Piano teaching, Practising

Why short daily practice beats the once a week catch up

Guest post by Tom Van Schoor

Why is daily practice so much better than having a dedicated day in the week? And how long should I set aside every day to see some measurable result? The answer lies in the way our brain works. How it processes new information and how it stores long term memory.  I want to keep this post about music and not about some neurological research that goes way beyond what we need to know, but I do want to elaborate slightly on the subject.

The brain in all its glory

When we absorb new information or we do something for the very first time, the part of our brain that gets activated is the Prefrontal Cortex. That is the part of the brain that is used for complex decision-making, rational thinking, planning ahead for the future. The Prefrontal Cortex, however, is easily distracted and drains a lot of our energy. It is also easily overpowered by the functions of other parts in our brain. Some of those parts are called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia take ​control of voluntary ​motor​ movements, procedural learning, habit learning, eye movements, cognition, and emotion. In other words, they control our muscle memory and they get triggered and motivated by repetition and habit! That is the science behind why it is better to practice something regularly and why a small time interval 15 minutes per day is more productive than 4 hours of practice on a Saturday for instance…

If you do the math, with 7 days of 15 minutes, you will have spent 1 hour and 45 minutes practising. But because you are training your basal ganglia, over time you will learn more than when you spend 4 hours every Saturday.

What should you practice?

Just playing things that you already know will not teach you anything. So if you do want to learn as much as possible during those 15-minute intervals, you will have to do so with a good plan in place.

My personal advice for a good routine involves:

  1. Warming up by playing scales​. Go through all major scales following the circle of fifths as well as the alternative minor scales. Once you get good at those you can focus on playing modes instead.
  2. Practice reading on sight by learning a new piece a little bit below your practical level.T he reasoning for choosing something slightly below your technical level is to make sure that you don’t get stuck on difficult passages. Then it is no longer a reading exercise but technique training… If that makes sense?
  3. Train your ears by practising your intervals​. Play a note, choose an interval and sing the next note ascending and descending. Check yourself by playing the next note. This is very important if you want to start improvising and composing.
  4. Select something that you find hard to do. Cross rhythms, some weird etude that you can’t get right, anything that you know challenges you.

Mind you, that is a lot to do in 15 minutes… So you may need to come up with some schedule that you do 1 and 3 on the first day, 2 and 4 on the next, and so on…

More daily practice is obviously better and I am not here to advocate that you ​should​ only practice for 15 minutes per day. If you have more time please do use it. But do it routinely, because the difference in return of investment is incredible. I have known high school students that came home from school in the afternoon and sat at the piano as a way to relax after a day of learning. They didn’t play for very long – 15 to 20 minutes max. On the other hand, I have also known students who did not practice during the week but spent most of their Saturday or Sunday getting ready for their next piano lesson. It is a difficult comparison with different levels of talent involved and all that, but those from the first group always improved faster than those from the second group. Even when they were less talented in my opinion.

To conclude, I hope that this advice can help motivate you to build a routine for your practising. Keep in mind that playing the piano is a physical exercise that involves a lot of muscle memory. The science proves it: with routine your effort will be rewarded ten-fold! It takes some discipline to arrange your day in such a way that you can practice regularly. But in the end, you will need less time for more gain, so it is most certainly the best way to learn.


My name is Tom Van Schoor. I have been living and breathing music for as long as I can remember. As a youngster, I was playing guitar in quite a few bands and when I finally turned 18 I decided I wanted to pursue a career in music. I did about 4 years of full-time schooling at​​ Jazz Studio​ in Antwerp, Belgium for guitar and piano. I have played in salsa bands, rock bands, pop bands, even African percussion…The last 11 years I have mostly been focusing on playing in worship teams at various churches for the Lord, Christ, my saviour. My hope is that through my help and tutorship, I can ignite the passion for music in others.

Read more from Tom Van Schoor at The Piano Walk

 

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