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The Leaky Bucket: Consistency in Practice


To best understand the relationship between the amount of time spent practicing and the commensurate results, it is essential to consider the role which retention plays. Too often we view practicing as a linear endeavor, expecting that once we’ve completed a task or achieved a goal that we’re done with said goal forever. However, productive musical study necessitates that we don’t take retention for granted.

I find the analogy of a leaking bucket to be perfectly representative of the mechanics of retention in our practice. If you want to fill a bucket with a slow leak, this is a 100% attainable goal so long as the rate at which you add to the bucket exceeds the rate of the leak. The moment we stop adding to the bucket, the water level not only ceases its rise, but begins to fall. When we resume filling the bucket, we find that we have to make up for the loss before we can accomplish any new gains: we must redo the work we’ve already done, which is a significant frustration for adults, and an even bigger one for children.

When I recently shared this analogy with a student, I wondered after their lesson what the actual mathematics of this looked like. So, as a self-admitted geek, I made a spreadsheet! The numbers spoke - and loudly.

I decided to compare different rates of water contribution over the course of a month, assuming that our bucket leaks at a constant rate of 1 cup a day. By contributing only 1 cup of water a day to our bucket (or, similarly, by adding 2 cups of water every other day), we are exactly where we began at the beginning of the month - our bucket is empty. While this is obvious, the takeaway is vital - if the contribution doesn’t exceed the rate of the leak, we are simply treading water (pun very much intended). There is a concrete minimum level of commitment required to make your practice productive.

What was especially interesting to me was the degree of improvement based on an increase in contribution. If we add 1½ cups of water to our bucket every day, at the end of the month, our bucket now holds a total of 14½ cups of water. By adding 2 cups of water every day, the bucket would hold a total of 29 cups of water by the end of the month. The outcome that struck me most was that a 33% increase in effort (from 1.5 cups daily vs. 2 cups daily) led to a 100% increase in result (14.5 cups at the end of the month vs. 29 cups).

I typically advise my younger students to practice for at least the length of their lesson on a daily basis. This recommendation is roughly the equivalent of adding 1.5 cups of water per day: enough to support steady, continued progress without being unrealistically demanding of either the student’s endurance or the family’s schedule. But as I have just illustrated, practicing less than this (either in duration or frequency) doesn’t equate to just a slower rate of progress - it can very quickly lead to no progress at all, or worse, regression.

For the child who practices some, but not enough to surpass their rate of “retention leak”, the entire endeavor quickly becomes demoralizing when this child fails to grasp why their efforts are resulting in minimal gains, or even losses. If we don’t acknowledge this reality, we set ourselves up for disappointment and a negatively skewed sense of our actual ability. The good news is that success may be closer than you think! If your child’s practice duration/frequency are on the edge of their “break-even point”, even a slightly improved practice routine can result in significantly improved outcomes.

We invite you to participate in our school-wide 50-Day Practice Challenge with the hope that it will serve as a vehicle for you and your children to surprise yourselves by what gains are truly possible with 50 days of steady, thoughtful practice.

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