A forum user recently posed the following great question about practice time, and how much of it our interview subjects say they did:
Troy, just curious since you’ve interviewed so many world class players. Have you interviewed anyone who has not put in 8+ hours a day practice at some point in their career? It seems that almost everyone I’ve researched with extraordinary technique has put in these type of hours at some point. Usually in their teen years. Just wondering if you’ve run into anyone who hasn’t. Thanks!
The short answer is that the players we have interviewed almost universally describe a period of intense mechanical learning early in their life. They sometimes make comments about a large amount of time per day they remember working on their technique. But even if they don’t always put a specific number on it, it’s clear that that the dedication and focus is significant.
And of course, if I’m reading between the lines here, the implication of this commonly asked question is whether you, too, will need to subjugate yourself to the metronome for a similar period of suffering. And that’s an important subject to address. Because not only is practice a key part of musicianship, but statements about how it works are taken especially seriously when they are made by the best players we all know.
To put it as succinctly as I can, if you want to know whether it’s necessary to do highly repetitive exercise-type practice for 3+ hours a day to learn the picking techniques we have studied, I can tell you for sure the answer is no. I never did that, and I can do many of these techniques at, let’s call it, a “professional” level of competence.
That’s probably not going to stop future all-time-greats from being near a guitar for many hours a day when they’re young. As we learned from our interview with psychologist Ellen Winner, child prodigies are internally motivated to the point of obsession. But just because they’re around a guitar for the better part of a day still doesn’t even mean they’re actually performing the kind of continual hard-core drilling we might imagine. In the broader sense, practice can encompasses a range of activities that contribute to many aspects of musical skill beyond simply instrument technique, including ear training, harmony, songwriting, and so on.
And thus concludes the short answer.
What Is Practice?
Now for the really long one. When it comes to the question of how much great players practice, the question itself contains a number of implicit assumptions about practice which we need to unpack first.
The most important is what we even mean by “practice”. I know that sounds a little like splitting hairs, but I promise, it’s not. Because of my experience growing up, which we’ll get to in a minute, I just thought practice meant “guitar hangout time”, where you have a guitar near you but you’re not constantly playing it. It wasn’t until about four years ago when we were delivering the early versions of our seminars as live talks to small groups via Skype (this was before we actually filmed them as products), that I learned that some of our viewers were actually playing exercises for hours at a time. I seriously did not know that people would repeat the Paul Gilbert lick for three or four hours straight. It was really an eye-opener.
A few years later we met up with the amazing Terry Syrek, who suffers from a neurological condition called focal dystonia that prevents certain fretting fingers from working at all. The condition is thought to be genetic and triggered by certain types of extreme use. In Terry’s case, this was likely the 10+ hour practice marathons he did while an undergrad at Berklee. Terry is an amazing and creative guy, and has found ways to work around the recalcitrance of his fingers to what his brain wants to play. But suffice it say, it was by this time that I was no longer doubting the ability of some people to put way more time into continuous, repetitive practice than I ever did.
If this is how far apart some of us can be on the meaning of a simple term like “practice”, one of the most fundamental activities musicians perform, then a phrase like “8 hour practice” really can be interpreted in pretty damaging ways if we’re not careful. So it’s worth getting on the same page about its meaning.
Types of Motor Learning
The first thing we need to do is separate the type of learning you hope to accomplish with your practice time, from the actual process you use to do it. Typically in our interviews, the type of learning we ask players about is the acquisition of new motor skills, or physical abilities, that you don’t yet have. Very often this includes skills you might want to acquire where you may not even be sure how to perform the activity correctly at all yet. Even for those of us that study it, picking technique is one of those types of mysterious activities with a ton of variables and a lot of lingering unknowns.
By contrast, what I’m not referring to here is the kind of work that an expert player might do while learning a new piece of music using technique they already possess. From the interviews we’ve done with motor learning researchers like Pietro Mazzoni, we think this type of activity has more to do with memorization of sequences of existing skills, like fretting motions, rather than the acquisition of entirely unknown ones.
This matters because even if both of these types of learning fall under the heading of “motor learning”, we have good reason to believe that these two activities also involve very different cognitive and motor processes.
How do we know? Well, for one thing, the players we interview almost always describe the process of acquiring their core technique as intense and brief, and distinct from the practice they do as adults when learning new material. Rather than a slow slog of gradual improvement, they describe this initial experience as a burst of learning typically lasting somewhere between two and five years, during which their technique rapidly grows from nothing to expert-level.
After that point, those same great players appear to spend only comparatively moderate amounts of time maintaining their techniques. And as we know from interviewing players like the amazing Michael Angelo Batio first in 2007 when he was about fifty years old, and again in 2017 as he neared sixty, those incredible abilities can persist for decades at elite levels of speed and accuracy. In our 2017 meeting, Mike walked in from a 30-degree New York winter and didn’t even warm up first. If what he describes about the long practice times of his teenage years is true, then he clearly requires much less of it these days. And one explanation might be that today’s practice, whatever it is, doesn’t even serve the same function as Mike’s initial learning.
So we have to be very careful with the word “practice”. It’s super vague. Just because someone identifies a particular musical activity as “practice” doesn’t guarantee that they’re actually engaged in the same type of learning as another player. This is especially so if we’re comparing someone with previously acquired skills to someone else who is just starting out. Not only that, but even if we limit our thinking to the kind of motor skill acquisition that new players tend to do, we really have to clarify what sort of process we’re even asking about.
For example, in the competitive environment of an elite music school, practice might mean locking yourself in a room for hours, playing repetitive exercises. For a self-taught bedroom rocker, “practice” might mean an entirely different type of activity more akin to unstructured jamming.
In short, just because someone tells us they practiced “8 hours a day” doesn’t tell us anything about what they actually did during that time, and what specific abilities that practice produced. It doesn’t even tell us whether those abilities really resulted from that practice at all, or simply developed concurrently thanks to something else the player was doing.
Case in point, yours truly. I started playing guitar in my early teens, and in a story that Cracking the Code viewers are probably familiar with by now, I was initially able to acquire a certain amount of mechanical technique through pure trial and error. But I was never able to develop smoothness or accuracy in picking technique, especially when phrases moved from one string to another. The pick always felt like it was getting snagged somehow, and the fretting hand never quite synched up either. This made the traditional approach of exercises and metronome usage fruitless. No amount of playing slowly with a click seemed to remove the snaggy feeling from higher-speed attempts. And given how boring this type of practice was, and how few results it produced anyway, I found it impossible to motivate myself to do it.
Instead, I spent a lot of time hanging out in my room playing records, jamming to those records, taping stuff off the radio, writing riffs, transcribing solos with the help of the famed Casio SK1 sampling keyboard, and so on. If you added up all the time I was spending, it probably was three or four hours on some days. But in no way was I actually playing for anywhere near that amount of time. And it was almost never repetitive exercise stuff because I wasn’t getting results with that, and I didn’t have patience for things that weren’t working.
My “practice”, such as it was, was so haphazard compared to the popular conception of what practice is supposed to be, that I never really thought of it as practice. In fact, I actually even felt a little guilty about it. Despite the the vague feeling I was probably doing something wrong, rocking out like a neighborhood Eddie Van Halen was still much more inspiring than failing at exercises, so that’s what I continued doing.
In college I did the same thing in our dorm room, with Yngwie Malmsteen’s famous REH Instructional tape on permanent loop in our VCR. But unlike the high school experience, this time I got lucky. All the tinkering paid off when I inadvertently stumbled across the “downward pickslanting” insight that we dramatized in our early “Cracking the Code” YouTube features, and picking accuracy suddenly appeared as if from nowhere. My undisciplined practice had finally produced results, and not at all in the way I was expecting.
On piano, which was actually my first instrument, I did similar things, but I improved a lot faster. There were no weird roadblocks like there were with picking technique. Improvement was largely linear, where more time at the keyboard seemed to produce more coordination. Even though I took lessons when I was younger, very little of it focused on technique. For whatever reason, the core mechanics of keyboard playing were simply easier to figure out by feel.
The most traditionally “practice”-oriented thing I did was occasionally learn sections of famous classical pieces, like Chopin’s awesome polonaise in A-flat major, whose grand octave melodies I heard one day in a car commercial. That’s the part starting around 40 seconds in Vladimir Horowitz’ rendition:
I got my hands on the printed music, and after a week or so, it was starting to sound good. So I stopped working on it. Wait, what?
Ironically, the success in learning a few bars of this daunting piece was a creative turning point away from this type of playing. Once it became clear that more piano technique was simply a question of more time, the question of how I wanted to spend that time became much easier to ask. Was I really willing to dedicate five or ten more years to build Lizst-levels of keyboard prowess? In truth, I wasn’t. My interests were more in rootsy styles like ragtime, blues, jazz, and of course, if you’re from Long Island like I am, the repertoire of the most important composer of the modern era. I’m kidding, of course. Sort of!
So I spent most of my keyboard time trying to be creative in those styles, with a healthy dose of teasing out chord progressions and building improvisational vocabulary. I learned George Shearing-style block chording from a snippet of “Danny Boy” played, once again, in a commercial. I learned Michael McDonald’s piano part on “What A Fool Believes” from a live performance on VH1. (To be clear, I do have parents, and was not raised exclusively by a television set.)
Even though I did spend a lot of time on this — probably a couple hours on some days — what I did was such a mixed bag of low-pressure musical exploration that I never thought of that time as practice at all. I just thought of it as simply playing.
So yes, all the truly amazing players we have interviewed appear to have spent lots of time building core skills in the beginning. But we’re not just concerned about time any longer. If you want to practice like a virtuoso, then we’re also concerned about the content of that time. And some of these players have indeed said and played things in our talks that hint at a slightly less regimented path more similar to the one I followed.
A great example of this happened in our conversation with the legendary Albert Lee. I asked Albert to play a scale, because I wanted to take a look at his mechanics on a simpler phrase, without the typical twists, turns, and clever articulations Albert is known for. Sounds horrible, I know, but such is the life of a mechanics investigator. So I made the request, and this is what Albert played:
Amazing. But not really a scale. So I said, no, you know, a scale. He goes, oh, ok, gotcha. And then played this:
That’s… the same lick. And still not a scale. While this phrase is certainly scalar in nature, it’s not a scale of the linear sort that practicing musicians are often depicted as endlessly drilling. Neverthless, I was insistent. On the third try I got what I wanted:
Hilarious. When forced to play something so plainly mechanical as a string of notes in order, from bottom to top, Albert’s legendary fluidity disappears. He instead gives us an awkward non-alternating mix of downstrokes and upstrokes, and totally falls off the wagon before even reaching the end of the phrase. Had Albert forgotten the most basic exercise in all of music? Or more likely, he had never played it.
Later on in the interview I asked Albert what he had been working on more recently, and he responded, chuckling, that he hasn’t “worked on anything in 40 years”. In the context of his scalar non-scale, his response was not only funny, but revealing about how he may have actually spent his early practice time. How do you get to Albert Lee’s level of alternate picking ability without scales and exercises?
When it comes to interviewing subjects about the practice they did years or even decades earlier, you can’t always just ask them. For one thing, they may not remember.
The incredible Martin Miller is among the more technically-minded players we have interviewed. In fact, Martin was an actual Cracking the Code subscriber before he became an interview subject, so by the time we met up, he was already familiar with the way we like to look at technique. Thanks to that insight, we’ve been able to have some very frank and detailed conversations with him, addressing the subject of his otherworldly picking technique in great mechanical detail:
One thing we learned in these conversations is that Martin doesn’t actually remember precisely when his famous blend of finger and wrist motions developed, or what specifically he did to generate it. In fact, he didn’t even know he was doing that until our first interview in 2015, after he had already been playing for more than fifteen years.
Despite his deep well of mechanical knowledge as an adult, Martin’s technique developed at a time before that knowledge arrived. If we want to know how Martin built the skills he currently has, we’re left in the same boat as we are with Albert — working backwards from the player he currently is, and inferring what may have happened to create that.
Crack To The Future
But what if we didn’t have to infer? What if we were able to speed our DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour, and film a great player at a formative early stage in their development? Then we might be able to see what they were doing, even at an age where, like Martin, the physical mechanics of their technique were not yet something they were even aware of.
Although Cracking the Code does not yet possess a functioning flux capacitor (we’re working on it), we do have some really great footage of the amazing Andy Wood as a kid. He’s either eight or ten here:
Adult Andy has all the picking chops most players could want, but he had no mechanical instruction as a child. His grandfather who you can also see in this clip, simply told Andy to “get them notes clean”, and so Andy did. And yet, amazingly, Andy’s form is roughly the same in this early clip as it is now: the same lightly supinated arm position, the same ulnar wrist offset, the same deviation-based picking motion. Like Martin, Andy also has no recollection of how or even specifically when he picked all this up.
And that’s the tricky part. If someone like Andy had told us he owed his ability to specific exercises, or certain amounts of practice time, we’d know there was at least something lacking in that explanation. Because we have visual evidence that even as a practically brand-new player, he had already made significant mechanical choices that you can’t really learn from playing an exercise or putting in more “hours”.
Of course that’s not actually what Andy told us. Instead, one of the many great things about both Martin and Andy beyond their strictly musical talents is how highly self-aware they are. Both players knew enough to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” when it came to aspects of their early development, and that’s extremely important in helping all of us avoid making critical errors of attribution.
In other words, if we’re going to design a good chunk of our lives around what a particular player — even a legend — tells us to do, we really have to be sure that what they did is directly responsible for producing the specific result they say it did, and not some other result, or perhaps even no result. And that’s a big “if”.
More, And Less, Than A Number
Practice is no doubt a critical subject for musicians who are still building their core technique. And players are understandably concerned about what kind, and how much of it, they should be doing. But when we look at the kind of diverse early-age exploration typically performed by virtuoso players, boiling that down to a number is problematic at best. And jumping on that number as an incontrovertible benchmark of what you yourself should be doing is even less advisable.
It’s hard to know what sort of specific activity, or mix of activities, that number would represent. And it’s dicey to infer causal effects of that activity on arbitrarily chosen aspects of the adult player’s current technique. For all we know, they could have had that technique in place from the beginning, the way Andy did.
And lastly, realize that you probably have more information available to you now than any of the greats that came before us had available to them. A good portion of the mythical multi-hour practice time commitment we hear variously yet frequently quoted may very well turn out to be accounted for by all the trial and error that used to be necessary — the price of living in an age when you still had to figure out basic technique on your own.
I don’t know about you, but to me there’s nothing romantic about being forced to reinvent the wheel. I’d gladly trade in the eight hours of practice for a good one or two of enjoying music the bedroom shredder way. And I’m no longer ashamed to say that!