Implementing "Deliberate Practice"

Next year the term "deliberate practice" will be twenty years old; in that time it has gradually moved out of the academic world and become a phrase uttered in hushed tones in musical, sporting and other spheres. What does it mean and how can we use it?

To give a general idea of the point of deliberate practice I'm going to quote at length from another paper that specifically studies its application in musical practice:

The most effective activities for improving performance are effortful and involve conscious decisions with trade-offs and life-long consequences. They draw heavily upon a person's motivational resources, but not for mindless perserverance to repeat a section 1,000 times, but for motivation to concentrate and deliberately build an integrated skill. Simply playing the same problem section correctly several times or slowing down the tempo may eliminate an immediate performance problem, but it may be far less useful in the long run than carefully studying the cause of the problem (and finding the solution). This procedure would remedy a particular deficiency (as well as similar future problems) by building appropriate mental representations.

"Deliberate practice", it is claimed, is what separates just-OK players from really great ones. Although time is clearly a factor, merely putting in the hours won't do. We need to spend those hours being highly attentive to the problems in our playing and working on fixing them one by one. Sounds logical, doesn't it?

Problems of Implementation

Everyone seems to agree that this kind of practice can be onerous, tiring, slow to pay off and demotivating. Although reading about it is fun and interesting it, putting it into practice seems daunting. When we feel as if we have hundreds of things we need to learn, how can we afford to lavish hours of time on every small problem we discover?

An aspect of this is fear. What if we discover lots of problems with our playing as it stands? Then instead of "moving forward" with new material we may have to go back to basics. We probably all feel as if the technical aspect of our playing could be better. Maybe we all sometimes feel as if we're faking it. Deliberate practice threatens to reveal all that.

Another aspect is day-to-day motivation. I may feel as if deliberate practice would be a good thing to do, but today I just don't feel like it. Apparently this is a pretty common problem, and we all know it can affect things like fitness and financial planning as well as music. Deliberate practice, we're told, is "not intrinsically rewarding" -- it's hard and not fun. Even if we can overcome the motivation problem through self-discipline, do we really want to turn music-making into a chore?

Some Practical Suggestions

So how can we solve these problems? I don't, of course, have a complete answer, but I do have some ideas. Here are eleven tips for getting more out of your practice. It's probably unrealistic to try to implement them all at once; instead, see if you can use one or two at a time to make incremental improvements over an extended period.

First, deliberate practice need not be the whole of your practice. Spending a little time at the beginning of a technical workout focusing very closely on what you're doing has long been recommended by teachers. For example, if you usually play an exercise at 140bpm, start by playing it through for a few minutes at 70 or even slower and focus on all the details of the performance. Make every movement as efficient as possible and ensure tone production is flawless. Fix any problems you find at this speed. Some benefits from this brief period of deliberate practice should carry over to the rest of your workout.

Second, remove the element of moral judgement from any lack of "motivation" you may experience. This is the result of not knowing -- or fully appreciating -- why you want to practice a specific thing. It has nothing to do with laziness; if there really isn't a good reason to practice something you absolutely shouldn't waste time on it. We're looking for effective practice, not a way to prove our work ethic. So if you have trouble being motivated to include deliberate practice in your routine, genuinely ask why you should do it. If necessary make a list of your goals and think about which ones a more deliberate approach would help you to achieve.

Third, realise this is a long-term process and take it a day at a time. Don't get discouraged by a lack of quick results, and don't commit to doing it only for a month. It may take ten or twenty years. Yet at the same time, this can't be allowed to become a deferring tactic ("It doesn't matter if today I just noodle around with some tunes instead of practicing properly"). I want to look more into the psychology of this, and hopefully will post separately on it.

Fourth, use model recordings to help you hear what you're trying to play, even if it's a mechanical exercise. Ideally, program a MIDI version of the exercise and have it play at the target tempo or even faster, even if this is far beyond your current ability. Make it repeat so the track that lasts 20 minutes and listen to it many times throughout the day, especially just before working on the exercise or even while resting between sets. There's quite strong evidence that musicians who use model recordings progress more quickly and effectively than those who don't.

Fifth, evaluate your progress often. This doesn't just mean doing time-trials with the metronome to see whether your speed has improved, although it does include that. Record your practice on a regular basis and listen back critically, looking for things to work on and improve. Although losing your delusions of perfection can dent your confidence, it's a key component of deliberate practice. Try to develop a critical approach that doesn't become judgemental. It's not about judging your worth as a person, after all, it's just about asking how you can improve for next time.

Sixth, use specific practice. It's good to run through songs or blow over a backing track, but sometimes you need to focus closely on a problem. Having trouble with certain string-crossings, or combinations of notes in a scale? Create an exercise just for the problem area and drill it until it's no longer an issue. Don't be afraid to separate out harmony, melody, rhythm and so on, or to isolate an individual bar or even a single beat that's causing trouble. When learning a song or piece, try spending some focused time on technical issues and separate time on interpretation, phrasing and so on.

Seventh, perform and reflect on performance regularly, even if it's for an audience of one. Performance is a very different psychological experience from practice and a recording provides a great opportunity for critical evaluation of your progress.

Eighth, practice away from the instrument. Do memorization tasks with pen and paper. Try using an app on your phone or computer for ear-training. Above all, listen to performances and model recordings. If this is time you could be playing then, in general, playing will be a better use of it, but we all have time we can't play but could do those other things. Doing them then will enable you to use your precious practice time more effectively.

Ninth, practice self-efficacy. How good are you at organising a practice plan and then sticking to it for an extended period? Are you honest in your self-criticism without being merely negative? Do you have motivation issues? Do other things in your life tend to sabotage your efforts? Realise you can control almost all these things and be much more effective; then sit down and work out how. Eliminate blockages, make plans and find resources to help you stick to them. Don't let the fact that you could have been a really good player be outbalanced by the fact that you couldn't be bothered or didn't stop to solve problems preventing you.

Tenth, for technical work use short, frequent, focused sessions, more than once a day if possible. If you're working on something new, pick up the instrument whenever you can spend five minutes with it. In most cases this is far more effective than long, exhausting sessions that don't happen all that often. On the other hand, memorization benefits from being worked on at ever-increasing intervals, leaving you time to "almost forget" before refreshing again.

Finally, try to develop a level of "general deliberateness" in your everyday life. Pay more attention to everything you do, asking whether you're doing it as well as you can. See if you can fix one thing that's not great about something you do. The point is to develop the habit of being critical like this, picking up on things that aren't right and fixing them instead of just repeating them automatically.