What is Wrong With Deliberate Practice?

You would be excused for thinking that I am a fan of  ‘Deliberate Practice’ and that I recommend it for the majority of your practice time.  I am not, and I do not.  Of course it has its place, and is effective, but to me it smells too much of Pavlov’s methods of creating conditioned reflexes.

The essence of deliberate practice, as applied to piano technique is that by performing precise movements we create useful pathways, and that by repeating exactly the same movements, several times in rapid succession we strengthen the new reflexes.

I am not disputing that we need to create some automatic (or at least semi-automatic) patterns of movement, because it just is not possible to consciously control every detail of all the movements that your fingers, hands and arms have to make when playing quickly.  Nor do I doubt that ‘Deliberate Practice’ is one effective way of developing those conditioned reflexes.  But there has to be more to it than that. There are many aspects of learning to make music at the piano that it does not explain. In particular, some of the improvements that take place between practise sessions, or even in the absence of any practice, do not sit well with a naive or simple understanding of “Deliberate Practice”. I will look at just three things that ‘Deliberate Practice’ does not easily explain:

If it were true that drill improved only exactly what you practice and repeat then we would expect to have to revisit the music that we already know to improve it. But that is not how it works at all. I expect most of my readers have learned to play a new piece well, and have then found that everything they know has, almost magically, improved as well.

This suggests that there is an intelligent structure to the nervous sequences that control our movements. The analogy with a computer program and its subroutines helps here. It is as if basic movement patterns, the kinds used in many pieces, are stored once only and are not built into each remembered piece of music. I suspect that there is a hierarchy of them. When you play a piece it is like running through a master control program that calls the right subroutines to direct the arms, hands and fingers. So when, through practicing a new piece, you improve or replace a “subroutine”  the improvement (or new version) becomes available to everything that you know with no further effort.

This analogy is speculative, but it fits the facts, and is a useful model for thinking about physical skills and co-ordination.

There is an incorrect saying “Practice Makes Perfect”. The sports coach Gary Gelwix came up with a smart-alec variation on it: “Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent”. It sounds clever, but it too is wrong, at least for some people. My insight into this came not through teaching piano playing but through my experiences as a swimming teacher and coach.

Given a bunch of young swimmers with a variety of stroke defects I noticed that many of them seemed stuck, and the more they swam with their inferior strokes the more entrenched their mistakes became. To break the habits and develop good stroke mechanics they needed a lot of instruction, a lot of well-designed exercises, and to stop swimming in the incorrect way until the new techniques were well established.  Many beliefs about teaching seem to assume that this is true of all learners. But it is not.

The interesting thing is that many of the children, with equally bad defects, gradually eliminated them as they swam length after length of conditioning training, with no instruction whatsoever, and without making any conscious efforts to improve their technique. Somehow without being consciously aware of how, they eliminated major defects and refined what was already good.

I cannot explain how or why that happens. If I had the outlook of a research scientist I would be trying to find out what is going on. Do they have superior kinesthetic sense, are they better observers of more skilful swimmers, or what? As it is I tried to quickly find which group anyone fell into. The “naturals” I just gave sets of speed and conditioning work to get on with. The others I forbade to swim distances or repeats or other conditioning work in the pool, and put through an intensive course of deliberate stroke improvement.

We can apply the same approach to music students.

This is the strangest thing of all. I have often noticed that after a break from practising, when I return to the piano everything is better: accuracy, variety of touch, solidity of memory, control of tempo, all-out speed and more. Perhaps this only happens if the break is preceded by a period of intensive practice, much of it of the “Deliberate” kind, but I know of no research that would confirm or refute that idea.

The important thing that these kinds of observation tell us is that there is much more to acquiring a complex skill like piano playing than reinforcing correct neural pathways through repeated activation. The mind/brain, working outside of our conscious observation, somehow knows what to ignore and allow to fade away,and what to strengthen and integrate into our overall technique.

And there is something else, even more important:

I believe Ericsson and his supporters are simply wrong to say of any exercise that to qualify as Deliberate Practice it must not be inherently enjoyable. I believe that a big difference between people who develop high levels of skill and those that do not is that they are capable of enjoying the detailed, disciplined, repetitive work that Ericsson believes we would all find irksome.

Nevertheless, if it was the only sort of work that I did I would have given up the study of piano long ago. It is fun to rattle through a piece at speed, learn to play it in half a dozen different ways – some of them outrageous, to attempt it at breakneck speed, as well as impossibly slowly, to improvise or doodle at the keyboard, to make trial performances.

Many teachers think that some of these things are damaging, that they might even introduce errors and make them permanent and ineradicable. I disagree. The human mind/brain is not so stupid. The subconscious extracts many lessons from these other activities, and because they are inherently enjoyable they make it possible to continue to work at our piano skills for the many years that are necessary to reach a high level.

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