As I prepared for college I knew I wanted to study piano. But was I good enough? Was I practicing enough? How many hours a day should I practice piano anyways? The short answer: depending on your skill level and goals you’ll likely practice anywhere between 15 minutes and 5 hours. In this article we’ll dive deep into the question exploring what some professionals recommend, and discovering the right questions and methods to empower you to answer the question for yourself.
How Many Hours Do Professional Pianists Practice?
Looking to the top pianists you’ll get varied answers. Lang-Lang practiced 6 hours a day at age 5; his father tyrannically micromanaged his practice routine. Alternatively, Evgeny Kissin practiced a measly 20 minutes a day at age 6; his parents thought that his sister would become the pianist.
And what do famous teachers have to say?
Leopold Auer, a famous violin instructor, said “if you practice with your fingers you’ll need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours” (source: bulletproofmusician.com).
Chopin would have agreed with that statement. To Delfina, one of his students he wrote, “Once again I repeat – don’t play more than two hours a day; that is quite enough during the summer.” Instead he insisted on “complete concentration, alertness and attentiveness as the utmost requirements for good practicing.” He believed that 6-8 hour practice sessions were a “mechanical, unintelligent, and useless labor” (Source: Joao Paulo Casarotti through forte-piano-pianissimo.com).
So maybe it’s not the number of hours that’s most important?
The Problem with Setting Hour Based Goals
In high school, I researched how many hours I should practice a day. I was discouraged when I read forum comments to the effect of, “I practice 3 hours a day, every day, even on holidays.” Or “Franz Liszt practice 12 hours a day, and such and such practiced 10.” Recently, I even found a Quora post that asked “I practice 15 hours a day, is that enough?” Yikes!
After reading posts like these, my goal became time. The problem was there is very little satisfaction in reaching a “time” goal. At most I could pat myself on the back and say, “ah yes I practiced 3 hours today 🙂 Tomorrow it starts all over again :\”
Something was missing.
The best way I’ve found to articulate what was missing comes from a book entitled Getting Things Done by productivity guru David Allen.
“If you’re not really sure where you’re going, you’ll never know when enough is enough.”From Getting Things Done by David Allen
Put another way, the reason why I plopped into google the question “how much piano practice is enough” was because I had not clarified my goals effectively to answer the question on my own.
“Agh! Maybe I’m not practicing enough to achieve ______” A blank that I never filled in with clarity. I had ideas that maybe I wanted to be a professional pianist or maybe a professor at a college. But what would such a job really look like, why did I even want that job – mentoring students, making music for a living, prestige? And what work really should be done to achieve that end? Without internal clarity, I sought external clarity in forum posts.
Clarifying Goals at The Piano
So how do I get that internal clarity on my goals?
I’ll turn again to David Allen who says, “the best question to ask as a consultant is the ‘why’ question. That’s why sometimes 8 year olds are the best consultants.”
That’s prompted me to use why questions to help clarify my goals. After chaining together a few why questions, I often arrive at telling motivations and gain clarity on my goals. Two quick examples:
First example. One random day in highschool over the summer I practiced 8 -10 hours of piano (the most I’ve ever done in a day). Why did I practice that much? Well, because I thought I might want to be a professional pianist. Why did I want to become a professional pianist? Hmm, I guess that sounds pretty cool. — It wasn’t until several years down the road that I realized the immense challenge and sacrifice that would come with such a goal. Perhaps 8 to 10 hours of (somewhat mindless) practice doesn’t actually push me closer to my deep motivations and interests.
Second example. I practiced 15 minutes of singing and playing piano to some pop songs. Why did I practice singing to pop songs? Because I hope to start playing at local restaurants/pubs. Why do I want to play at restaurants/pubs? Well, I am trying to make money as a musician. Why am I trying to make money as a musician? I’m interested in working a flexible self-directed schedule. Music is both marketable and enjoyable to me.
Ironically that 15 minutes of focused practice working on pop songs, may have been more worthwhile than the 8-10 hours of un-directed practice I did in highschool.
How Much Do I Need to Practice to Reach My Goals
Now that I have my goal set of improving my singing and playing, how much do I need to practice a day?
I don’t have any gigs coming up because at the time of this writing we are going through the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps in 3 months I would like to have 20 songs that I can easily sing with chords. With considerable background reading chords/improvising, and considerable background singing in choirs I bet I could get that far with just 10-20 minutes of focused practice a day.
What about you? Here is where you answer your own question. Now that you have clarified your goals, how much practice do you think you need to reach them? And while you’re at it, what goal setting advice do you have for your musical friends reading this post? Feel free to leave a comment.
If you’re unsure how much you need to practice but have a goal in mind, maybe it’s time to clarify the nitty-gritty details of what effective practice looks like…
How to Practice Piano Deliberately
Once you have your goal established, what does the everyday practice look like?
This is where a bit of info on a the terms “purposeful practice” and “deliberate practice” is helpful. Deliberate practice can be split into two parts – expert advice (from your teacher perhaps), and purposeful practice. There are four components of purposeful practice including specific goals, intense focus, immediate feedback, and frequent discomfort.
These concepts are explained in depth in the following video. Two students work with a professor in hour long sessions trying to store as many numbers as they can in their short term memory – and the results are pretty astounding!
The first component of purposeful practice is specific goals.
We’ve already talked about long term goals, but what about those specific short term goals that move the needle.
In the video the students in the study had the very specific goal “recite more digits than I did the last time.” In music, goals are nuanced but specific goals might sound something like this:
- establish appropriate fingerings on this 2 measure passage.
- learn the fingering of the B harmonic minor scale.
- Add a melody line to a chord progression.
- practice ii-V-I patterns or other diatonic progressions in all keys.
In the video students either were, or weren’t able to recite the digits in their study session. That is immediate feedback. Again with music, feedback is a bit more nuanced especially when your goals are subjective like “improve musicality”. You could achieve immediate feedback by:
- asking a friend to listen to you play.
- recording yourself play and listening afterwards.
One method I’ve used to engage discomfort is to play through a whole piece (in this case Chopin’s Ballade No. 4) and flag the most challenging parts with a post-it note. Often these most challenging parts were accompanied by increase in anxiety, so I just have to look each section and try to remember how it made me feel when I played it.
Next I work on each post-it note section, which ensures that I engage the uncomfortable parts of the piece and actually grow.
In the video, students worked with a professor for an hour straight on a single objective with no outside distractions.
When there are so many things I can do (distractions) and I need to say no to them all, it is hard to focus on one specific action.
Steve Jobs says it better than I.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”Steve Jobs (source jamesclear.com)
I found that the post-it note method I used to mark the most challenging parts of the piece was really helpful in increasing my focus. Why? I think without them I would often pick a random point in the music to start and then once I hit a snag I would practice it. I started to loose focus because my mind said “oh no you’re struggling with this section, you’ve got the whole rest of the piece to learn.”
By marking the most challenging portions with post-it notes it allows my mind to rest and focus on the section at hand because there are clear edges around the challenge. I know that I have accounted for the most challenging parts of the piece and will get to them eventually. It makes it easier to say “no” to the rest of the piece and “yes” to the portion in front of me.
Thoughts on Joyful Practice
In Find Your Melody, I like to end each post with some thoughts, or questions regarding joyful practice. The progress/frustration cycle listed in the deliberate practice video caught my attention.
The less frustration I feel during practice, the more enjoyable it will be. So “how can the ‘prolonged frustration’ period be reduced, and the ‘sudden breakthroughs’ increased?”
I recently had a ‘prolonged frustration’ experience while learning to ride a RipStik (my generic version below). RipStiks only have two wheels; you propel them by wiggling your feet perpendicular to the direction you want to go.
I recently hit a perceived limit. I would loose momentum and fall any time I went up any type of incline no matter how gradual. I thought, “this is an old RipStik with loose bearings, maybe it’s not feasible to go uphill on it.” This perceived limit created frustration because I couldn’t travel anywhere farther than a couple blocks.
This perceived limit indicates a resignation that I’ve maxed out all the variables under my control.
I thought it might be helpful to list out all the variables I had control over…
After writing this list, it took just two tries before I successfully made it to the top of the hill in front of my house! Something I initially thought wouldn’t be possible.
A variety of variables led to my success. I squatted lower allowing for more powerful strokes; larger strokes reduced friction in the bearings; and I flexed my ankle muscles slightly to relieve the burden on my legs.
Awareness of all the variables under my control sparked the creativity necessary to push past my perceived limits.
I’m curios how you decrease that “prolonged frustration” phase?
So how many hours a day should I practice piano? Pianists likely practice anywhere between 15 min and 5 hours a day. Instead of blindly shooting for an hour mark, though, clarify your goals and build a practice routine from there that is informed with concepts of deliberate practice. The practice duration will follow naturally.
Wishing you a joyful practice session!
Allen, David. Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Piatkus, 2019.