Piano practice and other focus work

I came across this Reddit comment when it was new and recently re-discovered it in some clipped notes. With the utmost respect to /u/Yeargdribble and his 15 years on Reddit, I’m reposting it here, with highlights.

First a brief overview of the concepts:

  • Break focus work into short sessions throughout the day. Your brain can only handle 1-2 30-minute sessions at a time.
  • Have a plan.
  • Get enough sleep and take naps. This is how your brain congeals concepts.
  • Develop all the skills you need, not just the ones that are cool or obvious to others.

Here it is:

Pianists have a terrible habit of over-practicing and getting very little out of it. Piano, more than most instruments, really lends itself to this sort of mindless repetition.

I make a living playing. I average about 2-4 hours a day. That said, I try to never go over 30 minutes in a single session and have run into some consequences in the recent past for doing so.

When I practice I’m not just aimlessly repeating things with a metronome. I’m focused with very clear goals. I tend to break what I’m working on into 10 minute chunks. So three chunks per session.

Task fatigue

Research continues to show that we have a limited amount of mental resources doing any one thing before basically get task fatigue and stop paying attention. The beginning of the drop-off ranges from 20-30 minutes and the harder upper limit where you’re pretty much cooked tends to come out at around 50 minutes. So practicing for over an hour at a time as many brag to do basically is a huge waste.

That’s why I tend to take a decent break for every 30 minute session to stay mostly on the safe side. There are more reasons to be conservative about this as I’ll get to later.

General mental fatigue and over filling the cup

Practice (if you’re doing it right) is very mentally taxing. Even with breaks, you can only take so much. If I need to practice more in a day (usually to prepare for a steep deadline), I take serious naps. When it’s an option and fits with my work schedule, I lapse into bi-phasic sleep to maximize my work time. You make most of your improvement while sleeping, not while practicing. Many people find that after spending an hour beating at something with a metronome, they’ve actually regressed the next day and I are playing slower than where they left off. I tend to find that I’m usually playing faster and cleaner than where I left off… and a given section of music probably only got 10 minutes of my time the previous “day.”

If you were pouring a gallon jug of water into a cup, the jug will continue to empty, but the cup won’t get any fuller. The water just continues spilling over the sides. This is what happens to most of the people who spend lots of time practicing. They also claim they aren’t getting tired. Well, they usually aren’t working that hard. Mindlessly running scales for an hour without paying much attention to anything in particular isn’t that taxing, nor is it helpful. Blindly running your piece from start to finish and glossing over mistakes for 3 hours isn’t quite so taxing, nor is it useful. However, focusing on the fine detail work of anything for 30 minutes can be very exhausting…. and it’s actually doing something for you.

Garbage in, garbage out

Your brain gets better at doing what you tell it to. You get very good at replicating the things you do a lot. If that means playing a scale while sloppily using the wrong finger or missing a note entirely….then you get much better at playing wrong. Many people play until they get right. 10 attempts and only 1 of them is correct. Your brain unfortunately remembers the other 9 because that’s what you fed it. That’s why you should always practice painfully slowly and absolute as accurately as possible.

This is also why I check out after 30 minutes. That subtle bit of mental and task fatigue start creeping in. You might not notice it, but it’s better to not keep going until you do. For one, you’re much more likely to burn yourself out mentally. For two, as you start over that cusp, you tend to start making a few more subtle mistakes and might not even be catching them…but your brain is still remembering and polishing those mistakes. There’s absolutely no good reason to keep pushing beyond this point unless you literally only have a tiny fixed window of practice a day. Even then, I’d say 30 minutes of quality is better than an hour of half quality, half crap.

Psychology

The problem with all of this is that it doesn’t seem rewarding. Only playing at the tempo you can actually control doesn’t feel like progress. Making it from 60-100 gives you that dopamine hit. It’s a game and you’ve leveled up. You’re also hearing your reward. It sounds vaguely more like a song and that’s cool… except it’s a trap.

Unfortunately, going from 60-65… and then 60-65 again the next day doesn’t seem as exciting, but it’s so much better for you. You’re in control, and at some point you’ll hit a tipping point where you’ll start at 60 on a subsequent day and go, “[Come on,] this is a joke… 65, 70, 80…OMG this is so easy!” But instead most people hit their target tempo ASAP and then go, “Why is this so uneven?… why do I only nail this 75% of the time? How do I fix this?” And it’s much harder to fix a habit you’ve already formed.

This all also applies to song selection. Everyone wants to play something cool and impressive. They all jump onto stuff that’s way too hard. They don’t develop their reading skills, theory knowledge, ear, or anything else that are part of being a good musician. They just want to play cool stuff. It makes them bad pianists. They are trained robots who can play 2 or 3 of the pieces they have memorized on command from start to finish…. unless they make a mistake which they generally can’t recover from because they only know how to play one section based on where their fingers were in the previous section due to pure finger memorization.

———

Honestly, I hate to even tell people how long I practice. It seems to spark competition in people and a give a false idea. They think they’ll get better by just plugging in the hours, but I think most people aren’t disciplined enough to practice even 2 hours effectively. Heck, all of my practice isn’t even on piano. On average, most of it is, but I spend a lot of time practicing my other gigging instruments depending on what I’ve got coming up. It’s never about the quantity of practice, but about the quality. I think most people who excitedly practicing more than 4 hours a day could get just as much progress out of 1 hour applied more judiciously. In fact, I think they’d make more progress by cutting back because they wouldn’t have to retread so much ground fixing bad habits.

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