Deliberate practice is like the scientific method for music.

Practice is incredibly important for success, but it’s not simply about how much time you practice, it’s about how you practice. After years of struggling with music, I started applying deliberate practice and other scientific approaches to French horn, and became an international symphony pro after just 2 years of doing so.

Before we dive in, let’s dispel a wide-spread myth about practice. In the 1990s, three German psychologists performed a study at a historic arts academy. They believed that the elite players were simply spending more time practicing and less time goofing off compared to the average players.

However, the study revealed that both groups spent, on average, the same number of hours practicing per week (around 50).

The difference? How they spent that time. The elite players were spending almost three times more hours than the average players on deliberate practice.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DELIBERATE PRACTICE AND “STANDARD” PRACTICE

Most people, when they sit down to practice, do so rather mindlessly. A typical practice session might look something like this:

  1. Go into a room by yourself to practice.
  2. Do a bunch of repetitive things.
  3. While doing these repetitive things, tell yourself – over and over – all the things you’re doing wrong.
  4. Start to get frustrated with all the things you’re doing wrong and possibly even wonder if you’ll ever do them right.
  5. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. …for 10 years.

Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, very little productive learning takes place when you’re practicing in this way. Have you ever spent a significant amount of time working on something and still felt like you hardly improved?

Hours, days or even weeks go by and you’re not improving like you hoped. Actually, practicing like this can make bad habits worse.

In fact, the great saying “practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent” very much applies to both the good and the bad. When you practice in the above manner you’re often strengthening bad habits and errors. Unless you’re actively trying to fix those habits, all that repetition is locking them in.

Then, you’re far more likely to keep making the same mistakes. Even worse, it’s going to be that much harder to correct them in the future.

Mindless practice can also be tedious chore. Have you ever had a music teacher tell you to practice something x number of times, or x number of hours? So you sit down, and play your piece over and over, all the while getting frustrated.

Next thing you know, you’re having a hard time staying motivated to continue practicing; you’re sick of the repetition, and unhappy with the results.

IT’S TIME TO WORK SMARTER, NOT HARDER

What you really should be doing is setting more specific goals, like “I will play this section until I am able to fix ____” or “I’m going to practice this piece until I can figure out how to make it sound like ____.”

Practicing shouldn’t be a mindless, repetitive exercise. Instead, practice should be both mindful and informative. It doesn’t matter how much time we spend practicing something. Ultimately what’s important, is learning to produce the results we want, consistently.

So what is deliberate, or mindful practice?

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic, and for lack of a better word, scientific.

While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with specific, clear goals and hypotheses for improving performance. Doing so will help you achieve radically efficient music practice, and catapult your skills to a whole new level.

The greatest challenge of deliberate practice is remaining focused. In the beginning, showing up and putting in your time is the most important thing. But after a while it’s easy to get careless and overlook small errors, missing daily opportunities for improvement.

Not to mention, deliberate practice can often be slow, because it involves a lot of repetition for very specific sections instead of playing all the way through a piece. For example, you might work on just the opening note of a solo to ensure it speaks exactly the way you want, instead of playing the whole phrase.

Deliberate practice involves monitoring one’s performance – in real-time, as well as recordings.  This means really listening to what happens, so that you can tell yourself exactly what went wrong and what you need to fix. You should also listen for what is going well, and celebrate it. What you focus on will expand in your mind, so make sure to focus on improvements and growth rather than negative fixtures.

Ok, I’m sold. How do I apply it to my practice?

A deliberate practice session would look something like this:

  1. Identify what you want to improve or change.
    “I want to improve my rhythm on the song Hallelujah.”
  2. Form a hypothesis about a specific, achievable goal you think will make that change.
    “I’m going to try playing all the way through without stopping.”
  3. Test the hypothesis.
    I’ll play the piece and not let myself stop. No getting distracted by mistakes.
  4. If it worked, keep testing it over time until you’re certain it works.
    “Hey it worked, sweet! Let me lock that in.”
  5. If it didn’t work, go to step 2 and try a different hypothesis.
    “Hmmm, this isn’t working. Ok, I’ll try playing with a metronome to see if that helps instead.”

There you have it: the basic framework for approaching something deliberately.

I really can’t stress enough how useful deliberate practice is in helping you grow as a musician. If you decide to start adding deliberate practice into your routine, I promise you’ll be amazed with the results!

In fact, that’s why we added a deliberate practice button to Modacity’s music practice app. Just press the “improve” button, it will guide you through all the steps of deliberate practice – including suggestions and the ability to record – as well as track your progress along the way.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

More generally, “deliberate practice” means having clear goals about where you want to go, and trying actions that are designed to get you there.

  • Stay organized – you’re 42% more likely to achieve a goal you write down.
  • Focus on high priorities – don’t get distracted by what’s not essential.
  • Be positive – “I don’t want X” -> flip it to “I want Y” and focus on Y.
  • Perform Tests – testing prevents forgetting; more broadly just try things and if they don’t work, discard them.

If you work your plan – no matter how you feel while you’re practicing – then you did what you were supposed to do today. That’s all you can ever ask of yourself.

Don’t practice only when you feel like it, and don’t trust those feelings that tell you that you’re not making any progress today. You are making progress!

If you’re reading this and want help implementing deliberate practice to make faster progress in music, don’t hesitate to comment below! Whether you have a question, need help, or just want to leave some feedback – we’re always happy to chat.

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Marc Gelfo

Marc Gelfo

Marc has been practicing music for 30+ years. After applying cognitive science & computer science to French horn, Marc became an internationally touring symphony musician. His experience includes teaching and performing with thousands of musicians around the world, including the San Francisco Symphony.