I’m a big advocate of efficient practicing for all musicians.  If you want to learn a musical instrument, it’s best to practice slowly, work on muscle memory, break your music into small sections, and stay intensely focused while you’re practicing.

Unfortunately, quality of practice alone won’t make you a master musician.  You need quantity too.  When all is said and done, it’s important that you put in the time.

The most perfect five minutes of practicing per day can’t compete with the progress you’ll make with a mediocre three hours of practice per day.  There is probably some theoretical balancing point where less-time-more-focused practicing will get just as much done as more-time-less-focused practicing, but I’ve never seen a definitive measure of this.

My guess would be that an hour of very high quality practice per day would accomplish about the same thing as an unfocused three hours per day, but this is just my guess.  And, of course, if you could put in a high quality, very focused three hours a day, you would improve very quickly and become an amazing musician.

Some musicians and music educators argue that you can’t really measure anything based on the amount of time spent practicing.  In their opinion, it’s better to measure the progress itself,  based on the musician’s ability to play accurately, rather than counting the minutes or hours spent in the practice room.

It’s true that measuring the amount of practicing has no meaning for the stereotypical, unmotivated child forced to practice 30 minutes a day, where the young musician is simply looking at the clock the whole time waiting for it all to end so he can get back to his video games.

However, I don’t think that’s the situation for most musicians.  The majority of musicians want to improve their playing and seem to know intuitively that more time playing means more forward momentum.

And, due to the capricious nature of the learning curve (in which we often wait a very long time to see progress or experience a breakthrough in our skills), it is only by playing regularly that we will ever see a jump in our abilities.

There has been research, cited in Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, that it takes 10,000 hours to truly master any complex skill–whether it be playing a musical instrument or programming a computer.  You can be competent on your instrument with far less than 10,000 hours.  But, if you want to be a world-class, elite musician, that’s the amount of time you’re probably looking at.

Levitin mentions an interesting study in which music students– unbeknownst to them–were separated into two groups based on their teachers’ evaluations of the students’ abilites and innate talent  for music.  There was a high talent group and a low talent group.

He writes, “Several years later, the students who achieved the highest performance ratings were those who had practiced the most, irrespective of which ‘talent’ group they had been assigned to previously.  This suggests that practice is the cause of achievement, not merely something correlated with it.”

Think about that.  Time trumps talent.

Simply by practicing more, “less talented” students are able to surpass “more talented” children.  This research seems to say that anyone can learn musical skills if they are willing to practice regularly.  Perhaps the willingness to spend time learning a skill is itself a type of talent.

Clearly, there is something to be said for simply putting in the time in the practice room!  Of course, you want high quality practicing.  But, quantity of practice matters even more.

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