How much practice do you need?

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The cliché goes: Amateurs practice until they get it right; professional practice until they can’t get it wrong.

This is probably quite a good generalisation. What I find interesting is that I usually hear it from amateurs who have completely misinterpreted it. It is trotted out in support of a rehearsal strategy that involves endless drill and the desire to be able to ‘do it the same every time’.

Now, I’m not knocking reliability in performance. It’s good to know that you can produce the goods in front of an audience without screwing up. I’m just questioning (a) whether drill is the best strategy to achieve it and (b) whether it is the best use of rehearsal time. After all, as Kaplan points out, the goal of rehearsal is to change things, not to make them the same.

What the drill approach misses, I think, is the difference between simple repetition and depth. Just putting in the hours doesn’t make you better. What improves performances is to put in mindful, attentive hours. Successful musicians are the ones who are always seeking to discover as they practise: why is that note tricky? how can I adjust my technique to integrate it into the phrase? what did the composer want to achieve by putting it there? do the technical requirements make me change my mind about musical interpretation? what expressive effect would that have?

Of course, it takes time to work through all these questions: they don’t short-circuit the need to put in the hours. But they do make the hours more effective. And – crucially – they speed up the learning time for future practice sessions. Building musical understanding develops the capacity to learn the next piece more quickly and more accurately, whereas just learning the physical actions to perform a piece leaves you starting the next one from square one. This is why experience and excellence aren’t the same thing.

So, how much practice do you need? Well, lots. But probably rather less spent physically repeating the music than you suspected, and more spent thinking about it. We achieve more when we approach practice in a problem-solving frame of mind rather than simply trying to achieve perfection by brute force.

There's something here about fixed vs flexible mindsets which comes up all over the place when you study how the mind works - I may furnish you with more detail when I'm not in a French all hours of the day mode!

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