The 5-30 Practice Programme: My Predictions

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This is a post I wrote at the start of June to record in advance what I expected participants to experience. I am publishing it on the day I start analysing results so that everyone who has reported can see just how right or wrong they think my predictions are before I do!

Five minutes is not a significant amount of practice time (polite British understatement there). For context, when I was six years old, I was doing 15 minutes piano practice per day. Of course, when I was six, I had the benefit of a mother who would sit me down and make sure I did the practice. (I still have a mother, but she expects me to be a bit more independent these days.)

So, in answer to my fundamental question of ‘How much difference does ‘just a few minutes’ a day actually make?’, here is what I expect us to discover:

  1. The biggest obstacle will be actually forming the new habit. Whilst five minutes a day is a tiny proportion of our daily lives, it takes a disproportionate commitment actually to build a new routine.
  2. Hence, the drop-out rate will be high at the start, but there will come a point at which if you’ve made it that far, you are more likely to continue than not. (Where would that point be? Halfway?)
  3. Framing this as an experiment will probably help as a motivating factor in both starting and continuing participation. Having an end date makes each practice session more significant (it can’t be replaced if missed) and making a useful contribution to the wider singing community gives the sense that it’s not just yourself you’re letting down when you skip a day.
  4. The people who do manage to practice regularly throughout the month will quickly feel like they want to do more than five minutes.
  5. The people who do manage to practice regularly will find after only three or four days that the music they have worked on in their practice time is running through the back of their minds a lot during other daily activities (especially non-verbal ones like cooking, gardening, showering, or exercising).
  6. Initially there will be a small drop in control/fluency between the point you reach at end of one practice session and where you start the next one. But after a week it will feel more like you’re picking up where you left off, and after two you may start to notice that you have continued to improve between sessions.
  7. These last two effects will be strongest with people who have practised absolutely every day. They will be faintly observable with people who have practised four times a week. Three times or fewer will probably not be enough to keep the brain primed to process music between sessions.

The key thing is whether five minutes a day is enough to let the brain know that this activity is important. And my overall prediction is that it is enough, but only if it really is every day, or nearly so. If you get the brain hooked in with the regular focused attention, you get the benefit of the in-between processing time that continues to develop skill between the sessions. If you don’t do enough to trigger this background processing, five minutes reverts to being not enough to achieve anything in.

Conversely, this explains why it is so strangely hard to do ‘only’ five minutes a day. Because it’s not just the five minutes that is at stake, it’s about usurping the use of your brain’s background resources for the rest of the day to chew the musical cud you ingest during the practice session. You can possibly make the process of myelination more efficient, but you can’t actually make it easier.

That’s the theory. Let’s see how it works out in real life.

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