A recent blog post by Noa Kageyama, entitled “How Many Hours A Day Should You Practice,” has received a lot of attention in music education communities. Its thesis is that there’s no single right answer; that the quality of your practice time trumps its quantity. That might seem obvious, but it contradicts all we’ve heard about 10,000 hours, about marathon “woodshed” sessions, about practicing until fingers or lips start to bleed, about playing the same phrase of music over and over, until we get it right or, as one of my teachers used to say, until we can’t get it wrong.
Rock star fantasies, aside, music can be a lonely pursuit: musicians, as a general rule, spend more time alone in the practice room than onstage in front of adoring crowds. Practice is our homework. In addition, practice time tends to be private: anyone who’s spent time in a building (usually a Music Department basement) filled with halfway-soundproofed practice rooms has surely noticed how many of her peers tape sheets of paper over the glass windows in the thick doors, so that passersby in the hallway won’t know who’s inside, making mistakes and trying to fix them. Some musicians have teachers and performance deadlines to dictate what to practice, and our schedules determine when, how often, and how long, but we’re mostly on our own to decide how to practice it. How should we do the everyday work of actually learning to play? How do we know when we’re ready to leave the practice room and perform?
Of course, there are advantages to that privacy: alone, music students can hear themselves, and they can repeat phrases, passages, or pieces however many times and at whatever tempo may suit their needs. Hearing ourselves only helps when we know what to listen for, though, and repetition can reinforce errors in our muscle memory as well as it can help us learn to avoid them. Instead of focusing on hours or repetitions, we should focus on practicing deliberately and thoughtfully: Practice smart.
To practice smart, we have to learn to listen to ourselves. Smart practice is focused and deliberate: it has problems and goals, and strategies to address and meet them. It can be time-consuming, difficult, and, yes, lonely.