The Science of Practice by Jim McCarthy

I’m very excited about this article, our first guest post. Normally I don’t consider guest posts on this site as I have so much material I want to share myself. In the case of the article below I have made an exception. The information Jim McCarthy shares here is so relevant and to the point that I just had to share it. If you are a music student or teacher this is a MUST READ. Watch the videos then read the articles – your practice will benefit.

Be sure to check out Jim’s site at: Or perhaps subscribe to his newsfeed at Feedburner. Finally why not check out his book for percussionists at

The Science of Practicing a Musical Instrument – How long and How often.

This blog entry is very valuable for ALL musicians – no matter what instrument you play, and no matter what level you are at. The two most common and most pertinent questions about practising are very simply “How often should I practise?” and “How long should my practise sessions be?” Opinions on these topics see to vary, but over the years most music teachers have come to realize that there are some predictable results from particular variations in these things. There are some ‘magic numbers’ which can give you the best results from your practise. And believe it or not there is actually a little bit of science behind why these magic numbers are what they are. SO let’s address the second issue first:

How long should my practise sessions be?

The standard thinking has always been that the longer you practise the better. Well this is certainly true, but only to a point. The quality of the practice is more important. In order for your practice to be truly effective, you need to be practising the music exactly as it should be. If you get lazy and start playing the notes almost right, then that is what you are practising – almost right. You don”t want the end result to be almost correct, you want it to be 100% correct, so that is the way you must practise it. That may mean of course that you need to go through things more slowly than the final tempo in your practise. Ok – so given that the quality of your practice is so important, the length of your practise session becomes more important. The problem with long practise sessions is that your brain gets tired. Your concentration drops after a time, and you can get lazy and start playing things almost right. So while it’s true that”the more practise the better”, it would be better perhaps to say: “The more practise with 100% concentration the better!”

So how long can you practise with full concentration.

Well this of course varies from person to person. In fact your concentration stamina is something you can exercise and build just like your physical stamina. If you wanted to increase your physical fitness, you wouldn’t go for a 50 mile run on your very first day – that would just damage you! You would go for a short run, and gradually build up the length of your runs over time as your fitness increased. Your mental stamina works the same way. You practise for a little while to start with until your concentration wanes, and gradually build up your mental stamina. At the height of my practise stamina, which was years ago working for my masters degree, I could get over 10 hours of useful practice out of a day. Not in one go – I could probably manage about 90 to 120 minutes on one thing then I would have to have a short break and continue with something quite different. Over the last 20 years I have taught hundreds of students, and this has taught me that young beginners may only be able to focus for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. This is a real issue for them as they cannot concentrate for the “magic number” of 20 minutes – so they really need to quickly build their mental stamina quickly to at least 20 minutes to get a worthwhile benefit from their session.

So the magic number for session length is 20 minutes – why?

Simply put – 20 minutes is how long it takes before the subconscious part of your brain starts taking notice. The conscious part – the part that you are thinking with right now – the part you are actually aware of, is actually only responsible for a small amount of your total brain activity. The subconscious is the much larger part that you are unaware of. This part never stops thinking 24/7, and is the part responsible for your dreams etc. It is also very powerful – unlike the conscious part, the subconscious is capable of working on many things at once. When you practise, you are focusing your conscious mind on a specific task, and over the length of the session it hopefully improves a little. When you stop practising though your conscious brain moves on to other things and the benefits stop. What you really want is to get your subconscious mind working on the practice as well. It”s not only a much bigger part of your brain, but it keeps working and thinking on a problem long after the conscious mind has moved on. How long? About 24 hours in fact. So how do you get the subconscious to start practising for you? Well you have to practise a specific thing for 20 minutes or more. It varies a bit from person to person, but essentially the magic number is 20 minutes. That is how long you need to consciously concentrate on something before the subconscious wakes up and says to itself – “hey this must be pretty important – I’ll start working on this too” And then it does – for the next 24 hours!

SO what would you prefer – 19 minutes of practice using a small part of the brain – or 20 minutes PLUS 24 hours practising using the larger part of the brain?

20 minutes is the magic number – make sure you spend at least 20 minutes focusing on each specific thing you want to improve.

On to the other issue:

How often should I practise? – how many days of the week should I practise?

Obviously in an ideal world you would be practising every single day – maybe even two or three times a day! Well unfortunately most people – even professional musicians – simply can’t find that much time to practise. Let’s face it it”s a balancing act between the different things in our lives, and it”s also a matter of priorities. How often to practise is a decision every musician has to make for themselves, but if you understand exactly what the relationship between practice and progress is, then you are at least making an informed decision. I recommend for most of my students that they work towards doing a solid session at least FIVE TIMES A WEEK.

Let’s look at why:

What is the purpose of practise? To improve? What does that mean? I like to think of a line which represents our current abilities at one end, and where we want to be at the other end. In between can be divided up into a whole bunch of little steps – steps of progress if you like, towards your goal. It should look a little like this.:


Now for every day of the week you do a decent practice session you will progress towards GREAT. For every day you don’t practise, you actually tend to go a little bit backwards towards BAD. You won’t lose all your hard earned progress straight away of course, but over time things get rusty and you forget what you learned. You never forget it all!!!, but you do go steadily backwards. From 20 odd years of teaching experience I can tell you, a pretty accurate ratio for most people over one week, would be two to one. By that I mean that every practise session will gain you two steps of progress forwards, and every day you don’t practise will lose you one step.

If you do the math, you can quickly work out that practising once or even twice a week leaves you with essentially zero progress at the end of the week! Practising three times in a week is kind of a quantum leap, because you actually end up with two steps of progress at the end of the week which you get to keep! After that, for each extra day you practise you will improve that final number by THREE steps of progress – two more gained, and one not lost.

1 session p/w = 0 steps of progress
2 session p/w = 0 steps of progress
3 session p/w = 2 steps of progress
4 session p/w = 5 steps of progress
5 session p/w = 8 steps of progress
6 session p/w = 11 steps of progress
7 session p/w = 14 steps of progress

Once we look at that table, it’s not hard to see that if you practise at all in a week, it”s worth practising a minimum of three times and preferably more. Mostly the average person finds it impossible to practise 7 days a week, but 5 days is quite manageable – especially if you consider that all we are asking for is a 20 minute session. 20 minutes is less time than it takes to watch one episode of “The Simpsons!”

Let’s look at the difference between doing the minimum 3 sessions per week and the recommended 5 sessions per week. With the recommended 5 sessions per week we have reached a target of 8 progress steps in the first week. If you were doing the minimum amount of practise – 3 sessions per week – you would only get 2 progress steps each week, so it would take you FOUR WEEKS to reach the same target of 8 progress steps. Not only that, but in total you would be doing TWELVE practise sessions – more than double than in the 5 p/w scenario!

So if your target is 8 progress steps away – which of these would you prefer?

1. 5 sessions over one week – or
2. 12 sessions over four weeks

Pretty amazing numbers when you look at it that way!

Or another way to look at it:

Let’s say you have just done your minimum 3 sessions for the week so far. Now which of these options would you prefer to reach your goal:

1. Stop for the week, have a rest – then do another three sessions the next week – then do another three sessions the next week – then do another three sessions the next week?
2. Do two more sessions later that week.

Now you have the information, I bet you are keen to do that extra practise!

This information is based on ideas taken from the book “Stick Technique”. Find out more at

Once again a huge thanks to Jim for allowing us to share this excellent post. Be sure to watch out for more from Jim at his site:, his newsfeed and his book

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