How Much Should You Practice? (Brainjo Bite)

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How much should you practice every day? That’s a question that almost every aspiring musician has wondered about at some point in time. And it’s one of the most common questions that I receive as well. When I first took up the banjo, I was working on average over 80 hours a week. And in those days I was thrilled if I could squeeze in just 15 or even 30 minutes of picking time in during a day. And so, you know, back then I wondered was I deluding myself into thinking that I could become a banjo player with such, you know, little time to devote to it.

And I must admit that when I’d hear stories about people who practiced hours upon hours every day, I’d feel a little bit demoralized, needless to say, at that time, not only did I become very interested in methods that would maximize practice efficiency to get the most bang for my practicing buck, but I also be became intensely interested with the question about how much practice was truly enough. Now it seems to be human nature to think that if a little bit of something is a good thing, then a lot of it must be better. Even if our experience tells us that oftentimes that’s not the case, but from that point of view, it’s natural to think that more practiced means better or, and faster results. But is that actually the case? And what does the science say about it? Particularly the science of learning and neuroplasticity. So how much practice is enough and is there actually a thing as too much? So first let’s clarify exactly the question we’re asking here, which is really how much practice is necessary to get results or what amount of time is required to make sure that the next time we pick up our instrument, we are a little bit better.

Remember that the goal of each practice session is not to get better right then and there as getting better, making substantial progress requires structural changes in the brain that take time to happen is discussed in the last episode. And those changes are set in motion or triggered brought by our practice, but they continue long after we’ve set our instruments down. And so with this in mind, our question becomes what’s the minimum amount of time needed to signal our brain to start making those changes. So, as I said, the brain must literally remodel or restructure itself to create new neural circuitry to support any new skill or technique or piece of knowledge that we’re trying to learn and retain. And yet we don’t have unlimited space or energy to work with. So our brain is relatively fixed in size, right? We have a skull that limits how big it can get and building new brain requires precious energy and resources, and to operate successfully within these constraints.

Our brain must be really selective about when it changes and when it doesn’t. To illustrate, think back to 33 days ago in your life. Do you remember what you had for breakfast or lunch or dinner or who you spoke with that day or the contents of those conversations or the emails you sent or the websites you visited? Neither do I, and you don’t remember those things because your brain didn’t deem them worthy of long term storage. They weren’t worth spending valuable space and energy on. And I think you’ll probably agree that your brain made a pretty good decision. Whether it was eggs toast or a pop tart that you had for breakfast, who really cares, right? And yet some things, some events, some parts of our day, we do end up remembering over the long term. So how exactly did your brain decide that those things weren’t worth spending the energy and resources on that would be needed to put them into long term storage?

So every minute of our day, our brain is busy sifting through an incomprehensible stream of sensory information. And most of that is discarded as irrelevant and not worthy of the resources required to store them for another day. Our brain is ruthlessly efficient when it comes to storing new information and every species of animal that has not gone extinct is still around because it too has been extremely selective and smart about how it allocates our its most precious resource, which is energy. And that certainly applies to the brain as well, which follows the rule only store what is needed and the primary way the brain decides what to store is through our attention. So attention is the means by which we tag the events of the day to signal our brain, that we might need those things. Again, later sometime cueing the brain to rewire itself towards that end.

And as I’ve mentioned before, most, if not all of that rewiring happens during sleep and particular stages of sleep, notably REM sleep and stage two sleep. And there’s a large body of research on this issue. And the results of it are very clear, which is without attention memories, aren’t formed and skills aren’t learned, but the type of sustained and focused attention that we’re talking about isn’t easy. And it isn’t something that most people can carry on for too long in one stretch, at least not before our mind starts to tire and our attention starts to drift. And once our attention has drifted, then further efforts are wasted. So what is the typical amount of time that a person can maintain this level of focus and attention? Now it’s not the easiest question in the world to answer, and your answer will depend on how you decide to define attention.

But overall, the consensus has been, , from the study that have been done about 20 to 25 minutes. And so that would be the ideal time for a single practice session, right? The ideal time would be the amount of time that you can maintain that sustained and focused attention that’s needed to signal the brain to change. Now, the next question is, is that actually enough time to trigger the brain to remodel itself in the service of learning our desired skill or stated another way How much is enough time for us to trigger neuroplasticity in the brain? And until recently we were left to only make an educated guess about that kind of question, but thanks to some recent technological advances that allow us to observe plasticity in the brain including in the more cortex, in humans, we now have the tools to assess when the brain has remodeled itself through practice, which has enabled researchers to target questions of this nature a bit more precisely, including remodeling of the brain that occurs in response to musical practice.

Using these tools, it’s been shown that 25 to 30 minutes of focused practice time is enough to induce the structural changes in the brain that support the acquisition of new skills. So putting all this together, we can reasonably conclude that when learning something new about 20 to 25 minutes of focusred practice is sufficient for achieving our goal, which is to ensure that the next time we sit down to play our instrument, we’re a little bit better.

I’ll conclude this episode with what I think are the two most important points to remember when it comes to practice time. The first is that consistency trumps volume, and this is actually a really great thing. What that means is it’s much better to do a little bit or to practice a little bit consistently than it is to do a lot on an inconsistent basis, or it’s much better to do a bunch of short practice sessions regularly than to do marathon sessions sporadically.

And this principle applies to so many things, whether it’s learning an instrument or anything else, or whether it’s exercising, it’s so much better to be consistent, to do a little bit regularly than to be inconsistent and try to make up for that inconsistency by doing more with each session. And based on the preceding discussion, you can see why this is. Your initial efforts are going to yield the greatest results. And after that things really start to diminish over time where each subsequent effort generates a little less of a return. So think about eating a bowl of ice cream, right? Your greatest enjoyment by far, it comes from that first bite. So the distance between zero and one is literally infinite. And then each subsequent bite becomes a little less enjoyable until you get to a point where it’s really not rewarding at all.

So the first bite is way more rewarding than the 20th, for example. And of course you get to a certain point and you’ll start feeling sick. And not only is it no longer enjoyable, it’s become unpleasant and the same applies to practice time. And so many other things, like I said, your initial efforts are what yield the greatest results. Ultimately, you reach a point where things level off and then eventually you may actually see a decline in practicing an instrument that could be because you lose focus and your efforts become lower quality. And so you’re sending, lower quality inputs to the brain, and exercising that could be because you’ve gone past your recovery potential or the ability, the ability of your body to rec recover from that exercise session. So you train so hard or so much that not only is it more stimulus than your body could actually respond to, it gets to the point where it’s actually undermining improvement of we as well by causing stress on the body that it has to spend resources on responding to, and that can be directly damaging.

For example, people are often alarmed when marathon runners drop dead of heart attacks and are found to have calcified arteries in their hearts, but that’s because running a marathon is an enormous stressor and it goes well beyond the point of benefit. So, as I said earlier, it seems to be human nature to assume that if a little bit is good, then a lot of it is better, but that’s true of almost nothing. With virtually everything, there is a sweet spot or a Goldilocks zone, this range within which we can achieve the results we’re after, but beyond which we start to see diminishing returns and even harm. And then I mentioned there were two points. The second point to remember here is that quality matters far more than quantity with when it comes to practice. And I can’t over, over emphasize this one enough either.

So in order to improve, after a practice session, we must number one signal, the brain that we want it to change. And number two, ensure that that change happens in the direction that we want. And this is precisely why one person can achieve the same results in 20 hours of practice, that it may take another person, 2000 hours if ever to achieve. And these differences, again, have nothing to do with differences in innate abilities or talents, but because of differences in how they practice. So remember our success with learning anything has nothing to do with innate talents or abilities, and everything to do with our learning process or how we practice. So short focused sessions where we are sending the brain high quality inputs is what we’re after. And the next episode of Brainjo Bites, I will be talking about the three elements of a great practice session.

Also if you enjoy this Brainjo bite series, you will likely enjoy the book, the Laws of Brainjo, which was published last year. It’s all about how to apply the science of neuroplasticity to learn smarter and more effectively the easiest way to find it is just to search laws of Brainjo or just Brainjo on Amazon. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Brainjo bites, to make sure you catch future episodes. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your podcast player and consider leaving a rating and review in iTunes, which helps other folks to find it as well,.o learn more about music courses based on the Brainjo method of instruction, head over to