Often the biggest problem music teachers, parents and beginner students face when learning a string instrument is finding ways to encourage practice times. However, there are always a few budding musicians who want to practice as much as possible. Either they or their parents place strong importance on mastering the instrument quickly, which means that students are spending hours each day with their instrument and neglecting other parts of their lives.
The question for these overachievers—rather than “why do I have to keep practicing?”—is how much is too much. In today’s fast-paced culture, student musicians often drive themselves to extremes. However, doing so can have some serious consequences. Results of too much practice can manifest in depression, burn out, and physical injury.
In fact, overuse injuries are not only prevalent among professional musicians, they can occur from too much practice. Obviously, you want to make progress as quickly as possible, but you don’t want to sustain joint damage before you’re out of high school, scuttling your eventual career. So, it’s important to strike a balance in your string instrument practice. The following tips can help.
Consider Student Characteristics
Too much practice can be just as detrimental as too little practice, so says virtuoso Jascha Heifetz. Although he gave this interview nearly 100 years ago, his sage counsel can still teach you. He said that he never practiced longer than three hours each day. However, that’s still quite a bit.
For grade and high school level students, there are many other things in life. Extracurricular activities should each get equal attention. Spending all of your free time with your instrument is no way to develop a well-rounded youth and it can easily burn out the most gifted player.
For adults who want to master a string instrument, obviously you’ll need to work time into their schedule for practice, so over doing it is rarely a concern.
If you practice on auto-pilot, no matter how many hours you devote to your instrument, you’ll never make progress. Mindless practice takes place by rote. You mechanically follow the music and repeat it the required number of times, but your mind is distracted about other matters. Practicing in this way will not deliver the results you want and it creates three specific problems:
- It wastes time because it actually strengthens the bad habits you want to overcome.
- It reduces your confidence because you don’t experience steady progress.
- It’s extremely boring. Musicians need to outline detailed objectives related to performance in order to make progress.
Deliberate practice, however, is a structured, systematic method that consistently generates positive achievement. Essentially, you focus all of your mental energy on listening and correcting your performance. This may involve playing the same four measures for an entire practice session, but by deliberately monitoring your execution, you’ll master techniques and passages so much faster.
Deliberate practice is more difficult that auto-pilot, but it builds your skills in less time. Studies show that practicing more than four hours a day is just way too much. Additional time doesn’t make any difference in your progress, even with deliberate practice. Plus, you can really harm yourself.
Students should use effective practice methods and generally keep practice times within one-to-two hours per day, maximum, and no more than six days each week.
Don’t neglect the warning signs your body gives you. If your hands cramp, you experience prolonged stiffness and soreness in your joints, neck or back, stop practicing. No pain, no gain does not apply to musicians. Pain is a warning that you’re hurting yourself, and the injuries can be very serious.
Follow these tips to get the most from your practice session so that you practice smarter, not longer.
- Always do warm up exercises, but also try yoga, and techniques to ensure that your body stays in top condition, preventing injury.
- Make sure your practice session is focused, not timed. It can be as little as 30 minutes, but the important thing is setting goals for the session and reaching them.
- Record your goals and work on them deliberately. Rather than just playing the piece over and over, try to discover and list the problems you’re making, and then dedicate time to each one.
- Step back from something that’s not working. Perhaps you’ve been practicing a new technique like pizzicato but haven’t made any real inroads. Sometimes it’s helpful to give it a rest for a few days and work on something else.
- Use a modified problem solving process during practice. This means you:
- Define (what is wrong?)
- Analyze (why is it wrong?)
- Look for ways to overcome the problem
- Implement the solution
Too much practice the wrong way won’t help you succeed. However, when you practice deliberately, the time required for mastery is reduced.