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

6 Comments to

“The 30-Minute Rule”

  1. On October 21st, 2009 at 11:39 pm Jeff Harre Says:

    Zara, this is how I do practice… Most of the time. I sort of came to it instinctively over the last three months as I’ve been more intentional about including practice in my weekly routine. Mostly because some days 30 minutes is about how much time I have.

    Lately, what I’ve been trying to learn is to STOP when I hit that point of diminishing returns, even if I hit it before the 30 minutes are up.

    Thanks for pointing out the need to be intentional about breaks, because on those days when i do have more timed and practice more than 30 minutes… Well, you’ve already talked about it. I’ve been reading much the same thing about exercise. Makes a lot of sense.

  2. On October 22nd, 2009 at 3:43 am Mike Saville Says:

    Whilst I do agree with breaking practice sessions into smaller lumps I’m concerned about the focus here on time. This is a trap I fear many students and teachers fall into – they practice to a certain number of minutes instead of thinking about what they want to achieve.

    Small sessions are good, but howabout instead of the 30 minutes rule you had a ’30 bar rule’? ie your aim for the session is to learn the notes for a 30 bar section? Or maybe the ’1 Minute Memory Rule’ where your aim is to memorise 1 minute of music.

    Rules like these I think would be far more beneficial than setting an arbitry amount of minutes.

  3. On October 22nd, 2009 at 3:30 pm admin Says:

    Glad to hear you’re still keeping up with your renewed practice routine, Jeff.

  4. On October 22nd, 2009 at 3:34 pm admin Says:

    Thank you for your comments, Mike. For me the focus on measuring practice by time (30 minutes) rather than a specific musical achievement (30 bars) is based on a larger principle I call “Process, not progress.” The idea being that if you put in your time mindfully, concentrating on what’s most important (playing expressively, with a beautiful sound, etc), over the long haul, progress (learning all the notes) will take care of itself.

    If you made a 30 bar rule, you might find that sometimes it would take you days and days of practice to learn 30 bars (if the music is complicated) and only a short time to learn 30 bars if it is simple music. Sticking to a time limit for each session (and I’m not saying you can’t do multiple sessions of 30 mins in one day!) allows you to approach big projects in a more sane way, I think.

    Having said that, there is usually a balance one has to strike between the two approaches. In music school, I practiced for time/process most of the week, then the day before my lesson, I would usually switch to a more goal oriented approach! More on that rhythm of organizing one’s practice over the long-term in later posts.

  5. On November 23rd, 2009 at 5:07 pm Lisa Dee Says:

    I have been experimenting with Brief Daily Sessions of practice for my two main practices: writing (my job) and horn (my music).

    Following the advice of Robert Boice, I write in 20-minute increments, with brief pauses in between to relax, shift my visual focus, do a forward bend, whatever, for up to net 120 minutes every workday. This has increased my comfort and fluency — and productivity — enormously.

    When I started learning horn two years ago, my instructor told me to practice in 5-minute increments, with a break (handy for emptying horn as well as resting my embouchure) between increments. I started for a total of 30 minutes, and have gradually built up to comfortably to 9 or 10 5-minute increments (for a total of 50-60 minutes; my pauses get longer as I do more increments).

    The main thing about practicing horn for more than 30 minutes, for me, is that I have to warm up for about 20-25 minutes every time I play, before I start working on the material for my weekly lesson. As it feels like a real luxury to play for 50-60 minutes every day that I don’t have a lesson, it’s hard to imagine practicing for only 30 minutes at a time — I’d never get to the lesson material, let alone practice the pieces for my first recital!

  6. On March 25th, 2010 at 5:21 pm The Practice Notebook » Blog Archive » Reader Question: New Instrument Says:

    [...] is one of the reasons I stick by the 30-Minute Rule .  Even on days that I practice 4 hours, I take breaks every 30 minutes, because without them, my [...]

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