countdown sand timer in rocks

How 5 Minutes of Practice Can Lead to Real Change

I’ve talked about MicroPractice a little bit before on this blog.  

The general idea is that even if you don’t have time to do a “full” practice session (whatever that means to you) doing something quick (5 minutes or less) consistently can have positive results.

Sorites Paradox

The first question most students have when I talk about this concept is: Is a short practice session really practice?

For that, the Sorites paradox offers a useful thought exercise. This paradox is also known as the “paradox of the heap”. The general idea of this puzzle involves the trouble with vague terms and how a logical thought process can lead to incorrect reasoning:

1,000,000 grains of sand is a heap. A heap minus a single grain (999,999 grains) is still a heap. Repeating this process over time will eventually result in a heap of sand that consists of a single grain. When does the heap become a non-heap? Which sand grain defines "heapness"?


A single grain of sand is not a heap. Adding another grain of sand will also not be a heap. Repeating this process over time will result in a collection of 1,000,000 grains of sand. When does the non-heap become a heap? Which sand grain defines "heapness"?

To me, this helps to recognize the fact that a practice session is not made by sitting in a certain chair for a specific amount of time. A playing session becomes a practice session based on what you do – whether it takes 2 minutes or 2 hours.

Action Beats Information

Learning about playing the French horn, whether from this blog, a book (like The Art of French Horn Playing or Horn Playing from the Inside Out), or a private teacher is important. 

However, knowing what to do is different from knowing what it feels like (and sounds like) to do it correctly.  

Knowledge plus repetition gives you confidence

That’s why it’s important to regularly play on your own, away from the cacophony of a full band rehearsal. This lets you get a sense of what you sound like and what your strengths and weaknesses are. 

In the book Tiny Habits, this is called the “Information-Action Fallacy“. Simply “knowing” what to do is not enough – your brain and body need a solid history of actually doing the correct thing to believe that you can do it. This is especially true in a stressful situation like an exposed solo or an audition – it’s the knowledge plus repetition that gives you confidence in your performance.

Doing something correctly – and hearing yourself do it correctly – regularly (even for a few minutes) will give you a sense of confidence. The kind of confidence you can’t get simply from reading about playing or listening to a recording.

Vote for Your Outcome

As I mentioned in my MicroPractice and Building a Practice Routine article, in the beginning, a practice session should take a very brief time (under 5 minutes). 

Once you start getting in the habit of doing these 5-minutes-or-less sessions regularly, not only do you start to improve on your instrument and gain confidence in your own abilities. You start seeing yourself as a person who practices

Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.

James Clear, Atomic Habits

In Atomic Habits, James Clear says that “every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become”. If you want to be a person who plays well, you must “vote” for that outcome with your actions. These actions should not be grand gestures (since those rarely last for very long), but small actions done repeatedly

Habits or routines that are led by your identity (or what you want your identity to become) are much more successful in the long term than trying to change your internal self with external actions. 

Next Actions

If you’re motivated or inspired to start a more regular practice routine, here’s what you should do (especially for a middle or high-school level player:

  1. Once you understand the idea of MicroPractice, take a look at your calendar and figure out how to fit in a 5-minute (or less) practice session. You can try time-blocking or just putting these short sessions on your calendar.
  2. In the beginning, you may want to just do a quick exercise or two for your practice session. I recommend either lips slurs, harmonic series, or scales as a good starting point, but you can find a whole lot of different options on my French horn exercise page.
  3. Sit down, set a timer for 5 minutes, and play until the timer goes off.
  4. Repeat step 3!