In today’s video, I wanted to share my thoughts on really long practice sessions, or spending a lot of time practicing on a daily basis (generally over 1 hour).
In the piano world, there can be a pervasive idea that one must spend hours upon hours to become really good – and while this is true to an extent – you will get better faster – it’s simply not realistic for most people.
My piano practice habits
There have been a few periods in my life where I have practiced large amounts on a daily basis. In the past, this has been when I’m preparing for a big exam. At my absolute most, I would practice 3-4 hours a day, but only in the short-term (approximately 6 months or so).
Aside from that, I’ve maintained a fairly casual rate of practice throughout my life. I don’t tend to practice in a really specific, linear way – that is, I don’t usually practice 1 hour every day with no exceptions. My practice habits tend to fluctuate – some weeks I’ll practice much more than others.
If I’m in the zone and my life isn’t too busy, I might play for 5-10 hours a week. If I’m really not feeling it or other things are in the way, it might be 2 hours (or less!) a week.
I find that piano practice is the most rewarding for me when I follow these natural ebbs and flows. The process feels more organic and I’m much more likely to enjoy my time at the bench. I also feel like my practice sessions are more productive and I learn better.
Concert pianists and students
It would be a different story for a concert pianist, or someone studying at a conservatory or other music school. That kind of person would need a more regimented approach to meet the demands of their schedule. Such a person would need to practice for hours a day with little room for variation.
But that’s not my reality. I have no interest in being a professional performer, and I’m certainly not in school. Because of that, I don’t find any personal value in practicing high amounts (generally more than an hour a day, or 5 hours a week) – unless, as I mentioned earlier, I’m in the midst of an inspiration wave.
To spend lots of time practicing, you need a really good reason to do it. It’s like exercise. Why would I spend 3 hours a day exercising unless I was training for a competitive event, or doing it professionally? If high amounts of exercise is bringing me joy and making my life better and more valuable, that’s a good reason too.
But for me, I don’t need that much exercise to increase my life enjoyment. Exercising for 60-90 minutes per day seems to be about what I require for optimum functioning (and I’m talking about low-effort exercise, like walking). More than that is fine if I’m doing something different, like exploring a new city and traveling, but it’s not necessary on a regular basis for my enjoyment of life.
Same goes for piano. Sometimes I get deep into exploration mode and find it really valuable to play lots and lots. At other times, my interests go in other directions.
Exploring other interests
The biggest reason that I don’t regularly practice for hours a day is because I have so many other interests and hobbies in life. Piano isn’t my only thing – far from it. I get that some people like to specialize, but that’s not me.
The other week I came up with a list of all the different interests I have – activities, subjects, etc. – and the list spanned around 60 different things. Music-related things made up a small part of that overall list – maybe 10%.
For example, I love to read about and study a wide variety of topics, anything from nutrition (one of my favorites!) and cooking to yoga and spirituality. I like to study personal effectiveness, and read a lot of personal development books, especially as they relate to organization, time management, health and creativity.
I like to conduct personal experiments. Things I’ve tried in the past include waking up at 5am every day, doing couch to 5K (and learning that I hate running), working through the book The Artist’s Way, going all-raw for a month (not my favorite), doing 90 minutes of daily yoga for a month, and so on.
These kinds of experiments are so much fun, and teach me a lot about life (and my own preferences). But if I were to play piano for, say, 3-4 hours a day, I would have room for little else, and my enjoyment of life would decline. It’s fun sometimes in short bursts, but in the long run I get bored.
I also work – making these videos and teaching kids piano takes up a lot of time. I like to make home-cooked meals. There are few things in life I enjoy more than having free time in the evening to read a good book. I like to spend time with my husband and occasionally have a social life.
As much as I enjoy piano, it’s not more important to me than anything I just mentioned. More piano practice would mean less time (or no time) for those things, and that’s not a compromise I’m willing to make.
Because I’m not singly focused on piano, my path to mastery is a slow one. But that’s okay! If I’m not an excellent, concert-level pianist until I’m 60 years old, that’s fine with me. Because that’s not why I play. Maybe hours of daily practice would get me to a mastery level faster, but if I don’t enjoy the process and my life enjoyment decreases because of it, then what’s the point?
A while back I did a video called “assume you’ll become a piano master”. In that video, we talked about how your mental perspective can dramatically alter the way you practice on a daily basis.
I want to be clear that being a master is not my ultimate goal or aim. Rather, my goal is to practice the way a piano master might practice. It’s not about being a piano master; for me, it’s about being effective with the time I spend and enjoying the steps along the way.
A final note I want to make is on effective practice. Sometimes when people practice a lot (3+ hours a day), their effectiveness declines. Playing piano is very mentally taxing, and it’s easy to overdo it. You can get to a point where you practice so much that you’re no longer “sharp” – your brain dulls, you start getting into auto-pilot mode and your retention suffers.
This amount of focused time one can spend varies based on experience and personal endurance, but I’m skeptical that 6 hours of daily practice is significantly better than 3 hours of daily practice. With that much time spent, it’s way too easy to get sloppy and unfocused.
So it’s not just about the amount of time spent on practicing matters – quality is important, too. 1 hour of really focused, high-quality practice trumps 3 hours of aimless, mind-wandering practice.
Chopin is an example of someone who didn’t advocate for heavy practicing, and I really connect with him on that front.
Madame Dubois (Camille O’Meara) reported: “One day [Chopin] heard me say that I practiced six hours a day. He became quite angry, and forbade me to practice more than three hours.” Another student wrote: “He always advised the pupil not to work for too long at a stretch and to intermit between hours of work by reading a good book, by looking at masterpieces of art, or by taking an invigorating walk.”
Take it at your own pace
The reason I wanted to share all of this with you today is that sometimes us piano players can face a lot of judgement, and it can create uncertainty. There are beginners out there who think they have to practice many hours a day because “that’s what other people do”, and it stresses them out.
Practice a lot if you want to. Practice a little if you want to. Go with the waves of inspiration if you want to. Learning music is deeply personal and the best way to do it is the way that’s going to be the most sustainable in the long run.
Again, if you’re a professional or a music student, this doesn’t really apply to you. But the vast majority of us who play piano do so as a hobby, so it’s crucial to find the balance that fits best into your life, and increases your life value. Who cares if person X practices 6 hours a day? Will that truly make you happy and set your spirit free? Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Only you know the answer to that.