That phrase has been around for a long time. When I was little it was a convenient way for adults, and in my case music teachers, to remind us to put in the work and be patient with results – neither of which are appealing activities at that age. But the idea that practice is the key, far outweighing raw talent, has become a generally accepted view on learning. The studies by Ericsson are all but legendary but from my perspective as a teacher I’m going to suggest something more to get those little fingers flying and make those lessons worthwhile. You see, if we take a sum of hours and decide that’s what we need for success that’s great.
But it also makes a difference when we spend those hours. For the longest time, when I practiced piano, I would put in the most hours in the days before my lesson. Say I had a lesson on Monday. Tuesday and Wednesday wouldn’t see much of the piano, Thursday and Friday I’d get a little more serious, and Saturday and Sunday I’d be putting in the hours and cursing myself for being such a master procrastinator. And so today, older and wiser, I recommend a different strategy for my students. I tell them that it’s better to put in twenty minutes a day than 4 hours once a week, double the time, that is. The body and mind react much better to the shorter learning interval. You can’t retain much with days between learning sessions, and the longer time spent ‘catching up’ doesn’t make for effective practice. Maybe it’s possible to cram for a test, but not for a lesson or concert. On top of that, it’s much easier to motivate children to practice when it’s part of a routine and a very regular one at that. There is also the fact that for most playing an instrument will not be a profession and so not getting the most out of practicing means wasting precious free time and missing out on the many benefits of playing, therapeutic, mental, stress-relieving, and otherwise. Practice does make perfect, but practicing smart makes us perfect faster.