What is Deliberate Practice?

It is not simply playing a piece that you are learning a few times through from start to finish. Nor is it “doing your scales” or Hanon exercises in a mechanical manner. They are both practice of a sort, and both may have benefits, but they are not the special kind of practice that we call “Deliberate Practice”.

1. It must be designed specifically to improve performance
More precisely it must be designed or chosen especially for the person doing it … taking account of their personal strengths and weaknesses and present level or stage of development. This will usually need the assistance of a teacher or coach, as few learners can properly assess what they most need to learn or improve.

2. It must be repeatable
Once the activity can be performed well it needs to be repeated as exactly as possible to “Burn in” the skill into the nervous system.

This explains why for example, in sports, simply playing the game is a slow and inefficient way to learn. The opportunity to use a skill in the context of a real game may come along only rarely, so it is never properly mastered.

3. There must be continuous feedback on the results
You may remember the days of film photography. After taking a photograph you would have to wait weeks to find out that the background was in focus, but the person in the foreground wasn’t, or that they have a tree growing out of their head. But by then there is probably no opportunity to go back and try again. With a digital camera you can review the results and correct the framing, or focus, or exposure there and then.

So music lends itself well to deliberate practice. As soon as you play a note you hear it. What feedback could be more immediate? And even if you find it hard to pay enough attention to the sound, while you are occupied with controlling your hands, you can record yourself and hear it within minutes.

You can also get feedback in lessons or coaching sessions. A good teacher will not only hear the result of your efforts, but guide you in making the correct adjustments to get the result for which you are aiming

4. It is highly demanding
It forces you to make an effort, to give it maximum attention, focus, concentration. We have a natural resistance to mental effort. It is so much easier to simply to repeat something that we can already do well. But it is more important to push at the edges of your ability, and expand your capability with demanding exercises.

Most writers on the subject add a fifth: It is not much fun, but I have to disagree with that. I’d go further, it is a counter-productive attitude. Much better to adopt the sort of practice that works, and learn to enjoy it.

We should note that what the actual activities are is left completely open. For example, It does not require you to work always at short sections of a piece. So long as an activity is designed for some specific purpose, is repeatable, gives rapid feedback, and requires intense effort, then it is deliberate practice.

There have been many studies in such diverse areas as Skating, Wrestling, Scientific discovery, Trading stocks and shares, Chess and Music … amongst others. I recommend the 1996 book:

The Road to Excellence by K. Anders Andersson

as an introduction to the ideas of deliberate practice, and the lesser importance of “talent”. You can then read

Geoff Colvin’s 2008 book Talent is Overrated,

and former table-tennis champion

Matthew Syed’s Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice (2010)

Unfortunately not. As a pianist you still need to spend time playing over works in your repertoire so as not to forget them, time exploring new music and listening to other performances. You need to study the scores away from the piano to understand the structure of the music, and its harmonies, development of themes, methods of creating different moods …

And then there is a place for simply playing for enjoyment, even if it does not do much for improving your skill.

Which all leaves the question, does it take 10,000 hours in total to reach an expert level, or does it take 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, and many more hours of other things?

And what role, if any, does talent play in all this? We’ll look at those questions in a later blog.


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