How much can you achieve in half an hour?

My first piano teacher, Ethel May, was a little old lady who lived on the other side of town. She had a fine reputation as a teacher, and I suspect that a large part of the success of her pupils was due quite simply to her expectations when it came to practising; when she took me on, aged six, it was on the clear understanding that she would only teach me if I practised for half an hour every day.

I am reliably informed (by my former practice coach – thanks Mum!) that I used to do my practice in two 15 minute sessions every day. Thinking back to my first piano book, and those first few simple pieces (with thumbs always over middle C) I am struck by how much I must have been able to achieve on 3 hours a week! With that amount of time, I must have arrived at each lesson having played those little pieces hundreds of times, with time to spare to lovingly choreograph each finger movement, and doubtless to memorise the notes too. I really don’t remember, but I suspect that by mid-week I must have been ready to turn a few more pages and forge ahead by myself, having had more than enough time to master the work set.

Many years on, I have never found it too difficult to guess how much practice my pupils have (or haven’t) done each week. There are lots of clues, ranging from seeing the music falling open to the right page – in contrast to the pupil not even knowing which page their piece is on – to noting whether they can start playing straight away or whether they have to work out what the notes in the first chord are before they can even start!

What I am completely confident about, however, is that half an hour a week is not enough. For anyone learning any instrument at any level. After the lesson which I taught this morning, I am confident that my pupil (working towards Grade 7) has all that she needs in the understanding and technique departments to completely master the passage which we were working on; the only other component which now needs to be thrown into the mix is Time. If she spends half an hour every day on it, she will know every little moment – the note which she always forgets (D flat!), the differing chord weighting required in the right hand accompaniment, the left hand chord sequence and associated finger patterns – she can’t fail to. But on half an hour a week (that’s just five minutes a day) she might have had a chance to play through the passage a few times, but the familiarity will simply not come in that time. Time and practice is what is needed.

In a busy boarding school environment, I think it’s probably quite easy to slip into the “she’s got so much else on, so I ought to be pleased if she can manage to practice for an hour a week” mentality. On reflection, I just can’t see how this works, and we are deceiving our pupils if we fall into the trap of allowing them to believe that ‘not much practice’ is okay. On the other hand, half an hour a day + good teaching will ensure excellent progress; personally, I’d read that as a bare minimum.

[As an after-thought, I did some sums. We currently teach 208 music lessons each week. If each pupil practised for half an hour a day, that would generate 104 hours of practice every day; with 12 practice rooms available in our wonderful new Music Centre, that would guarantee full use of each one from 8.45 until 5.30 every day. That would be amazing!]

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