How much should you practice if you play an instrument? Should you prioritize quality over quantity or quantity over quality? There's a case for some of each, but for better or for worse, there’s no “right” answer.
You’ll often hear, at least for middle and high school age or so, to practice 30 minutes a day 5 days a week. While it’s great to begin with a framework, it’s often more nuanced than that.
Each day, every human has a different bandwidth for life. You get a bad night of sleep, you drink too much coffee, you have more homework than usual, you need to take care of a loved one, you go on a run and feel amazing, you had sports practice or band rehearsal or work ran late, etc. Let alone the fact that many musicians are also living with disability or neurodivergence which creates an added challenge for consistency. It’s unrealistic to ask most people to follow the same exact schedule each day or week.
It’s important to note that not all stages of being a musician require improvement or a stable practice routine. These guidelines apply largely to those who are taking lessons, are in a band, orchestra, or other ensembles, or musicians who want to make consistent progress.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I PRACTICE?
Consistent practice is extremely important in order to make meaningful progress on our instruments.
I notice that a lot of people end up not practicing at all on days they're busy because they don't have a solid 30-45 minute chunk of time. This might lead to practicing two times in a week for an hour each day instead of five days in a week with 20-40 minutes scattered throughout each of those days. Consistency is actually much more helpful in the long run than infrequent, solid chunks of time. It's perfectly fine to have 10 minutes of practice here and 5 minutes there, which is what I recommend when people have busy schedules. That could look like 5 minutes before school or work, 10 minutes before dinner, 5 minutes in between homework or emails, etc.
This is where quantity over quality comes in. You can’t wait for the perfect time to practice. You can’t save practicing for when you have tons of time, tons of energy, and a perfectly clean schedule. You have to put the time in even in the messy in between, even when you aren’t inspired, even on the days when you have other commitments, if you want to see any real improvement.
QUANTITY OVER QUALITY
Here’s the practice schedule I usually recommend for each skill level at the very base level, although it varies incredibly depending on age, goals, schedule, and commitment level. Take this as a starting point, not a rule. For most levels, practicing 5-6 days a week is best.
Beginner: 15-30 minutes per day
Intermediate: 30-45 minutes per day
Late Intermediate: 45-60 minutes per day
Early Advanced: 45-120+ minutes per day
Advanced, College, Professional: it depends on your goals! If you’re taking flute lessons, private music lessons, or you’re in band at school, consider if you feel prepared for each lesson or rehearsal. If it usually feels like you’re falling behind or fumbling with most of the music you’re assigned each week, that’s a good sign that you need to spend either MORE time practicing OR practicing more EFFICIENTLY.
Depending on your schedule and age level, you have to balance your commitments with practicing so that you aren’t running yourself into the ground, but you’re still making quality progress. During a busy day or week, aim to practice for short periods of time rather than skipping practice altogether. If you don’t spend much time practicing per week, you can expect to get frustrated or even bored when you don’t see much improvement.
When it comes down to it, you won’t make progress without putting in the time.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
As important as consistent practice is, quality practice is vital so that you aren’t practicing in circles. Do you notice yourself doing the same routine every week without much progress? Playing the same measures again and again, or bulldozing through sections that never get any easier? Here’s where you need to get intentional.
To have a quality practice session, focus on intentional, quality sound. It’s tempting to play lots of notes really fast, or just get through that piece already, but rushing through music will almost always lead to frustration. Work on slow practice and practicing with comfort and control.
Recording yourself and listening back is an extremely effective way to practice because you can hear yourself more accurately while you aren’t actively playing. By doing this, I can almost guarantee that you’ll catch your own hesitations, fuzzy tone, and clunky fingers much sooner than you would have without the recording. If you have a busy week, this is a fast way to progress. If you have more time in a week, this gives you the depth to dig in and problem-solve.
Additionally, if you are experiencing any pain, STOP playing and either tell your teacher or your doctor (if it feels unfamiliar, that's ok, but ignoring pain by practicing more can lead to a larger injury). Always stay mindful of your body when you’re practicing. Tension can either lead to injury or poor technique or tone, so it’s always best to keep a wide body awareness and feel into the comfort, rather than just rushing through practice to get the minutes in.
Day-to-day practice will vary based on age and ability level. You might not get to everything every day, but make sure you're getting through everything multiple times per week. The golden rule is, practice the things that are HARD to play more than things that are EASY. Practice enough so that you feel prepared for your next lesson or rehearsal if you’re in an ensemble or taking flute lessons.
A daily routine will depend on your level and goals. For intermediate and advanced musicians (especially winds and brass), this might look like starting with long tones, slow warm-ups, and other tone exercises, then moving into technique practice like scales and arpeggios, and finishing with etudes and solos. This might happen all within one session, or in several practice sessions throughout the day.
Also, limit the use of electronics and other distractions, practice in a private room, when possible, and if it helps you, you can try using a timer to keep your practice on track.
Sometimes it feels like we “don't have time" to practice, but we have to look for the time! Finding time is a matter of making your music practice a priority. Focused 5-minute sessions throughout the day will add up substantially more than skipping altogether. You might do one session of 30 minutes, two shorter sessions of 15 minutes, three sessions of 10 minutes, or any other plausible combination. Younger students should practice more frequently in smaller chunks.
This might look different for you from week to week, especially if you’re an adult hobbyist or a professional musician with varying schedules and energy levels. If you’re exhausted, you don’t have to practice with the same intensity and time constraints as you would if you were feeling great. We don’t have the same capacity every day, so there’s no need to expect ourselves to get the same amount done every day.
For your practice sessions throughout the week, consider these questions:
What do I want or need to accomplish this week? For what pieces do I have specific goals, and for what projects do I need to simply “move the needle”?
What does my schedule look like this week? Are there any days that I won’t have time to practice or any days I expect to be mentally or physically drained? Where can I fit in some small practice sessions to compensate?
What music or exercises need the most attention this week?
Is my focus this week quantity, quality, or both? (Although both are ideal, a low-energy or difficult week might require you to be gentle on the quality of music making and focus on just touching the instrument, and a very busy, high-energy week might require you to get in highly focused, short bursts of practicing).
The bottom line is that there is no perfect, correct way to practice. It’s not necessary to skip practice altogether if you don’t have a solid chunk of 30 minutes, and music majors do not need to spend 6 hours a day in the practice room to achieve high-quality results. The amount you practice should align with your goals. You can expect to be frustrated if you’re not putting the time in to match your target, but it’s also perfectly understandable and expected that you won’t be able to put in the same amount of time every day or every week.
Most importantly, if you’re sick or absolutely exhausted, you do not need to practice today. No amount of grinding on your instrument will save your aching joints. Life happens, and I hope someday soon the music world at large can accept that pushing through pain is not a meaningful, worthwhile way to make music.
As you move through different seasons of life, your music practice will ebb and flow along with you. The amount of minutes or hours you practice do not dictate your title of musician, they’re only there to move you closer to your goals. Put in the time and quality energy when you can, and give yourself grace when you need it.
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