Could 20 Minutes Be Enough?

As most of you know by now, I have played the piano all my life. I practiced about 2 hours a day in high school. Later, as a piano major in college, I practiced at least 3-4 hours a day, and then accompanied choir and voice lessons for tuition credit another 2 hours a day. When I think about how long I should practice every day, prior experience tells me I won’t make any progress unless I practice at least 1 hour a day.

However, I recently read something that might give me some freedom from this mindset. Without going into an in-depth science lesson, it has to do with a process called long term potentiation. This term describes the increase in strength of nerve impulses along pathways which have been used previously, either short-term or long-term. For our brains to carry out a complex process such as playing an instrument, the neurons in our brain have to communicate, connect and undergo construction.

Electronic signals are sent through our nerves which allow us to make the necessary movements to play our instruments accurately. Now some neurons need longer to complete this process than others. They have to undergo a construction process, and they can only do that when we rest. When we take a break, the brain moves the information to a more stable place, making the action easier to replicate when we try again later.

In other words, it helps our brain cells internalize what we practiced when we take a break. The article I read recommended that we keep practice sessions shorter, and maybe space them out throughout the day. One teacher advises her students to practice 20 minutes in the morning, and another 20 minutes that afternoon or evening. She also recommends that they don’t go over the same material again in the 2nd practice session, instead working on different exercises or tunes. She says that if you let the brain construction continue to work on what you did during your morning practice time, you will see better results.

This is really encouraging to me. Sometimes I think about picking up my hammers to practice my hammered dulcimer, and then I look at the clock. I realize I don’t have enough time to really get into it, and say to myself, “Oh well, I’ll practice later on.” Too often, “later on” never arrives. This information has helped me to see how a short practice session could actually be beneficial.

Practicing less to make more progress is a hard concept to believe. It seems counterintuitive, right? But I plan to test this theory and discover the truth for myself. How about you?

Happy dulcimering,


1 comment

Dianne Dougherty

Thank you.  I'll try to practice mountain dulcimer and clogging 20 minutes a day. 

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