Applying the 80/20 Principle to Practice

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There is a concept that has been used for a couple hundred years in a variety of fields (Italian real estate ownership, pea plant production, software efficiency, etc.) called a variety of names (Pareto Principle, The Law of the Vital Few, the 80/20 principle, etc.) which we can use to get the most out of our practice time.

The general idea is that the fastest way for us to progress in learning music is to spend the majority of our time working on the things that don’t sound very good. Ideally, we should spend 80% of our practice time on the 20% of our playing that is the weakest. If we do, we will make enormous strides in our development, whether beginner or professional.

The most difficult part of accepting this is that it means that 80% of the time, we’re going to sound ROTTEN! This is because we are addressing the problems that need to be addressed rather than playing the things we can already play. To avoid getting frustrated, spend the remaining 20% of your practice time playing things just for fun.

To reiterate, you should ABSOLUTELY set aside time to play for the sheer enjoyment of playing. Play your favorite solos, show off, noodle around, improvise, and play along with your favorite tunes. Get together with friends and jam; use your computer to create your own music. HAVE FUN! This is the reward for your hard work, the dessert at the end of your nutritious meal.

In fact, if you take the 80/20 principle seriously, you’ll have plenty of time for doing the fun stuff!


Digging Deeper: The Problem with the Problem (PWP)

In order to know where to put that 80% effort, we need to do a little digging. Sometimes we know the specific sections we need to practice but find ourselves unable to fix the problem. We apply the steps in the “HOW” section but it doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. There is another question (like “And then what?) to ask: What is the Problem With the Problem (PWP)? This is the SPECIFIC part of the passage that is causing the problem.  In other words, is the PWP a rhythm problem? Fingerings? Breath control? Hearing the melody? Accurate intervals?

Find the PWP and you’ll find the solution.


Bonus Technique: The Bracket Method

The method we are about to explore is a very no-nonsense approach. It is the most efficient way that I have found to fix what needs to be fixed in as little time as possible. I have used this method for years and it has been effective for both me and for my students. The reason I call it “The Bracket Method” will quickly become apparent. This method is the keystone of figuring out WHAT in your assigned or chosen music to practice. Ignore at your own peril. Your mileage may vary. No animals were harmed in the development of this method.

For each piece, you will follow the same steps. I predict you will (in most cases) find about 20% of your music (or less!) is causing you some difficulty at any given time (remember Pareto?). Once we have identified this 20%, your marching orders will be crystal clear.


STEP 1. Read through the piece, from beginning to end, at as close to the indicated tempo as possible, no stopping. Do this to get a “lay of the land.” Too often we simply start at the beginning and stop every time we hear a problem, rather than making a plan to fix what needs to be fixed. This is one of the reasons so many players are great at the first third of a piece but slowly fall apart by the end.

STEP 2. Read through the piece again, pencil in hand. Each time you get to a trouble spot, put a bracket just to the left of the beginning of the spot. Figure out where the rough passage ends and place another bracket to the right of that spot. Bracket method.

STEP 3. Look ONLY at the bracketed sections and erase any that occur multiple times.

STEP 4. Determine the problem with the passage. In other words, is it a counting problem, an inability to hear and/or play the intervals, a tricky technical challenge? If you really want to get specific, you can label the sections R for rhythm, I for interval, T for technique, etc. Be as specific as possible.

STEP 5. Set a S.M.A.R.T. goal for each piece or passage (depending on the number of spots or their length and complexity).


Your turn!!!

List the pieces you are currently working on. Apply the bracket method to the pieces.

Once you are clear on the WHAT in your music that you need to improve, create S.M.A.R.T. goals for them. You can decide whether you need to create goals based on each piece (SOLO PIECE NUMBER ONE) or on the type of piece (ENSEMBLE MUSIC) based on how many passages need to be fixed.



Hopefully, you can see that the point of this is not to avoid practice but to maximize your efforts. Getting better allows us to play more challenging music. It allows us to communicate the musical ideas we have inside us so we can reach other people with our music. I don’t enjoy wasting time when I practice. It’s frustrating. I want to encourage you to do some work to uncover the key aspects of your playing (both in terms of your physical abilities and your musical difficulties) which will have the most powerful impact on your progress. Find the 20% that will give you the most bang for your buck and schedule your 80% right now!

And then go eat your peas.


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