How Long Should I Practice?

It’s likely one of the most common question asked by both students and their parents  – how much time should they be practicing?

While I was in high school, I read Phil Farkas’ Art of French Horn Playing, and in it, he advocates for around 3 hours of practice per day. As an undergraduate, I tried to attain that magic number every day – and although I wasn’t successful every day, it did happen more often than not. However, I still didn’t feel that great about my playing, and I thought that the answer was in what I was practicing – maybe I need some sort of magic routine or warm-up, or some special etude that would suddenly make everything easier and better. It took a few years, until I took an incredibly eye-opening lesson with a principle horn player of a great orchestra, that the answer was clear – I wasn’t improving because I wasn’t practicing with any sort of intent.

I was content to put in my time – I played everything you’re supposed to play; I did a moderately long warm-up covering lip slurs, long tones, scales, arpeggios, lip trills, stopped horn, fast single and multiple tonguing, low register, high register, etc.; I practiced etudes that covered basics as well as more modern musical styles; I religiously covered solo repertoire and excerpts for auditions – and yet I still did not play anything particularly well. That first lesson with the principle horn player – I’ll call him Mr. P – was tough. He pulled no punches and was quite direct in his assessment of my abilities, my practice habits, and the outcome of those habits.

He called me out on a lot of things that I was doing wrong, but the most important thing that he did during that first lesson (that previous teachers hadn’t really done) was to have me play something (badly), he’d tell me what to change, I’d play it again, and then he would ask me to describe the difference(s) between the two. Sometimes he’d have me playing something 3 – 5 times, and he’d ask me which one I preferred. Also, I neglected to mention Mr. P owned a fairly large sword which he kept near his teaching area as “motivation”.

The minor flesh wounds aside, this idea of playing everything – absolutely everything – with a firm mental concept of what you want it to sound like is both incredibly powerful and a fundamental concept of practice. Not only will it generally focus your mind (which improves a whole host of things on its own), but it makes it immediately obvious while you are playing which notes or sections didn’t meet your expectations. This kind of information is vital to have during a practice session – otherwise, what do you practice?

I’ll often have students warm-up on a Remington long-tone exercise, and then immediately ask them about various aspects of what they just played (how was your sound, did you slur any notes, how was your articulation, what note did you stop on, what dynamic did you mean to play, etc.), and not only is it easy to tell who is playing with mental focus at the time, it’s also pretty easy to tell who regularly has that focus while they practice.

So the answer to how long should I practice is a pretty simple one – as long as you’re able to mentally focus on what you want to sound like and how you currently soundIf that is 5-10 minutes, then that is as long as you should practice. Of course, if you can spend longer than 5 or 10 minutes focused on a TV show, cell phone, or video game, then you can probably spend longer than that focus on practicing!