There are three things you should never discuss with someone you’ve just met: religion, politics, and how long to practice.

You just won’t find any consensus, which is too bad because pianists really, really want to know how many hours to practice a day.

As a performer and teacher, I get this question constantly. As a student, I heard very different answers from famous pianists, which was confusing as hell.

There were those that said that you shouldn’t need more than two or three hours a day. Then there are others who scoff at two hours and proclaim you can’t get anything done in fewer than at least five hours a day on the bench.

Who’s right? What’s a serious pianist to do?

I’m not here to end the debate, but I am here to pose a question that could be more useful.

Instead of asking, “How many hours should I practice?”, what if we asked, “How many hours should I practice … at a time?”

This reframing can possibly reconcile all of the confusing opinions out there. Better yet, it can help you find the right answer for you, right now.

There are three reasons why this might be a better question.

1. Everyone has different physical limitations.

You should never practice longer than your body can comfortably play. When your hands and arms start getting tired, it is time to stop and take a break.

Pain is the body’s warning sign — don’t ignore it! Injury just isn’t worth it, and the amount of time and anguish you spend rehabbing will far exceed the extra minutes you’re trying to squeeze in.

Trust your body … or anyone who’s pushed their body too far (me included).

2. Everyone has different mental focus limitations.

We’ve all been there. You’ve been practicing for hours, and all of a sudden, you realize that you’ve zoned out and are thinking about something else — what’s for lunch, that annoying coworker/classmate/friend, whether octopi have bones, etc. Maybe you’re not even hiding it, and the Celtics game is streaming on your phone next to your music (not naming names).

At such moments, you have to ask — what are you getting done? Nothing conscious. Maybe it’s time for a break.

3. Everyone actually learns while they are NOT practicing.

Here’s perhaps the best reason to break up your practice into defined chunks of time — science tells us that your brain actually solidifies what you’ve learned when you’re not practicing. It does this best when you’re sleeping, but it’s been shown that even small breaks can help.

You may have even caught your brain in the act before, playing back certain passages or moving your fingers long after you’ve walked away from the piano. That’s all bonus processing time! This means that three hour-long sessions separated by meaningful breaks actually DO add up to more than three hours all at once.

For all of these reasons, it’s worth thinking about your target practice session length. For me, my mental focus usually poops out around 60–90 minutes depending on what I’m working on, and my physical endurance could be just fine for hours or need a break at 30 minutes if I’m doing something repetitive and intensive. Knowing these parameters means that I can plan my daily practice both optimally and realistically.

Once you are attuned to your optimal practice session length, do as many sessions a day as you want or can, depending on your goals and priorities.

Do you have a stack of repertoire to learn by tomorrow? Are you retired and have lots of flexible time? Are you hell-bent on memorizing that piece this week? Does your teacher want a certain number of hours?

Then go for it. But know that you’re being the most efficient and effective when you break it up into the most productive chunks of time for you.

American pianist Garrick Ohlsson shares his insights into practice routines. Watch the full lesson, now on tonebase!

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Musician

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