Thursday, December 27, 2012

How Many Hours a Day Should YOU Practice?

How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?

by Dr. Noa Kageyama

2 hours? 4 hours? 8 hours? 12 hours?

How much is enough?

Is there such a thing as practicing too much?

Is there an optimal number of hours that one should practice?

What Do Performers Say?

Some of the great artists of the 20th century have shared their thoughts on these questions. I seem to recall reading an interview with Rubinstein years ago, in which he stated that nobody should have to practice more than four hours a day, explaining that if you needed to practice more than four hours a day, you probably weren’t doing it right.

Other great artists have expressed similar sentiments. Violinist Nathan Milstein is said to have once asked his teacher Leopold Auer how many hours a day he should be practicing. Auer responded by saying “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.”

Heifetz also indicated that he never believed in practicing too much, and that excessive practice is “just as bad as practicing too little!” He claimed that he practiced no more than three hours per day on average, and that he didn’t practice at all on Sundays. You know, this is not a bad idea – one of my own teachers, Donald Weilerstein, once suggested that I establish a 24-hour period of time every week where I was not allowed to pick up my instrument.
What Do Psychologists Say?

When it comes to understanding expertise and expert performance, psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson is perhaps the world’s leading authority. His research is the basis for the “ten-year rule” and “10,000-hour rule” which suggest that it requires at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain – and in the case of musicians, often closer to 25 years in order to attain an elite international level. Note that the real key here is not the amount of practice required but thetype of practice required to attain an expert level of performance. In other words, just practicing any old way doesn’t cut it.
Mindless Practice

Have you ever listened to someone practice? Have you ever listened to yourself practice, for that matter? Tape yourself practicing for an hour, take a walk through the practice room area at school and eavesdrop on your fellow students, or ask your students to pretend they are at home and watch them practice during a lesson. What do you notice?

You’ll notice that the majority of folks practice rather mindlessly, either engaging in mere repetition (“practice this passage 10 times” or “practice this piece for 30 minutes”) or practicing on autopilot (that’s when we play through the piece until we hear something we don’t like, stop, repeat the passage again until it sounds better, and resume playing through the piece until we hear the next thing we aren’t satisfied with, at which point we begin this whole process over again).

There are three major problems with the mindless method of practicing.

1. It is a waste of time

Why? For one, very little productive learning takes place when we practice this way. This is how we can practice a piece for hours, days, or weeks, and still not feel that we’ve improved all that much. Even worse, you are actually digging yourself a hole by practicing this way, because what this model of practicing does do is strengthen undesirable habits and errors, literally making it more likely that you will screw up more consistently in the future. This makes it more difficult to correct these habits in the future – so you are actually adding to the amount of future practice time you will need in order to eliminate these bad habits and tendencies. I once worked with a saxophone professor who was fond of reminding his students that “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.”

2. It makes you less confident

In addition, practicing this way actually hurts your confidence, as there is a part of you that realizes you don’t really know how to consistently produce the results you are looking for. Even if you establish a fairly high success rate in the most difficult passages via mindless practice, and find that you can nail it 3 or 4 out of every 5 attempts, your confidence won’t grow much from this. Real on-stage confidence comes from (a) being able to nail it 10 out of 10 tries, (b) knowing that this isn’t a coincidence but that you can do it the correct way on demand, because most importantly (c) you know precisely why you nail it or miss it – i.e. you know exactly what you need to do from a technique standpoint in order to play the passage perfectly every time.

You may not be able to play it perfectly every time at first, but this is what repetition is for – to reinforce the correct habits until they are stronger than the bad habits. It’s a little like trying to grow a nice looking lawn. Instead of fighting a never-ending battle against the weeds, your time is better spent trying to cultivate the grass so that over time the grass crowds out the weeds.

And here’s the biggie. We tend to practice unconsciously, and then end up trying to perform consciously – not a great formula for success. Recall from this article that you have a tendency to shift over into hyper-analytical left brain mode when you walk out on stage. Well, if you have done most of your practicing unconsciously, you really don’t know how to play your piece perfectly on demand. When your brain suddenly goes into full-conscious mode, you end up freaking out, because you don’t know what instructions to give your brain.

3. It is tedious and boring

Practicing mindlessly is a chore. Music may be one of the only skill-based activities where practice goals are measured in units of time. We’ve all had teachers who tell us to go home and practice a certain passage x number of times, or to practice x number of hours, right? What we really need are more specific outcome goals – such as, practice this passage until it sounds like _____, or practice this passage until you can figure out how to make it sound like _____.

After all, it doesn’t really matter how much time we spend practicing something – only that we know how to produce the results we want, and can do so consistently, on demand.
Deliberate Practice

So what is deliberate, or mindful practice? Deliberate practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, which is, for lack of a better word, scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of experimentation with clear goalsand hypotheses. Violinist Paul Kantor once said that the practice room should be like a laboratory, where one can freely tinker with different ideas, both musical and technical, to see what combination of ingredients produces the result you are looking for.

Deliberate practice is often slow, and involves repetition of small and very specific sections of your repertoire instead of just playing through (e.g. working on just the opening note of your solo to make sure that it “speaks” exactly the way you want, instead of playing the entire opening phrase).

Deliberate practice involves monitoring one’s performance (in real-time, but also via recordings), continually looking for new ways to improve. This means really listening to what happens, so that you can tell yourself exactly what went wrong. For instance, was the first note note sharp? Flat? Too loud? Too soft? Too harsh? Too short? Too long?

Let’s say that the note was too sharp and too long with not enough of an attack to begin the note. Well, how sharp was it? A little? A lot? How much longer was the note than you wanted it to be? How much more of an attack did you want?

Ok, the note was a little sharp, just a hair too long, and required a much clearer attack in order to be consistent with the marked articulation and dynamics. So, why was the note sharp? What did you do? What do you need to do to make sure the note is perfectly in tune every time? How do you ensure that the length is just as you want it to be, and how do you get a consistently clean and clear attack to begin the note so it begins in the right character?

Now, let’s imagine you recorded all of this and could listen to how this last attempt sounded. Does that combination of ingredients give you the desired result? In other words, does that combination of ingredients convey the mood or character you want to communicate to the listener as effectively as you thought it would?

Few musicians take the time to stop, analyze what went wrong, why it happened, and howthey can correct the error permanently.

So How Many Hours a Day Should I Practice?

You will find that deliberate practice is very draining, given the tremendous amount of energy required to keep one’s full attentional resources on the task at hand. Practicing more than one hour at a time is likely to be unproductive and in all honesty, probably not even mentally or emotionally possible. Even the most dedicated individuals will find it difficult to practice more than four hours a day.

Studies have varied the length of daily practice from 1 hour to 8 hours, and the results suggest that there is often little benefit from practicing more than 4 hours per day, and that gains actually begin to decline after the 2-hour mark. The key is to keep tabs on the level of concentration you are able to sustain.

5 Keys For More Effective Practice
1. Duration

Keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes for younger students, and as long as 45-60 minutes for older individuals.

2. Timing

Keep track of times during the day when you tend to have the most energy. This may be first thing in the morning, or right before lunch, etc. Try to do your practicing during these naturally productive periods as these are the times at which you will be able to focus and think most clearly.

3. Goals

Try using a practice notebook. Keep track of your practice goals and what you discover during your practice sessions. The key to getting into the “zone” when practicing is to be constantly striving to have clarity of intention. In other words, to have a clear idea of the sound you want to produce, or particular phrasing you’d like to try, or specific articulation, intonation, etc. that you’d like to be able to execute consistently.

When you figure something out, write it down. As I practiced more mindfully, I began learning so much during practice sessions that if I didn’t write everything down, I’d forget.

4. Smarter, not harder

Sometimes if a particular passage is not coming out the way we want it to, it just means we need to practice more. There are also times, however, when we don’t need to practice harder, but need an altogether different strategy or technique.

I remember struggling with the left-hand pizzicato variation in Paganini’s 24th Caprice. I was getting frustrated and kept trying harder and harder to make the notes speak, but all I got was sore fingers, a couple of which actually started to bleed. I realized that there had to be a smarter, more effective way to accomplish my goal.

Instead of stubbornly keeping at a strategy or technique that wasn’t working for me, I forced myself to stop practicing this section altogether. I tried to brainstorm different solutions to the problem for a day or so, and wrote down ideas to try as they occurred to me. When I felt that I came up with some promising solutions, I just started experimenting. I eventually came up with a solution that I worked on over the next week or so, and when I played the caprice for my teacher, he actually asked me how I made the notes speak so clearly!

5. Problem-solving model

Consider this 6-step general problem-solving model summarized below (adapted from various problem solving processes online).
  • Define the problem (what do I want this note/phrase to sound like?)
  • Analyze the problem (what is causing it to sound like this?)
  • Identify potential solutions (what can I tweak to make it sound more like I want?)
  • Test the potential solutions to select the most effective one (what tweaks seem to work best?)
  • Implement the best solution (make these changes permanent)
  • Monitor implementation (do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for?)
Or simpler yet, check out this model from Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code.
  • Pick a target
  • Reach for it
  • Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
  • Return to step one
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about perfecting technique, or experimenting with different musical ideas. Any model which encourages smarter, more systematic, active thought, and clearly articulated goals will help cut down on wasted, ineffective practice time.

After all, who wants to spend all day in the practice room? Get in, get stuff done, and get out!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Faculty Post - Bruce Brown - Healthy Body, Healthy Life!

This week's blog post is by Assistant Professor of Voice, Mr. Bruce Brown.

I thought I would discuss a topic in this week’s blog covering the importance of taking charge of one’s body as being an important decision for a professional musician.  

Trust me, taking charge of your body is a lot easier than many might think.

Most everyone who has known me over the past 3 decades might label me fixated on being somewhat of a health nut.  Health nut?  Really?  What exactly is a health nut?  Let’s examine the nuttiness of it all by asking one simple question.  How difficult is the discipline required to maintain one’s health through a lifestyle choice of physical exercise and sound nutrition?  

Before I address that question, just let me say that I am not here to berate anyone – student, faculty, parent, or friend – about the choices they make.  The topic might be best focused around the choices that people do not make, rather than the ones they do make.  We might easily make a choice to spend 30 minutes a day on Facebook and the Internet.  We might easily make a choice to spend 30 minutes a day vocalizing, or practicing our instrument.  We might easily make a choice to spend 30 minutes a day blowing off steam doing absolutely nothing.  We might easily make a choice to spend 30 minutes a day texting, or talking on the phone.  We might easily make a choice to spend 30 minutes a day staring at the television.  We might easily make a choice to spend 30 minutes a day studying or reading.   We could go through the day’s routine of each and every one of us to find where we all easily make choices to spend time doing the things we feel are important.

How difficult is it to make the choice to spend 30 minutes a day doing moderate aerobic exercise?  How difficult is it to do 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity?  Okay, okay.  I know you want to know what it is I am blogging on about.  What is moderate aerobic activity not to mention what the heck is vigorous aerobic activity?  Moderate is the easy form of exercise.  Mowing the lawn.  A brisk walk to class qualifies as moderate aerobic activity as does a brisk walk from one end of the mall to the other.  So does going for a casual swim.  Vigorous (the kind I like and crave) is running, cycling, full out dancing like we did in the 1970’s, swimming on the swim team, bumping things up a notch so you are out of breath, the heart is pounding and the sweat is dripping from limb to limb.  Oh yeah!  Give me a dose of that.  

The more you do of both moderate and vigorous aerobic activity – the more the weight is shed and the health benefits start to add up.   Throw in working with some weights twice a week to boost one’s metabolism – and now we are talking about utilizing some of the minutes in the day to boost our physical and mental health.  

Ah – there’s the lifestyle choice that many seem to want to avoid.  The discipline of building 150 – 300 minutes per week of exercise into our schedule seems too daunting.  It’s not if we simply build it into our schedule.  The simple addition of an exercise routine allows us to take control of what our body is – an instrument – so we can play it and utilize it for our music making.

I discovered early in life that exercise really made me feel good.  What was it that made me feel good?  I now know, it was the endorphin release, the adrenaline release, the stress reduction, the boost in self-esteem, and the benefits of looking fit and healthy.   I liked it all.   I was running and riding bikes for exercise back in the 1970’s.  And that has continued to this day – all as a part of my normal routine.   

We know that regular exercise has many benefits.  It is a stress reducer, improves one’s sleep, fights anxiety (great thing to fight for performing musicians – nicht wahr?), reduces body fat, strengthens bones, increases energy levels, fights depression, lowers blood pressure, is healthy for the heart, releases chemicals to make you feel good and on and on.  Who wouldn’t want all of that?  Pass the plate filled with all of that stuff right over here so I can have seconds, please.

Call me a health nut if you want.  However, I would be the first to advise all other musicians to grab some of the nuttiness I have come to enjoy the past 3 or 4 decades.  You will feel better, perform better, sleep better, eat better, and look better all due to a simple choice of physical discipline.  

The choice is yours.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Faculty Blog Post - Learn to love history (if you don’t already)

This week's blog post comes to us from James Poulsen, Instructor of Music at Simpson College.

Learn to love history (if you don’t already)

by James Poulsen, Instructor of Music, Pianist and Composer/Songwriter

     I would like to talk about something outside of making music or ‘making it’ in music, and that’s my love of history. Besides music theory, ear training, and piano, I have taught ‘Discovering Music’ for over 20 years. The class does teach some music basics, but it is essentially a survey of music history, mainly from the fall of the Roman Empire to the present. One of my favorite things about this class is not to just make non-music majors aware of the vast world of ‘classical music’, but to get more than a few students interested in history in general.
     I am always disappointed when I hear someone say they ‘don’t like history’--probably because it may involve a lot of names and dates that seem far off in time and distant and it involves a bunch of ‘old people’. It may be a bit cliché, but I think the way to get interested in history is to really put yourself in someone else’s place in the vast amount of possible circumstances, starting with daily life and basic survival. Another way to get more interested or connected is to remember that you had relatives a lot like you that found themselves in many situations ranging from day to day existence to life threatening situations including war and disease.
     It is mind-boggling to think that we each descended from an incredibly long line of ‘survivors’. Most of us mainly think of just the past two or three generations. Many people also go back at least to when their ancestor or ancestors came to America. My grandpa Poulsen came from Denmark in 1913, one year after the Titanic sank. If you think of it, your related predecessors were either some of the strongest, fastest, smartest, or even just the luckiest in countless situations. At least one of your relatives had to survive at least to child bearing years to continue that long line which led to you. We all probably had some individuals in our lines that may have only lived to be 12 or 13 years old.
     Each of us could be a descendent of survivors of countless battles, illnesses, droughts, crop failures, or even one-on-one fights. It’s hard to grasp how lucky we might be to exist and be an aware, thinking, and creative being.
     In terms of well-known historical figures, I think its very interesting to know anecdotes and stories of their daily lives and personal experiences. We are incredibly fortunate to have many letters of correspondence that involved some of history’s most interesting people like Mozart, Beethoven, and many other artists, authors, poets, musicians, and royal family members. I fear that with letter writing a thing of the past, plus easily ‘disposed-of’ email and texting, we are losing ‘tons’ of information that actually might mean something to future generations. If you don’t have a personal biographer or keep a diary, your life-story is not being preserved in letters!
    Young students might think of great individuals of history as ‘old’ or unreachable or simply, ‘we can’t relate to them and their life and times’. Once again, think about yourself in all situations as you learn more about people’s lives. Leopold Mozart took his two amazing children on tour throughout Europe in the 1760s. We have letters from Leopold, that state ‘We almost lost little Wolfgang’ (to high fever). It is very interesting to know that W. A. Mozart, the amazing child prodigy had an older sister, ‘Nannerl’ that was probably as talented as he—but as a young woman was not allowed to continue performing after a certain age. Mozart’s many childhood illnesses may have contributed to his early death at age 35, even though that was a typical life expectancy in the 18th century. One other ‘real-life’ fact is that Mozart’s wife Constanze was present when a monument was erected to his memory in Vienna some forty years after his death.
     Ludwig van Beethoven had to return home at 18 years old when his mother died and there were still younger siblings to care for as he was trying to start a performing career. Later in his life, Beethoven went through personal problems that kept him from composing almost anything for years. Plus, there is the whole story of Beethoven being able to compose some of the greatest works of all time as he became more and more deaf in his 30s. The Czech composer Bedrich Smetana was also totally deaf by his 50s, but composed the beautiful set of symphonic works including ‘The Moldau’ and many other pieces.
     Chopin probably contracted tuberculosis in his teens, something he and thousands of others in the 19th century lived with for years. It is incredible to think that he was able to compose hundreds of piano works that we are still performing and talking about 170 years later. Franz Schubert was another amazingly young genius, but also a real person! He was mainly put on earth to compose music every day until about one o’clock and then hang out at the coffee shop (Vienna Starbucks) with his friends. He rarely had a ‘real job and mainly stayed with friends. Unfortunately, he contracted syphilis in his mid-twenties and was quite ill, but continued to compose masterpieces until his death at age 31. He probably died from the treatment for syphilis in the 19th century, which was mercury! The history of medicine and medical treatments is quite fascinating and often tragic, but it makes us think what everyday people and ‘celebrities’ had to go through to survive or eventually succumb. J.S. Bach twice had operations performed on his eyes without anesthesia, probably for cataracts, by a ‘celebrity’ quack doctor in Europe. He was, of course, left blind in the last few years of life. One little known fact about Bach is that he actually tried to sell pianos late in his career—the piano was still a ‘new thing’ in the 1740s just before Bach’s death in 1750.
     Bach also fathered 20 or more children, according to baptismal records that seem to continue to be found! This may give pause to young female students as you learn that until birth control was modernized, women of child bearing years were pregnant almost every year--that could be 15-20 pregnancies and births for women before the 20th century! That leads to a discussion of child mortality. Today, we can hardly imagine what married couples and families of all stations in life had to endure as they often lost many children to disease and accidents before the age of 5. That’s another huge thing that all the people in your direct line also survived which led to you being alive today. It is morbid and fascinating to think of all fevers and infections your line survived especially before the discovery of penicillin in the 1940’s! In the 19th Century, many doctors were insulted when first told they needed to wash their hands before examining a patient or even doing surgery. George Washington succumbed from too many ‘blood-lettings’ and died with chickens tied to his feet. President Garfield would have probably survived his gunshot wound if doctors hadn’t dug around for the bullet with unsanitized instruments.
     I could go on and on with music history and other history anecdotes but I will close with one reference to Napoleon and his escapades. Napoleon thought he conquer and rule most or all of Europe. Things culminated in the 1810s when Napoleon amassed an army and mobile ‘city’ of over 600,000 soldiers, wives, families, and other support people to march across Europe to invade Russia. I just mention this because it is one of the most unimaginable occurrences in history and some of your relatives could have been involved in this giant fiasco or affected by it. One can’t even imagine the amount of support needed for all the people (and horses) involved in this operation. It wasn’t just French, but German and other nationalities who joined this huge undertaking—all instigated by one man! What’s even more amazing is that he made it all the way to an evacuated Moscow and eventually burned the entire city—everything but the Kremlin! Most everyone knows the rest of the story—Napoleon decided to return to France too late in the year and was slowed and hindered terribly by winter weather—there were numerous battles, slaughters, and desertions. Napoleon returned to France, amazingly alive himself, but with only a few thousand people out of the original 600,000 plus.
     So history is morbid, intriguing, fascinating—not just about a few boring Kings, Queens, and wars, but real people, including your ancestors and their lives—real stories to relate to and dive into plus use your imagination! Seek out and enjoy history wherever and whenever you can—you are part of it!