"How much should my child practice?"
This is probably the question I get most often from parents of new students. Even prospective students and their parents sometimes wonder how much practice time will be "required." Although I usually give a very short two-part answer on the spot when asked about practice time (which I will mention in the course of this article), I would like to provide a more elaborate response here. First of all, it should be pointed out that the quality of a student's practice can have a big impact on the quantity of his/her practice time. What one individual can accomplish through focused concentration and effective practice techniques in a short amount of time may take an individual with an undisciplined approach much more time to achieve. However, this article will not address the issue of quality of practice time. That will be the subject of at least a few articles to come, I'm sure. Regarding the issue of quantity of practice time, there are really two things to consider: frequency of practice sessions and length of practice sessions. The first of the two is very simple, in my opinion – students should practice every day to attain the best results and see the most progress. This is the first part of the short answer I typically give students/parents when asked about practice time. Daily practice, regardless of the amount of time spent per session, is very important to build skills and maintain the consistency of learning that is required for success with an instrument. As I often tell students, it is much more beneficial to practice 10 minutes per day for six days of the week than it is to practice 60 minutes on only one day of the week.
While the concept of frequency of practice is quite simple, the question of how much time to spend in practice is rather complicated. Before I get into some basic recommendations on that, I would like to address what I would consider to be two common “pitfalls” of thinking that relate to practice time. One of these is that practice should occur in an exact number of minutes every day, as dictated by the clock. I call this the “timer approach” to practicing. It is often enforced by well-meaning parents and usually dreaded by children. Since practice ends up being defined in the child's mind as a kind of chore in this approach, it typically ends up with the child constantly looking up at the clock to find out how close he/she is to being done with the task. By way of contrast, I would much rather have students be goal-oriented in their practice, which not only increases their progress but also contributes to an overall mindset of intrinsic motivation. I always encourage students to work toward completing their weekly assignments rather than putting in a certain amount of time. As an experienced teacher, I know how to adjust their “work load” according to how much they are accomplishing at any given time to maximize progress levels. And I almost always try to push students just a little beyond what I think they will actually be able to accomplish in a given week (making exceptions for students that I know are sensitive to that kind of thing).
Another pitfall about having any kind of exact requirements in terms of practice time is that it often lends itself to the following thought in the student's mind: “Well, if I don't have x amount of minutes to practice, I might as well not practice at all.” Parents can be guilty of a similar thought in enforcing practice: “Well, we don't have x minutes for practice today, so we might as well just skip it.” I always encourage students to practice for as long as they can, whenever they can! Even five minutes can be enough time to get things accomplished, especially if it is spent with focused determination on achieving specific goals. Of course, it should go without saying that the more time that is spent in practice (quality time, that is), the better the student will become...but we all have to learn to take what we can get! So what are some good time guidelines for children?
Before I get into guidelines, I would like to say that I believe that the entire concept of practice, including the amount of time involved, is completely a matter of parental choice. That is the second part of the short answer I usually give when asked about practice. Even if I were to adopt certain requirements, I would have no way to enforce them, other than to threaten to dismiss students that do not meet them, which I have never done, nor will I ever do. Furthermore, I do not know the situation of each student regarding what his/her schedule and academic/personal responsibilities are, which obviously have a big impact on how much time he/she is able to practice. As far as my instruction is concerned, that information is completely irrelevant, unless I am trying to prepare a student to major in music in college and/or prepare for a career in music, in which case I believe it is part of my duty as a music instructor to help the student adopt the kind of practice routine that is absolutely necessary for those endeavors.
Although I have never created or enforced my own guidelines for students' practice time, I have collected quite a lot of “data” on the topic, as I have read many online articles, teachers' studio policies, articles in trade magazines, and even sections of pedagogy books that address practice. I have also listened to countless students, parents and music teachers over the years speak about what practice time in the real world looks like. So the following numbers are based on a general consensus of all that information. Because practice time is usually closely linked to students' ages, much like homework assignments, that is how I will address it here. For piano students: if a child practices for 10 minutes daily at age 6-7 (the youngest of my students), and then increases that amount 5 minutes every year, that would put him/her at 30 minutes by age 11 and 60 minutes by age 17. For trumpet students, the same type of guidelines could be used with a starting age of 9 (although the development of the facial musculature of students, as well as the other physical demands of the instrument need to be considered on an individual basis). A chart would look like this:
Piano Trumpet Minutes
Age 6-7 Age 9 10
Age 8 Age 10 15
Age 9 Age 11 20
Age 10 Age 12 25
Age 11 Age 13 30
Age 12 Age 14 35
Age 13 Age 15 40
Age 14 Age 16 45
Age 15 Age 17 50
Age 16 55
Age 17 60
If you're thinking, “My 13-year-old can't possibly practice 40 minutes every day,” I completely understand. Conversely, you may be thinking, “When I was 13, I used to practice for at least an hour every day,” a thought which I can certainly relate to myself! Fortunately for everyone involved, I never mention specific amounts of time to students or parents, except when asked to comment on averages that are generally recommended. Also, a good thing to keep in mind, if you would like to follow the kinds of guidelines shown above, is that practice time can (and should, in many cases) be broken into multiple sessions per day. For example, two 20-minute study breaks for a child can be turned into 40 minutes of practice time. By the way, I highly recommend music practice during homework breaks, not only because studies have shown its effectiveness, but also because it always worked beautifully for me when I was in school.
One final comment I have as a teacher regarding practice time...although I do not pressure students about the amount of practice they put in (only encouraging daily practice), I do routinely ask about how much they have practiced in a given week so that I can better understand the status of their progress. It is important for me to have an understanding of whether they are having trouble with their music, are not practicing it effectively, or simply haven't had enough time to produce the desired results.