My approach to practicing – for myself and for my students

I ask my students to commit to practicing a minimum of 6 days a week as their consistent routine. While some people (professional musicians, other violin teachers) might be thinking, “why not 7?” others might be thinking this sounds like a big commitment. So I’d like to take a moment to explain how I came to the number 6 and why.

Having been both a committed daily practiser and a nearly non-practiser with no regular routine I have personal experience of the difference between those two approaches. I have also seen the same patterns in my students. When you practice daily you get a chance to build each day on what you did before, which builds confidence. There’s a little graphic that gets shared around in music teacher circles that illustrates this well:

Practice => success => motivation => practice

It’s really true. There is a wonderful positive feedback loop that happens (for both adults and children) when practice becomes a daily part of your life. It is simply easier to get the instrument out of the case when you have a fresh recent memory of what you worked on yesterday and what you want to follow up on today.

By the way, I used to take issue with the use of the word success in this graphic, but the more I think about it I think it’s the right word if we interpret it the right way. Success here does not mean fame and glory. Success in this context refers to those small daily successes that can make practicing so much fun. Feeling something that was hard get easier. Figuring out a possible solution to a problem. Hearing your sound improve. When we practice daily there are simply more of these small experiences of success.

In contrast, if a musician only practices a few times a week practicing is harder. Your brain and body don’t have a recent memory of what you’re trying to do, so it feels like you’re started from scratch all over again. This is frustrating and demoralizing and makes us dread getting the instrument out, which perpetuates the problem.

This is true even if your practice sessions are longer. If you practice for an hour 3 times a week you will experience less progress than if you practice for half an hour 6 times a week, even though your total practice time for the week is the same. Because when you practice 3 times a week, part of your practice time is spent trying to relearn what you did a few days ago, where when you practice 30 minutes 6 times a week you have much less need for that relearning time.

So when students are short on time I will always advocate they get the violin out every day for a short amount of time (even 5 minutes or less is better than nothing!) rather than wait until they have time for a long practice session. I call these 5-minute practices token practices and they are absolutely worth doing. When I skip a token practice I always feel the difference.

Are longer daily practices better? Yes, to a point. It’s important to stay within the limits of your mental and physical energy – practicing beyond that point does more harm than good. But if you have time and energy to spare then go for it. Multiple practice sessions a day can be a nice way to maximise time and energy if your schedule allows.

So, back to the numbers. Why 6 instead of 7? Because it’s not about being perfect. It’s about regularity. Some families find it’s important for them to have a day off to simply spend time together. Or there may be one day a week when you have a heavier schedule. Maybe you aim for 7 and then if something happens one day you get 6. Or maybe you practice every day except your lesson day, which means you’re still playing the violin every day – great! I want families to feel they can set a goal that’s realistic for them. I personally aim to practice 7 days a week because that’s what works for me. But I want to give my students some wiggle room to figure out a routine that works for them.

Will there be weeks when you go off the rails? Yes. I am understanding about occasional lapses due to illness, bereavement etc. If you have had a daily practice routine to that point then an occasional off-week won’t do much harm. But be careful about the slippery slope. If you find every week feels like an off-week it’s time to re-examine your routine. If I notice this happening I will ask you about it – we can discuss possible solutions together. And you are always welcome to raise it with me – please don’t try to pretend you’re practicing when you’re not. There is nothing more demoralizing than bringing a child (or yourself) to a teacher week after week without having made progress. That’s not how music is made. I expect my students to make a commitment to their lessons. If that’s hard for you I will help you, but I can’t do it for you.

When you first commit to practicing daily it may take a few weeks to get into that positive feedback loop. Sticking through those first few weeks is the hardest. But once you get into that positive cycle the rewards are wonderful. That’s when the fun starts.

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