In Part 1, I discussed performance guru Geoff Colvin’s assertion that superior performance is associated with “deliberate practice.” In this post I’ll consider how a pianist (indeed, any musician) can change his or her practice habits so they more closely resemble “deliberate practice.”
Cultivating the Five Aspects of Deliberate Practice
A deliberate practice regimen is preferably designed by someone with extensive experience. For most musicians and music students, this means, or at least should involve, one’s music teacher(s). In my experience, though, many music teachers assume that their students know everything they need to about how to practice. Most musicians can profit from feedback on how to better design their practice regimen.
Recommendation: If your teacher has rarely or never talked to you about your practice habits and regimen, ask them for feedback about this.
Deliberate practice involves a tremendous amount of repetition. Colvin gives the example of baseball player Ted Williams, who was known to practice until his hands bled. Of course, both musicians and athletes are wise to listen to their body to avoid injuries. We don’t want to be bleeding all over the piano! That said, many newbie musicians think that just because they can play a passage correctly means that it’s okay to stop practicing it. The importance of repetition is a useful reminder for pianists of any skill level.
Recommendation: Consider how you can improve your learning and performance of a scale or passage via repetition. You might also ask your teacher if you are applying repetition effectively in your practicing.
A critical aspect of deliberate practice is that feedback – preferably immediate feedback – is continuously available. A baseball player practicing with their teammates or coach may be more fortunate in this regard. Most pianists spend their practice time alone, without immediate feedback from others, and (obviously) can’t afford to hire their teacher as a practice coach.
Recommendation: Ask a more advanced player to “coach” and give you feedback as you practice. Record yourself regularly while practicing and listen back with a critical ear. It can be easier to generate useful and objective feedback when you are not playing. Be sure to judge your musical results against the standard of your ultimate goal – and stretch yourself! Take responsibility for your musical results rather than chalking poor results up to random errors. Finally, fine-tune your practice regimen to improve your results.
Deliberate practice requires a demanding degree of concentration.
Recommendation: Consider how mentally challenged or even exhausted you are from a practice session. Of course it’s important to stay in balance. You may end a practice session without having genuinely challenged yourself mentally, in which case you may need to practice even more intensively. On the other hand, you may find that you are often exhausted towards the end of a practice session and only stop when you find yourself making mistakes. Of course, mistakes are a waste of time, so in this case you may need to reduce the length of your practice sessions in order to avoid mental exhaustion that leads to “unforced errors.”
According to Colvin, deliberate practice simply isn’t fun.
Recommendation: Particularly if you have professional-level musical goals, consider if you are pushing yourself in your practicing enough. While practicing shouldn’t be a horrible chore – otherwise why bother with music? – it is true that the kind of practicing that leads to virtuosic performance, which usually involves repetitious playing of brief passages, will generally be less fun rather than playing an entire piece over and over, which is the default habit of too many musicians.
By cultivating these five aspects of deliberate practice you may find that your practice sessions become more effective and efficient, and lead to superior results. Happy practicing!