The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

The 30-Minute Rule


Are you wondering how much to practice?  And how to organize your practice time so that you get the most out of it?  You know you’re supposed to take breaks every once in a while, but how often?  How do you keep yourself from practicing too much at one sitting, when you’re really on a roll?

clock for 30 min rule

For me, part of the answer is the 30-Minute Rule.  I practice in sessions of 30 minutes, separated by breaks of 5 or more minutes.

I find that anything longer than 30 minutes starts to yield diminishing returns—my mind wanders and my sound gets bad, usually around the 32-minute mark.  I know that sounds comically precise, but I’ve been keeping track of these things in my handy practice notebook for years, so I know!  In fact, every once in a while I break the 30 minute rule when I’m feeling desperate to learn a lot of music, and it ALWAYS yields the same things:  more frustration and a bad sound.

Knowing that there is a time limit to your session can help keep your mind focused.  Practicing may be challenging, but you know it’ll be over soon.

It can also make it easier to start your session—OK, today I really have to tackle those nasty octave slurs, but it’ll be over in half an hour.  I mean really, you could probably do anything for half an hour, if you had to.

The 30-Minute Rule is also for your physical well-being.  Playing a musical instrument is physically intense and your body, just like your mind, needs regular breaks from the rigors of practice.  Breaks help you to recover, and need to be built into the structure of your practice day.

Back in ye olden times, I used to try and practice at least 45 minutes or an hour at a stretch.  The thing is, when I tried to practice that much in one sitting, I usually found myself staring blankly out the window for any number of those 45 minutes—effectively I was taking a break.  Then I would berate myself for spacing out, and force myself back to work.  Eventually, I figured, why not just make it official, and work 30 minutes at a time, then take a real break?

The 30-Minute Rule also fits very nicely with the 10-Minute Rule.  You can do 3 10-minute segments within one larger 30-Minute session.  This can give you a good idea of what you can reasonably accomplish in your practice session. Knowing what you can do in 30 minutes will help you know how much you need to practice all together, and you can use your 10-minute units to divide up the time sensibly.

If you are professional musician, or music school student, give the 30- and 10-Minute Rules a try for a week or so and see if they are the right time units for you (brass players, for example, might want to plan breaks after a shorter time period).  While you’re experimenting, listen to your body, and adjust until you find your ideal practice time unit.  Then give it a fancy name (i.e. The 27 and 1/2 Minute Rule) and stick to it.

If you are an amateur or younger student, start with a smaller unit of time for your session of practice, maybe only 20 minutes, and divide it into shorter segments that make sense and feel good to you.  Then you can work up to longer sessions.  Remember, two sessions of 20 minutes with a break in between will yield far better results than 40 minutes in a row.

Keep an eye out for more on how to organize your practice in following posts.  And for more on breaks, see What to do on Breaks.

Happy Practicing!

Photo Credit: apesara