Does Practice Make Perfect?

How long will it take to master Moonlight Sonata on the piano? How much practice will it require to play Classical Gas on the guitar? It’s a question often asked when it comes to learning to play a musical instrument: how many hours should I devote to practice?

Likely, every musician you speak with will have a different answer to the question. The fact is, some people learn quickly while others must devote more time to mastering the craft. As with learning any new skill, it’s an individual endeavour, and your desire to learn and commitment to practicing and improving will ultimately be the determining factors.

Ukrainian-born American virtuoso violinist, Nathan Milstein was once asked how much practice was enough to which he responded, “Practice with your fingers, and you need all day. Practice with your mind, and you will do as much in one and one-half hours.”

Some successful musicians and musical instructors claim that practising too much can be as bad as not practising enough. Some argue that practising a musical instrument, like lifting weights to build muscle mass, requires a little downtime between sessions.   

What does science have to say on the matter? K. Anders Ericsson is Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and a researcher in expertise and human performance. According to Ericsson, it takes ten years or 10 thousand hours of consistent practice to become a master at anything. However, Ericsson goes on to say that it’s not only the number of hours spent in practice but the type of practice that makes the difference between competency and mastery.

Mastery requires mindfulness. Think about the way you practice or watch someone else practice. Says Ericsson, most people practice “rather mindlessly” and engage in mere repetition – not unlike flying on autopilot. If the session requires playing a passage five times, then the passage is played five times with little attention is often given to improving the quality of play.  

Playing for the sake of playing or practising for the sake of practising does little to improve abilities. Practice with purpose. Strive with each effort to play better. There’s an old saying, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.” If you’re practising with little enthusiasm or desire for improvement, you’re merely reinforcing bad habits and tendencies.

Practising with passion and striving for constant improvement and ultimate mastery has a side benefit – it builds your confidence and improves your self-esteem. Sure, you might not play a passage perfectly every time, but focusing on improvement and being engaged in the process will improve your technique and as your technique improves, so will your playing. If you practice mindlessly, you’re more likely to play mindlessly, too. Playing mindlessly is boring; it’s tedious. Playing purposefully is exciting, challenging, uplifting, and ultimately, rewarding!   

Purposeful practice is structured and with clear-cut goals in mind. Purposeful playing involves repetition of specific aspects of playing. It’s slow, methodical, and should push you out of your comfort zone. It should always feel that what you’re attempting is just slightly out of your reach. Purposeful playing demands that you continually look for ways to grow and stretch.

Keep in mind, making mistakes is program. Often people are afraid to make mistakes, even if they’re just practicing alone. They may tend to continue practicing what they’re good at and ignore the issues. Ultimately, that doesn’t allow the musical student to progress at all.

Research suggests, if you’re practising purposefully, with your entire attention on the task at hand, likely two hours is the maximum you’ll be able to remain focused. The same research suggests that quality begins to decline after the two-hour mark. You can undoubtedly practice more if time allows, but you’ll likely benefit from a break between practice sessions.  

To gain positive results from practising, keep these five elements in mind: duration, timing, goals, focus and purpose. Duration: the amount of time spent in practice. Timing: when you have the most energy to devote to the exercise. Goals: what specifically do you hope to accomplish in this sitting? Purpose: be fully engaged in the moment and challenge yourself.

Ultimately, you’ll need to devise a practice session that works best for you. Any system that incorporates the five practice elements will likely prove effective. Remember, learning to play a musical instrument should be enjoyable – make it an adventure and relish the challenge.  

Here at Musiculus, we love music – it’s that simple, and we want to share that love with you. Explore, discover and achieve your musical desires with help from Musiculus.

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