The Importance of Deliberate Practice

Humans practice to improve skills and gain expertise, but how we practice is as important as the practice itself. Practising the right way can mean the difference between good and great. So how much practice should we do?

“Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in two hours.” – Leopold Auer

For some string players in their early years of development, practice can be overwhelming. The process is often rushed with the furious flapping of fingers up and down the violin while intently staring at tiny black dots. Scales, exercises and pieces of music are played with great intention. The clock is set and the countdown begins. First there is the technique which consists of 10 minutes of scales and exercises. The next 20 minutes is the ‘fun part’ as the student plays through pieces, generally from start to finish, avoiding anything other than a cursory glance at the difficult sections. Thirty minutes and the practice is done, the violin is packed away and the student is satisfied (for now).

The next practice (probably not the next day) mimics the last and after a week some students seems to have made little if any progress, leaving them feeling frustrated and perplexed. Why are the same mistakes occurring if the student has dutifully completed three or four practices in a week?

Research indicates this type of practice could be a waste of time and may only improve the undesirable habits already in existence and potentially create more. Whilst the motions of practice have undeniably been put into place it lacks focus, the key element of deliberate practice and therefore the difference between a good practice and a great practice. Of course, schools with good music programs understand that the links to deliberate practice and the habits discussed in lessons and implemented at home have marked benefits to all learning.

Without focus the student is spending more time on the same thing with little or no result. This is the type of mindless practice Leopold Auer was referring to in the opening quote. His student, Nathan Milstein was confused at how much time other students were spending on their practice and he became concerned that he was not doing enough. “The right kind of practice is not a matter of hours. Practice should represent the utmost concentration of brain. It is better to play with concentration for two hours than to practice eight without. I should say that four hours would be a good maximum practice time –I never ask more of my pupils–and that during each minute of the time the brain be as active as the fingers.”

Auer is not unique in his thinking. According to K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and scientific researcher from Florida State University, it is not the time you spend on developing your skill but it is the way you spend your time. “When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.” Ericsson explains that an expert is not someone born with innate talent but rather someone who “reflects a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific way.”[1]

Students learning the Suzuki Method are exposed to this type of training from their very first lesson. Dr Shinichi Suzuki was a humanitarian, an educator of children and the founder of the worldwide education movement.

 “Music ability is not an inborn talent but an ability which can be developed. Any child who is properly trained can develop music ability just as all children develop the ability to speak their mother tongue. The potential of every child is unlimited.”
Dr Suzuki, Nurtured by Love, Alfred Music; 2 edition (June 1, 1993)

Although his philosophy is related to the development of the whole child rather than just the development of their violin skills, Dr Suzuki’s method reflects key components of deliberate practice – constant feedback (and encouragement from the parent), high repetition, numerous opportunities to perform and the utmost attention to detail in each daily practice. Every piece is broken down into separate left and right hand practice. Through this method, there are many students who have indeed become experts in the art of playing violin. Admittedly not all students have this desire, but it may be that some students (and families) think that they are incapable of reaching such an elite level because they do not have the belief that they can attain the necessary skills within the time available, or that ‘they are not a musical family’.

Deliberate practice has been used in a wide range of disciplines –from musicians and athletes to CEOs and chess grandmasters. In the abovementioned article, Anders Ericsson refers to a novice golf player who, after the initial stages of learning, focusses his energy on the basic strokes. This continues for some time with an obvious marked improvement from the initial onset of learning but now the shots have become more intuitive and three hundred golf balls later the golf player has plateaued. According to two psychologists in the 1960s, Paul Fitts and Michael Posne, this is the third stage of acquiring a new skill. This stage is experienced by all of us and for some probably more than once.

Fitts and Posne suggest the first stage of skill acquisition is cognitive – where we put great amounts of energy and focus into what we are doing. It is exciting because like our golfer we can see instant improvement in our new skill but it is also full of mistakes. The second stage is termed the associative stage. We begin to enjoy what we are doing and find there are less mistakes in the process. Finally we have the autonomous or intuitive stage, where we are comfortable with our skill and slide into auto pilot mode. This is where we left our golfer in the example above – after 300 golf balls there was no thought or focus to push for the next level or to better the handicap.

However what if there was a chance to replay a shot over and over again, exactly the same shot, and get instant feedback after each try. There would be renewed energy and an incentive to try again, to better the handicap, to drive a ball further, to have set goals with designed focus and perhaps encourage friends to strive further to improve their own abilities.

It has been acknowledged that instant feedback is an essential component of deliberate practice. It prevents the same (unintentional) mistake from being automatically practiced again. So how is the furiously finger flapping violin student able to obtain this in weekly practice? Instant feedback given by a teacher or mentor after each practice session is obviously not practical, however having the student videoing a part of their practice is certainly viable.

The Music Department at St Catherine’s School prides itself on its collegiate approach to the delivery of a sequential program, tailored to the individual needs of students. Staff constantly consult with each other to keep refining successful teaching techniques. We are able to embrace the best from the past and the wonderful legacy of Music Literature that exists from the last 1000 years, as well as Contemporary music (both Popular and Art) and the most up-to-date technologies that support learning. The marrying of existing knowledge, knowing how our subject fits within the School, its wider educational goals and the constant discussion and embracing of new innovations are of benefit to staff and students alike.

Today, we have technology at our fingertips. There are programs specifically designed to provide instant feedback to Music students and teachers are able to set certain parts of a piece for the student to practice.

In the application SmartMusic, which we have been trialling at St Catherine’s, students view a music piece on their PC and play along with it. Notes incorrectly played are automatically highlighted providing the student an immediate indication of what they need to work on. They are also able to send the recording back for appraisal between lessons.

Encouraging a student to take advantage of this type of tool has seen them more determined and motivated about the way they practice and it has allowed the student time to reflect on their own performance. In violins lessons for example they now see and hear why a shift in the left hand did not work. Perhaps they will recall their teacher explaining the process for correct shifting, the importance of the correct left hand position and the reason for moving on the existing finger already in place.

It is essential that the music is broken down into manageable pieces but first the aim of the goal needs to be identified. Then the problem needs to be defined:

  • Analyse the problem – what do I want this note to sound like?
  • Identify potential solutions – what is causing the note to sound like this?
  • Test the different solutions – what differences can I do to make it sound better?
  • Implement the best solution and reinforce the change to make it permanent – which one works the best for me?
  • Monitor implementation – does the change continue to produce the result I am looking for?

My advice is practice smart, not hard. This is mentally demanding because all the concentration is on weaknesses instead of strengths. However, there is no point in pursuing something in a practice session if it is not working no matter how focussed you are. Sometimes you need to stop and move to something else or just walk away.

Plan the practise and write down the expectations for the current session. It is always good to visualise a plan as it makes it more tangible. Decide whether the practice will be on phrasing, string crossing, shifting, vibrato or articulation. As practise becomes more mindful this process will seem less daunting. Practise at a time when energy and focus are at their peak. Keep the practice an appropriate length for the age and stage of the student.

In essence, deliberate practice can be used in any field. It is designed to improve performance and to stretch abilities. In our ever developing fast paced society, time is a luxury and our most valuable commodity. It does not matter if we are discussing perfecting violin technique or improving your game of golf. If you are going to practice anything and make it count, then you may as well do it properly.

[1] The Making of an Expert, K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula and Edward T. Cokely, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2007 Issue

Mrs Lisa Cook

Music Teacher

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