing through the piece until we hear the next thing we aren’t satisfied with, at which point we begin this whole process over again). There are three major problems with the mindless method of practicing.

1. It is a waste of time

Why? For one, very little productive learning takes place when we practice this way. This is how we can practice a piece for hours, days, or weeks, and still not feel that we’ve improved all that much. Even worse, you are actually digging yourself a hole by practicing this way, because what this model of practicing does do is strengthen undesirable habits and errors, literally making it more likely that you will screw up more consistently in the future. This makes it more difficult to correct these habits in the future — so you are actually adding to the amount of future practice time you will need in order to eliminate these bad habits and tendencies. I once worked with a saxophone professor who was fond of reminding his students that “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.”

2. It makes you less confident

In addition, practicing this way actually hurts your confidence, as there is a part of you that realizes you don’t really know how to consistently produce the results you are looking for. Even if you establish a fairly high success rate in the most difficult passages via mindless practice, and find that you can nail it 3 or 4 out of every 5 attempts, your confidence won’t grow much from this. Real on-stage confidence comes from (a) being able to nail it 10 out of 10 tries, (b) knowing that this isn’t a coincidence but that you can do it the correct way on demand, because most importantly (c) you know precisely why you nail it or miss it — i.e. you know exactly what you need to do from a technique standpoint in order to play the passage perfectly every time. You may not be able to play it perfectly every time at first, but this is what repetition is for — to reinforce the correct habits until they are stronger than the bad habits. It’s a little like trying to grow a nice looking lawn. Instead of fighting a never-ending battle against the weeds, your time is better spent trying to cultivate the grass so that over time the grass crowds out the weeds. And here’s the biggie. We tend to practice unconsciously, and then end up trying to perform consciously — not a great formula for success. Recall from this article that you have a tendency to shift over into hyper-analytical left brain mode when you walk out on stage. Well, if you have done most of your practicing unconsciously, you really don’t know how to play your piece perfectly on demand. When your brain suddenly goes into full-conscious mode, you end up freaking out, because you don’t know what instructions to give your brain.

3. It is tedious and boring

Practicing mindlessly is a chore. Music may be one of the only skill-based activities where practice goals are measured in units of time. We’ve all had teachers who tell us to go home and practice a certain passage x number of times, or to practice x number of hours, right? What we really need are more specific outcome goals — such as, practice this passage until it sounds like _____, or practice this passage until you can figure out how to make it sound like _____. After all, it doesn’t really matter how much time we spend practicing something — only that we know how to produce the results we want, and can do so consistently, on demand.

Deliberate Practice

So what is deliberate, or mindful practice? Deliberate practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, which is, for lack of a better word, scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of experimentation with clear goals and hypotheses. Violinist Paul Kantor once said that the practice room should be like a laboratory, where one can freely tinker with different ideas, both musical and technical, to see what combination of ingredients produces the result you are looking for. Deliberate practice is often slow, and involves repetition of small and very specific sections of your repertoire instead of just playing through (e.g. working on just the opening note of your solo to make sure that it “speaks” exactly the way you want, instead of playing the entire opening phrase). Deliberate practice involves monitoring one’s performance (in real-time, but also via recordings), continually looking for new ways to improve. This means really listening to what happens, so that you can tell yourself exactly what went wrong. For instance, was the first note sharp? Flat? Too loud? Too soft? Too harsh? Too short? Too long? Let’s say that the note was too sharp and too long with not enough of an attack to begin the note. Well, how sharp was it? A little? A lot? How much longer was the note than you wanted it to be? How much more of an attack did you want? Ok, the note was a little sharp, just a hair too long, and required a much clearer attack in order to be consistent with the marked articulation and dynamics. So, why was the note sharp? What did you do? What do you need to do to make sure the note is perfectly in tune every time? How do you ensure that the length is just as you want it to be, and how do you get a consistently clean and clear attack to begin the note so it begins in the right character? Now, let’s imagine you recorded all of this and could listen to how this last attempt sounded. Does that combination of ingredients give you the desired result? In other words, does that combination of ingredients convey the mood or character you want to communicate to the listener as effectively as you thought it would? Few musicians take the time to stop, analyze what went wrong, why it happened, and how they can correct the error permanently.

How Many Hours a Day Should I Practice?

You will find that deliberate practice is very draining, given the tremendous amount of energy required to keep one’s full attentional resources on the task at hand. Practicing more than one hour at a time is likely to be unproductive and in all honesty, probably not even mentally or emotionally possible. Even the most dedicated individuals will find it difficult to practice more than four hours a day. Studies have varied the length of daily practice from 1 hour to 8 hours, and the results suggest that there is often little benefit from practicing more than 4 hours per day, and that gains actually begin to decline after the 2-hour mark.  The key is to keep tabs on the level of concentration you are able to sustain.

5 Keys For More Effective Practice

1. Duration

Keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes for younger students, and as long as 45-60 minutes for older individuals.

2. Timing

Keep track of times during the day when you tend to have the most energy. This may be first thing in the morning, or right before lunch, etc. Try to do your practicing during these naturally productive periods as these are the times at which you will be able to focus and think most clearly.

3. Goals

Try using a practice notebook. Keep track of your practice goals and what you discover during your practice sessions. The key to getting into the “zone” when practicing is to be constantly striving to have clarity of intention. In other words, to have a clear idea of the sound you want to produce, or particular phrasing you’d like to try, or specific articulation, intonation, etc. that you’d like to be able to execute consistently. When you figure something out, write it down. As I practiced more mindfully, I began learning so much during practice sessions that if I didn’t write everything down, I’d forget.

4. Smarter, not harder

Sometimes if a particular passage is not coming out the way we want it to, it just means we need to practice more. There are also times, however, when we don’t need to practice harder, but need an altogether different strategy or technique. I remember struggling with the left-hand pizzicato variation in Paganini’s 24th Caprice. I was getting frustrated and kept trying harder and harder to make the notes speak, but all I got was sore fingers, a couple of which actually started to bleed. I realized that there had to be a smarter, more effective way to accomplish my goal. Instead of stubbornly keeping at a strategy or technique that wasn’t working for me, I forced myself to stop practicing this section altogether. I tried to brainstorm different solutions to the problem for a day or so, and wrote down ideas to try as they occurred to me. When I felt that I came up with some promising solutions, I just started experimenting. I eventually came up with a solution that I worked on over the next week or so, and when I played the caprice for my teacher, he actually asked me how I made the notes speak so clearly!

5. Problem-solving model

Consider this 6-step general problem-solving model summarized below (adapted from various problem solving processes online).
  1. Define the problem (what do I want this note/phrase to sound like?)
  2. Analyze the problem (what is causing it to sound like this?)
  3. Identify potential solutions (what can I tweak to make it sound more like I want?)
  4. Test the potential solutions to select the most effective one (what tweaks seem to work best?)
  5. Implement the best solution (make these changes permanent)
  6. Monitor implementation (do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for?)

Or simpler yet, check out this model from Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code.
  1. Pick a target
  2. Reach for it
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
  4. Return to step one

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about perfecting technique, or experimenting with different musical ideas. Any model which encourages smarter, more systematic, active thought, and clearly articulated goals will help cut down on wasted, ineffective practice time. After all, who wants to spend all day in the practice room? Get in, get stuff done, and get out!

UPDATE: Think all of this only relates to classical music? Jazz aficionados, check out this post on practicing effectively written by acclaimed jazz violinist Christian Howes for a helpful perspective and tips on practicing in jazz. Funnily enough, we were in Suzuki together back in Columbus, OH as kids, and both studied with the late British violinist, Michael Davis.

The 7-Day Deliberate Practice Challenge!

If the idea of deliberate practice makes sense intellectually, but it’s been a little trickier to figure out how to actually put it into action, you might find the 1-week Deliberate Practice Challenge to be a helpful way to get started with this.

It’s a 17-page PDF, with specific daily exercises and clear, step-by-step instructions to help you incorporate deliberate practice into your daily practice, and get more of your practice to “stick” from one day to the next.

Pricing is “pay-what-you-want.” Meaning, if $11 feels like a fair price, then $11 it is. Or if you feel like the challenge is worth $4.96, then it’s yours for $4.96. Either way, I hope it makes for a funner and more engaging week of practice!

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

NOTE: Just FYI, the annual 2-for-1 event begins this Friday (Dec. 10)! So if you’re thinking about signing up for the course, I’d actually suggest holding off for a few more days! What?! Why?

‘Cause if you sign up anytime Friday through Sunday (Dec. 10-12), I’ll include a second bonus account at no additional cost that you can gift to a friend, colleague, family member, student, teacher, or practice buddy of your choice. 😁

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Comments

458 Responses

  1. hola:
    sorry for the bad translation, in this article you you mean that no progress beyond the 4 hours and the results decrease after 2 hours, then the ideal number Sobna practice 2 hours a day, or you mean that 4 hours fall if you do it all without Naptime

    Hi and thanks for your response

    1. Hello Juan!

      There is probably no “perfect” answer to this question of how many hours one should practice, as ultimately, it depends on the individual. However, yes, it seems that for most people productivity begins to diminish after two hours, and by four hours, the potential gains from practicing seem to diminish markedly relative to the cost of the extra time, energy, and effort that it requires. This is perhaps not the best metaphor, but it’s a bit like eating a cheesecake. The first slice is great. The second piece is still pretty tasty, but not quite as fulfilling as the first piece. You might start tiring of cheesecake by the third slice, and by the time you start digging into the fourth piece, you really aren’t thinking about how it tastes anymore.

      At the end of the day, know that number of hours is not really the critical factor. If you can stay focused and practice consciously and productively for 8 hours, terrific. If you can only stay focused for an hour, then so be it. Someone once jokingly remarked that music was one of the only skilled activities he could think of where homework was assigned in units of time (e.g. “practice your scales for 30 minutes” as opposed to “practice your scales until you can figure out how to make them sound like ______ 4 times out of 5”). With this in mind, so long as you can stay focused, productive, and fully conscious of what you are trying to accomplish in your practice session and not just mindlessly repeat passages over and over (which can create bad habits that are difficult to unlearn), I think you can feel free to practice as long as you’d like.

      Good luck!

      1. Sounds the law of marginal utility and diminishing returns. Satisfaction/pleasure decreases with each additional unit consumed (in this case, with each additional hour practiced per day).

      2. Your comments makes a lot of sense. It’s the quality and not the quantity that matters.
        To add to the conversation I would highly recommend that you take a few shorter breaks during each practice session. Basically because then you get the opportunity to stay sharp for a longer time.

        Good Stuff!
        Play On!
        //Greger

      3. I am a pianist not professionally, but descent. When I was 12, my mother told me to practice 75 minutes every week even on Saturday. I wanted to play piano just for fun. I was more into sports like soccer. My mother use to say no games or soccer until you have practiced. I never wanted to practice all the time. I was thinking maybe 10 minutes on my songs piece by piece alone. What would you suggest how many minutes I should’ve practiced?

    2. Itzhak Perlman: “For me, if you are very, very serious musician, specifically for the violin, I would say that 5 hours is the max.” The conservatory approach to practicing is 1) scales/etude work 2) old repertoire 3) new repertoire. So if you split that into 5 hrs (at least for violinists) it could look like 2 1/2 hrs scales and etude (and technique in general), 1 hr old repertoire polishing (and review if needed) and 1 1/2 hrs new repertoire.

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  3. Hi, I’d like to ask if you know how many minutes does the mental concentration, even if you have heard about the technique pomodoro “the 25 minutes” and if you recommend for the practice of
    instrument, and finally if you think it is better to sessions
    practice 40, 45, 60 minutes to be concentrated well which do you think
    which is the most appropriate.

    Thanks and sorry for the bad English

    1. Julio,

      I have to admit that I’ve not heard about the pomodoro technique you mentioned, but I’ll look into it. The question of how long to structure practice sessions is a tricky one as it depends on a variety of factors (how well-rested you are, the strength of your ability to concentrate in general, time of day, and so on). Try paying closer attention to when your concentration starts to fade during the course of your practice sessions over the next week. This will probably give you a pretty good baseline average. You can then begin to stretch your concentration “endurance” by going another few seconds or minutes longer the next time you notice yourself starting to fade.

  4. I am not a musician, but a painter, and as a painter I face many technical challenges such as color mixing, value judgment, drawing accuracy, etc. I can testify from experience that after four hours of painting I have a very difficult time concentrating and I begin to lose my way. The painting “performance” begins to suffer. What you have presented in this article I can see being very useful to me. Thank you!

    1. Kevin,

      Thanks for the comment – very cool to get the perspective of an artist. It is really interesting how generalizable across domains the 4-hour limit on intense concentration (such as required for deliberate practice or other such activities) seems to be.

    2. To be honest, it just depends on the individual. Personally, I am also a painter and can happily paint a house for 18 hours with only the odd water break.

      I’m an older beginner on guitar and this article has given me some nice tips re. practice organisation, but again I can happily practice consistantly for 12 hours or more and enjoy every second – without tiring.

      I should see great results if I properly plan and become more mindful of my goals.

      Thanks, and good luck to all.

  5. Thanks for the article. Excellent!

    I play both trombone and piano and take them both up seriously, so my practice time is very much divided. So I find it hard to give a good practice on both and stay focused throughout and for as long as i would like. So my question to you is what is the best thing to be doing in between practice that leaves you most feeling refreshed and ready to practice again?

    I have found that completely relaxing in between practice, i.e. just vegetating in front of the TV, can have a negative effect and make me feel more lethargic and unable to fully apply my concentration. Whereas continuing to do something mentally taxing naturally wont help matters. So what is the best thing to do?

    I’m sure there isn’t a steadfast rule and there as many factors as there are with everything, so it may even be an idea for you to do a full article about this and go into it from many angles, as I’m sure many other musicians share this question.

    Thanks

    1. Jason,

      Thanks for the comment and the article idea. You raise a great question – perhaps other readers will chime in with what has worked for them. I don’t know that this topic has been looked at in any systematic sort of way, so the answer probably depends on the individual. Like you, I found that watching TV (and even playing on the computer) tended not to be very conducive to a good day of practice.

      Have you ever experimented with taking a quick (i.e. 20-minute) power nap or going for a walk? In theory, the ideal activity for between practice sessions would be something that allows you to clear your mind a bit and refresh your body or get the blood circulating a bit without being too strenuous. You could even try an easy run followed by a shower. I’ve only recently begun learning about meditation, but there is some pretty compelling research on the benefits of meditation, and this may be worth looking into as well. In fact, I like a book called Mental Resilience, by Kamal Sarma. It’s as practical and down-to-earth a book on meditation as I’ve found.

      1. Hello. I play the accordion. What I do to make sure my practice time is effective, is I practice until I find that I’m not making any more progress – I make sure I’m paying attention to how much I’m actually getting done, and I s top in the middle of whatever I’m doing as soon as I realize that I’ve stopped being able to practice deliberately. This usually takes about an hour for me. After putting my instrument down, I do something that I can just do kind of on auto drive. Not something like watching TV, but something that still requires some amount of thinking, such as going to talk to a friend, going grocery shopping, reading a book, eating dinner. When I feel more relaxed, I go back
        to the accordion and repeat the process. I feel that this method gets maximum progress throughout the day for me, though it’s gotta be different for everyone.
        Sidenote on meditation. I have been interested in meditating, so I’ve looked at different methods and tried it out myself. For me, it does help me focus longer. When I get stressed out and stop progressing in my music, then after meditation, I’m able to go a bit longer. But it’s only a bit. It doesn’t allow me to concentrate much longer than I already have without some kind of other break in-between. This is just for me, though.
        Hoped this helps. Good article – thank you!

        1. Hi Jacqi,

          Thanks for the input! Figuring out what to do between practice sessions is tricky indeed – and I like your list of suggestions (TV is definitely a no-no).

      2. During exams last semester I snuck a table into my preferred practice room so I could study during my practice breaks. Worst idea ever… I felt like I was in a concentration camp. Now I keep my study strictly in the library and study areas, and I always a motivational self-help book into the practice room. Works a charm.

      3. I find that meditating for fifteen minutes or so between practice sessions is very effective for me. It not only rests my mind, but slows it down and re-centers it; allowing my 2nd and 3rd practice sessions of the day to be longer and more productive.

        While there are many forms of meditation I prefer mindful meditation. Since I’ve started meditating regularly I’ve found an increase in clarity, focus and energy which are not just beneficial for practice but for my overall well being.

        I also recommend regular exercise, a healthy diet and rest (The ancient Roman’s had a saying, “rest is when the fruit ripens”).

        Focused, deliberate practice is exhausting. Taking care of your body and mind outside the practice room is crucial in helping to achieve one’s goals (in any discipline).

      4. I love your ideas, they are really amazing. I play the Cello and the writing pad to write down your ideas and your thoughts about what your doing wrong, how to fix that problem, and etc is useful. I think it is really thoughtful of you to be explaining to people who need help about their instrument usage and what they could try to do better or a little less with their instrument. I absolutely love the 5 keys for more effective practices that you wrote about. I love how you showed and explained what performers and psychologists say and think about how many hours to play, how much practice is enough, is there a thing for practicing enough, and is there an optimal number of hours that on could practice. I think you’re an amazing writer and hopefully kids and adults can look forward to reading your script and information.

      5. Like the other person who responded, I also do other tasks between practice sessions. I find reading or watching tv is the worst things I could do. I never seem to be able to get back into practice mode. I find doing tasks like housework are a good break, like handwashing dishes, vacuuming or dusting. Getting out also helps so cutting grass or going out to run errands. Anything just to allow yourself to switch gears away from the music but not so taxing or mind-numbing that you can’t go back to it.

  6. Great article! I’ve tried to get this message across to students over the past years. So many think that if they spend more time that solves the problem (or gives them an excuse). This same concept can/should be applied to school scheduling and school calendars! Focused concentration over short periods yields better results than extended “mindless” hours. Thanks!

  7. Thanks Dr.Kageyama, excellently thought out and conceived article. These ideas are SO important. I wish somebody had taught me how to practice when I was a young kid. So many wasted hours. I spend so much of my time in lessons teaching my students these ideas. Thanks for helping me focus my ideas and inspiring me to renew my goals to move my students in this direction!

  8. What a great article! I was so fortunate to have as my first teacher in the ’70s, a lady who was very into “quality” not “quantity” of practice and so many of the things you write here are gentle reminders of her philosophies.
    It is all about the concentration, and practising “Smart”.
    Thank you for writing this so concisely:-), Ingrid

  9. Would you suggest that these guidelines for practice are the same or similar for all variants of musical genres? Classical, popular, jazz, folk? I play guitar, bass and piano but find it hard to practice on the bass because I am only practicing a part…yet when I play piano or guitar I play melody AND harmonic accompaniment and thus can hear and feel the entire form. So when I want to learn a piece, I do so by playing and practicing the piece on BOTH guitar and piano…then it seems to just fall in place on the bass. (Is that practicing with my head?)
    Thanks for a thought-provoking presentation!

    1. Hi Tom,

      Indeed, I’d argue that these principles and guidelines are essentially the same not only across musical genres, but most skilled endeavors in general (i.e. dance, acting, sports, public speaking, sales, cooking, and so on). One of my favorite books that addresses the topic of what it takes to achieve mastery is called, simply, Mastery, written by George Leonard.

      Your idea of learning the other parts involved in the group, so as to have a better sense of where your bass part fits into the whole is a great idea. Classical musicians can benefit from this kind of approach as well, especially when it comes to orchestral excerpts, which, played in isolation out of context, often feel and sound more like etudes than great music.

    2. I have found practicing with one of the computerized music practice programs with the bass helped me tremendously. I used “Band in a Box”, but there are others available since – (that was eons ago when I used this program.)

      The classical players no doubt wished there was a orchestral version of these programs – one that would “drop out” their respective instrument so the person who wanted to practice could add it back.

      Of course, already mentioned is recording one part so you can practice the other parts. Music I was composing that I could hear but was not able to play and sing simultaneously actually “taught itself” to me by recording parts separately and repeatedly listening to them together (without playing or singing anything.)

      1. Years ago there was available, MMO for music minus one. An orchestral arrangement, complete except for your part. You might want to check and see if they are still available, and for the particular piece of music you are wanting.

  10. These are ideas all worth remembering. I find them most difficult to remember when I have an enormous work load to practice. When I’m in a position where I need to cram a lot of music, I often get to a point where I think “Ideally I would stop right now because I’m not practicing efficiently, but unfortunately I have to learn this music now so I need to trudge along regardless.” Still, in those circumstances the principles of mindful practicing are the same even if one needs more than four hours to cover everything.

    1. Fred,

      Indeed, it’s awfully tough to practice productively when we’re feeling a time crunch (which is probably more often the case than we’d like it to be). Sometimes even a quick 2-minute water break or poking our head out the door for a breath of fresh air when we’re in the midst of a frustrating lick can help get us out of our unproductive rut, clear our head, and get back on a more productive track. The industrial psych literature indicates that people are more productive when they take breaks; I expect that this finding would be just as applicable to musicians in the practice room as well.

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