Supercharge your Practice Using the Pareto Principle

By Hans Jørgen Jensen


Understanding and using the Pareto Principle will take your practicing to higher levels of enjoyment and effectiveness!

The Pareto principle states that for many outcomes, approximately 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. In 1906 the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered that 20% of the Italian population owned 80% of the nation’s wealth. He developed the principle by first observing that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas.

This principle has been proven over and over in a variety of applications to hold a universal truth. It can be applied in several ways toward practicing a musical instrument or to studying and gaining new knowledge.

Since we all have limited time, we must spend our most productive time on the 20% of tasks that really matter. With this in mind, find the 20% of a piece or a movement that is the most difficult and dedicate 80% of your time to that.

Of course, the 20/80 rule might not always represent exactly the right ratio between what is hard and what is not hard, but the Pareto principle should remind us to focus our energy on the smaller part of a work that contains the real difficulties. It’s not just important to “work hard” and “work smart,” but also to work smart on the right things.

Applying the Pareto principle to your own practice

Step 1: Identify the 20% of the work that is most difficult

One Complete Work or Movement

If your music is on an iPad, mark all the difficult parts with one color. If you are using sheet music, make a copy of the music, put it in a folder or binder, and label or mark the most difficult parts with a pencil.

When learning a new work, it is important to play it through several times to get a feeling for the whole work. However, when starting to learn the work in more detail, spend 80% of your practice time dedicated to the 20% of the work that contains the most difficult passages.

Step 2: Identify the real problem inside the problem

When analyzing each problem spot before practicing, try to do what violinist and pedagogue Ivan Galamian so famously suggested in his book Principles of Violin Playing:

“Whenever technical problems are encountered, they must be analyzed to determine the nature of the difficulty. Intonation, shifting, rhythm, speed of a particular bowing, the coordination of the hands, and so on, or a combination of several of these. Each difficulty should be isolated and reduced to its simplest terms so that it will be easy to devise and apply a practice procedure for it.”

It is very seldom that more than 20% of a hard passage is the “real problem” and it is very common to see students practice the hard spot over and over, week after week, without ever identifying the exact nature of the problem or coming up with the reason behind it or the solution to it. Having a few unsolved problems inside a harder passage can often be the obstacle that makes the whole passage seem insurmountable.

Conquer the most difficult passages

  1. Make a list of all the hard parts
  2. Determine the reason behind each problem
  3. Come up with a solution to each problem
  4. Rank the hard parts and start with the most difficult passage when you are the most focused

Pareto principle is at its best when learning a new work

For most people, the Pareto principle might be better applied to the early learning stages of a new work. Part of this early practice stage should also be directed towards the overall artistic concepts; as you get closer to the concert, more time should be directed toward playing and performing the whole work through. However, even close to the performance date, it is still important to delegate more time to the most difficult spots of a work.

Don’t avoid practicing the things that you are not good at

“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” – Henry Ford

Over the years I have seen a lot of people who practice a lot but spend most of their time practicing things that they are already very good at. It is hard to push yourself to tackle the things that are difficult. But to really make big improvements, spend your practice time in the most efficient way by focusing on the 20% of the most difficult passages and problem spots.

Disadvantage: it doesn’t always apply

Don’t take the 20/80 too literally. It can be 30/70 or even a smaller number. The important thing is to isolate the difficult parts and get started right away with those parts when learning a new work. The big take away from using the 20/80 Pareto principle is that by first focusing a lot on the hard parts, the whole work becomes very balanced in the end, and everything is equally good. Incorporate this effective method today and take your practicing to the next level!