About Deliberate Practice in Music

You may be putting in the practice hours, but are you getting the results that your hard work deserves? In this episode, we take a look at the concepts of deliberate practice and purposeful practice, and how to integrate the two in order to make the most out of your practice time.

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Have you ever felt frustrated or disappointed by the results you get from your music practice? Like you’re just not making the progress you feel you should, for the time and effort you’re putting in?

What if there was a way to get dramatically better results without spending dramatically more time?

The answer is what has become the “gold standard” for how to acquire skills quickly: deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is a particular way of spending your practice time which can be applied to almost any skill. It applies in fields as varied as medicine, sports, and of course music.

It was developed by Professor Anders Ericsson who we spoke with on our last episode, in collaboration with his research team over the years, and has become a universally respected model for how we should think about getting the most from our practice time.

There are a number of aspects to deliberate practice which we’ll be talking about but if I had to sum it up in a nutshell it would be: practice the hard things. Of course by definition that’s going to require more effort from you, but this change alone can transform the results you get from your music practice.

The biggest cause of wasted practice time is that we fall into the bad habit of letting practicing really just be “playing”. Meaning we have our agenda of what we’ll work on in each practice session but those are actually just things you intend to play through, generally several times in a row. Unless you are in a lesson with a teacher the chances are you play, you make mistakes, there’s plenty of room for improvement – but then you just play the same thing again or move on to the next item.

Playing is not practicing. And it’s certainly not deliberate practice.

There’s a fantastic example of this given in Professor Ericsson’s book Peak. Once you reach a satisfactory level of driving ability, your skills typically don’t improve beyond that, no matter how many years or decades you drive for. The average 20-something is going to make as many mistakes and have the same chances of being in an accident as the average 50-something driver – even though one has spent 30 years more driving each day. The reason is that repetition by itself does not lead to improvement.

So those hours spent with your instrument in hand will not necessarily produce any improvement at all. That’s why it’s essential to really think about how you’re spending that practice time and make sure it’s practicing, not just playing.

So the quick description I like to give of deliberate practice is that you spend most of your time working on just the things that you can’t yet do and a minimal amount of time doing the things that you can already do. So supposing you have a 2-minute piece you’re working on. Typical practice habits would mean you play through the piece a few times. Deliberate practice looks more like: play through the piece, notice a few sticking points where you aren’t quite playing it correctly or fluidly enough, then spending a few minutes just practicing that first particular bar or two that was problematic, trying different approaches to fingering or phrasing, slowing it down, picking it apart, and really just drilling into that problem spot. Then once you feel like you’ve found a solution or practiced that spot to the point where it’s more fluid, you move on to the next problem spot. 90% of your time is spent on the 10% of the piece that causes you the most trouble.

To pick another common example, often musicians will have a set of scales they’re working on. Every practice session they play through every scale. Often there are one or two tricky ones and the rest are okay. Instead of playing all the scales equally each practice session, a musician using the deliberate practice mindset would instead spend all their scale practice time on just those one or two scales they know are causing them the most challenge. Or even just the particular note or two or the fingering that they know is the problem spot.

I’ve been talking so far about instrument technique because this is traditionally how most musicians spend most of their practice time. Scales, exercises and repertoire on the instrument. But this all applies fully to the “inner skills” and ear training we talk about so much here on the Musicality Podcast too. For example, supposing you’re learning to recognise different types of chord by ear. You’ve got the hang of major and minor chords but you know you mix up augmented and diminished. The naive approach to practicing would be to continue to do exercises which feature all four triad types, so that probably about half the questions you do will feature major and minor chords. You’re wasting half your time! Instead you need to focus in on the chords which really trip you up. If you confuse minor with diminished, spend your time practicing just those comparisons. This is a big part of why we always talk about the flexibility of our training system at Musical U, because you need that flexibility in which aspect of which topics you spend your time on if you’re going to maximise the results you get from your time and effort.

So far what I’ve been talking about is actually not quite deliberate practice. It’s what’s called Purposeful Practice. And it’s a lot better than the standard, naive, purely-repetitive practice approach. There are a few factors that set it apart.

The first is that purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals – meaning when you spend time working on a piece there’s a particular problem you’re trying to solve, or a particular aspect of how you play it that you want to improve in a particular way. It’s a provable thing, not just “play this piece well” but something more like “Play this piece at full tempo without playing any wrong notes.”

Purposeful practice is also focused. Often during music practice our minds will wander. Have you ever realised after a practice session that you’ve essentially autopiloted your way right through it? You’ve gone through the motions but what you were doing wasn’t even practice, let alone purposeful practice. So you need to stay focused. This makes it hard! Like I said at the start about this being about working on the hard things, focused practice is tiring! Especially compared to the semi-braindead autopilot repetition style of so-called practicing. You’re going to be tired after a purposeful practice session – and that’s a good thing!

Purposeful practice requires feedback. You need to be doing something where you can tell if you’re getting it right or wrong, if you’re improving or not. If you’re doing ear training exercises like we provide at Musical U that’s simple enough, you can do interactive quizzes and get immediate, clear feedback. When working on instrument technique it can be less clear-cut, but if you feel like you don’t have clear feedback on how your practice is going, that can be a good sign that you don’t have specific well-defined goals.

And finally, purposeful practice means getting out of your comfort zone. You could construct well-defined, specific goals, focus in on them and get feedback – but for a skill or activity that you can already do easily! So you should be selecting the targets of your purposeful practice to really push your ability. If you can currently play the first half of a piece but not the second, it means not playing through the first half every time you try to play the second half, but just really spending your time on the part you find hard.

If you can already play a whole piece well then it probably means trying to push a particular part from “okay” to “excellent” – or moving your attention to another piece. This is a really common one in fact, where a musician preparing three pieces for an exam will divide their practice time equally across the three, even if it’s only one that they’re really struggling with and need to improve!

If you’ve mastered recognising 1-4-5 chord progressions by ear then it means moving on to songs which involve other chords too, rather than continuing to practice with more songs that are just 1-4-5s. If you’ve realised that rhythm is your weak point that holds you back from collaborating with other musicians even though your rhythm seems good enough when you just play a piece solo – well then, it means working on tightening up your rhythm skills.

Okay, so that’s purposeful practice. We’re going to set specific, well-defined goals that push us beyond our comfort zone, focus our attention on them during practice, and make sure we have clear, immediate feedback on how the practicing is going.

Now I said that this wasn’t quite that gold standard of “Deliberate Practice” yet. So what’s missing? What could we add to this which would transform it to be even more effective?

Well, what we’ve laid out is clearly a recipe for making sure that the work you do, by yourself, on a skill you want to develop, will be time and effort well spent. But in a lot of fields, including instrument technique and musicality training, there’s actually a ton of knowledge out there about what you should be aiming for and how to get there.

So instead of burying yourself away and trying to figure it all out through sheer force of effort, why not leverage all of that accumulated knowledge gained by others who’ve done it before you?

Deliberate practice builds on purposeful practice in two ways. The first is to recognise that for some fields, including music, there’s a clear track record of individuals achieving expert performance – an objectively higher level of skill than others. You can compare your current skills with a clear target level you’re trying to accomplish. And the second is that there are teachers available who can provide input that streamlines and accelerates the progress you make with your purposeful practice. Their input can let you shortcut the learning process compared with trying to figure it all out yourself.

For example: If you want to learn to recognise notes by ear so that you can play melodies on your instrument without needing sheet music. There is a “brute force” way to do this, where you just try and try and try again, trial-and-error, making up your own examples. With purposeful practice you will make some progress. But what if instead you did a little research, discovered there was a method called “solfa” that provides a clear framework for learning this skill? That there are specific advantages it gives you and that there are clear steps for learning to use it? What if you sought out online training or an in-person teacher to help you learn solfa? Guess what – you’re going to learn to play by ear in a fraction of the time it would have taken you trying to figure it out by yourself, even if you were applying the principles of purposeful practice rather than naive repetition.

So deliberate practice is about leveraging what we as a culture already know about learning a particular skill efficiently, and takes advantage of personal input and guidance. Clearly this is why instrument learning has always primarily been done with in-person lessons with a teacher. I think a lot of us have forgotten that a bit in today’s self-serve internet age with all the tutorials and courses available online. Those let you leverage society’s knowledge but you’re missing that crucial personal input that can save you wasted time experimenting with various approaches to find a solution by just providing you with the most relevant and effective tried-and-tested solutions for any given problem you encounter.

That’s why we built unlimited personal support and guidance into Musical U – because we’d seen firsthand how even the best ear training resources kept failing students because however purposeful their practice might be, it was just too much trial and error and too much pressure on the student themselves to figure out how to get past sticking points. Things got so much simpler and more enjoyable for our students once we brought all the training into an environment where we could provide that personal support and guidance – answering questions, giving advice, helping them keep moving forwards. Have you ever gone through that yourself, where you’re working on an app or a course and you hit a sticking point and it just feels like you’re banging your head against a wall for ages trying to get past it? Having the personal input from an experienced teacher can help you leap every hurdle right away, instead of stumbling around blindly in the dark.

So those are the principles of Purposeful Practice and Deliberate Practice. Let’s run through them again, and as I do I’d like you to ask yourself which of these you’re successfully using already in your music practice, and which you could usefully add to accelerate your progress.

Purposeful Practice means:

  • Setting specific, well-defined goals.
  • Choosing goals and activities that push us beyond our comfort zone.
  • Focusing our attention on those goals during practice, and
  • Making sure we have clear, immediate feedback during practice.

Deliberate Practice has two additional characteristics:

  • You take advantage of the existing knowledge about how the target skill is best learned, and
  • You get specific personal guidance from a teacher who is experienced in helping people like you learn a skill like this.

Now that we’ve talked through how the traditional naive, blindly-repetitive practice compares to purposeful practice and deliberate practice I know you’re going to see each practice session in a new light. You can go further with a short amount of time spent 100% focused on deliberate practice than vastly more time spent unwisely doing autopilot playing that only mimics true practice. That means making a lot more progress from the same amount of time spent practicing. So if you’ve ever felt frustrated or disappointed by the progress you’ve made with your practice, take some of these ideas and start applying them, for your instrument technique and your musicality training today!

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