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How (Often) Should I Practice?

Updated: Feb 24, 2019

The Three Stages of Practice

TedEd: How to Practice Effectively...for just about anything - Annie Bosler and Don Greene. Source: YouTube.

I have many parents ask me, 'how long should my child practice every day?' Practice is not about the number of hours you practice but the quality and frequence of the practice. A child could practice 4 hours a day, but if they do not practice the correct movement, they develop a bad habit instead.

Practice goes hand-in-hand with lessons. The lessons teaches the child something new or helps the child to correct something they have learned. Practice helps the child develop and learn something new or reinforce something from the lesson through repetition. The practice session length and duration will depend on two factors: what your teacher expects of the child to be practicing this week and how busy your child is with school work and extra-curricular activities. The Practice length will also vary if your child is working towards an important performance, competition or examination.

How Do I Practice?

There are three stages of learning a piece:

The three stages of practice © Monica Rouvellas 2019. All rights reserved.

1. The Learning stage.

In this stage, students will take a piece and break it down into smaller sections such as a four-bar phrase. The student will then do the following:

  1. Check their posture: bow hold and left hand.

  2. Play individual notes slowly, checking to see if they are playing the note in tune. This can be done by having someone else play the note on a piano or keyboard for the student to tune to or using an app such as ClearTune. For more intermediate players, it may be playing individual notes in-time to a metronome beat. Depending on the difficulty of the passage, some students may repeat this step until they get the sequence of notes all correctly in-tune.

  3. Clap the rhythm to the metronome. Students can use an app such as ProMetronome. Again, some students may have to repeat the passage depending on the level of difficulty. Also, students can subdivide the pulse whilst clapping, such as setting the metronome to quavers or semiquavers.

  4. The next step is to play the rhythm on the open strings. Beginner students may do this on one string, whilst advance students will play the rhythm on the string the notes fall on in the passage.

  5. For difficult bowing passages that involve string crossings or bariolage bowing, this can again be done slowly at this stage.

  6. The final step is to play through the passage slowly with the correct rhythm and the correct intonation (finger placement).

2. The Practice Stage (the Repetition stage)

In this stage, students will repeat a passage enough times.Muscle memory is quickly ingrained when you are focusing on a very small area, often more so than when spreading your attention on the whole of the piece.

  1. Again start by checking your posture and ensuring that there is no tension.

  2. Repeat the four-bar phrase many times, starting at slow tempo and then increasing the tempo incrementally, so that the left hand and bow arm have time to learn the feel of the notes. Apply the 3x/5x rule. This is where you practice the passage three or five times in a row without any mistakes. If you can play that passage well, then you are ready to increase the metronome slightly and then re-apply the rule.

  3. Apply dynamics. Practice passages at the dynamic level shown in the score. Again apply the 3x/5x rule.

  4. For more advanced students, practice passages at different sound points to produce different tonal qualities. Experiment with your sound and note down the sound points that work for that particular passage.

  5. Listen carefully so that with each repetition you get nearer and nearer to the goal of pitch-sound-rhythm-ease. According to Simon Fischer, this where the student plays ever note in tune, every note expressively and tonally as desired, every note exactly and musically in time, and every note played without tension or effort.

Please note, that while repetition practice is an effective method of practice, it is also the most dangerous stage. The student needs to be very aware of what you want and what to avoid, and listen very carefully to avoid strengthening mistakes, especially pitch and intonation errors. This is why, for many beginner to immediate students who cannot distinguish when a note is in or out of tune by ear or for intermediate and advance students who cannot distinguish between individual pitches such as F and F#, or advance students who are still developing fine pitch discrimination, it is best to spend more time going through individual notes slowly in the learning the stage. Otherwise, a student will have to spend even more time undoing their mistakes which is a very time consuming process and will cause students to lose interest in the piece they are working on.

3. The Performance Stage

This is the final stage of the learning cycle where the student feels confident that they can play their piece without intonation and rhythmic errors, with good use of dynamics and articulation, and with every note played expressively as they tonally desire. In this stage, students will practice their pieces by running through the piece or pieces from start to finish, either on their own or with their ensemble/accompanist. The practice has now shifted from repetition to endurance practice. Like athletes who run a marathon, performers need to practice sustaining their energy, focus and concentration throughout the duration of their piece or performance program. This type of practice is good to do every day as the student leads up to a performance, competition or examination.

In this stage, students will also mental practice or mentally rehearse their program, Students will also learn their repertoire by memory in this stage, either by visualising the music in their mind's eye or remembering the sound of the piece by being able to sing along to the piece in their mind as they play. If the practice stage has been done correctly, the tactile process of muscle memory will naturally kick in to aid you in memorising the work.

So How Long Should I Practice?

This will depend on which stage of the practice process you are at. The best way to work out how much practice is needed is to time yourself at each stage practicing the scales, studies, and repertoire required of you. If you find that the time needed is too long, break it down into smaller practice sessions. This might mean that you may only practice three scales, one study and one piece in the one hour of practice you've allocated for yourself, but the next day you'll practice a different three scales, a different study and a different piece during your practice session. Some stages of the learning process will take longer than others and that is ok. The most important tip that I can give you is to make sure you pick up your instrument every day, even if it is for five minutes of quality practice. Remember practice is not about duration, but about quality and the frequency of that quality practice.

All intellectual property in this article belongs to Monica Rouvellas and protected under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth).

How (Often) Should I Practice? The three stages of practice © Monica Rouvellas 2019.

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