Like most other musicians, I spent most of my life thinking that how much practicing I did directly impacted how much forward progress I made as a musician. I only wanted to practice when I had at least 2 hours of uninterrupted time for playing. I was a slave to this concept.
This was fine when I was a music major in college, devoting every waking hour to learning to play, surrounded by hundreds of other musicians who were just as devoted, taking weekly lessons and playing constantly. And, the idea of practicing for hours a day is drilled into you in music school.
But, several changes in my life have forced me to rethink my devotion to long practice sessions. And, as it turns out, scientific evidence just might support the notion that short practice sessions are better for us anyway.
First, these changes:
My Life Got Busier: I no longer had 2 hours in a row to practice. I could probably get in 2 hours total during a day, but there were too many demands on my time to have long, uninterrupted hours available for practicing. I suspect your life is like this too.
Being Busy Made Me Frustrated: Since I was a slave to the concept of long practice sessions, and since I was unable to carve out the time for these long practice sessions in my life, I got really frustrated. And, I stopped practicing. Not completely, but enough to feel that I was neglecting my instrument and stopping myself from improving the way I wanted to improve. Being frustrated is not a good state of mind for having productive practice sessions.
A Book Woke Me Up: I read a remarkable book, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, several years ago. This book gives readers a series of exercises to complete. These exercises reveal truths about your life – or more directly, they reveal what truths you create as you interpret your artistic life. My own frustration with my use of time kept coming up over and over again. That’s when I had a very big breakthrough: I didn’t have to be a slave to this notion that only hours of practicing counted as “real” practicing.
I could play music for 30 minutes. 15 minutes. Even 5 minutes. I could make progress and make good use of my time in any circumstance. No matter how little time I felt I had, it was still worthwhile – even necessary – to spend that little bit of time improving my playing.
What a revelation this was!
And, as it turns out, the scientific evidence seems to be showing that shorter practice sessions are more effective anyway.
The latest scientific research into skill acquisition and long-term memory enhancement is showing that we humans do best with short, highly focused (evenly emotionally charged) tasks that force us to master very specific skills.
Emotion Creates Long-term Memory: Larry Cahill, professor of Neurobiology and Behavior at University of California, Irvine, has discovered in his research on memory that strong emotional reactions are the key to permanently implanting long-term memories. If we think of learning our instruments as a long series of specific muscle memories, and if we look at memorizing songs as a long series of mental memories, then this research seems to say that our playing needs to be emotionally charged. One way to do this is to develop a level of focus so intense that the work you do while playing your instrument feels like the most important work you could possibly be doing.
Intensity Enhances Learning: Psychologist and pianist Margret Elson, in her book Passionate Practice, uses the term “intensity” for this level of focus. She puts it this way: “Repetition or intensity can each generate learning. What if we harnessed both repetition and intensity to the learning process? We would be in a much better position to learn efficiently and permanently…”
Efficient and permanent. Sounds good to me.
So, the question is: How long can you actually sustain this intense concentration and emotion that will truly help you push the musical information into your long-term memory? I don’t know about you, but there’s no way I can do that for hours at a time.
I think we can only do this for minutes at a time. I’ll explore ways to create this intensity in a future blog post.