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 cognitive science learning approaches to French horn and became an international symphony pro after just two years of doing so.

Before we dive in, let’s quickly dispel a wide-spread myth about practice. In the 1990s, three psychologists performed a study at a historic arts academy in West Berlin. The initial hypothesis was that the elite players were likely spending more time practicing and less time goofing off compared to the average players. However, what the study revealed was 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.

So, what’s wrong with “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. 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 had hoped. Not to mention, practicing like this can actually make bad habits worse.

In fact, there’s a great saying “practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent” and it 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 reforming those habits, all that repetition is locking them in. Now, you’re far more likely to keep making those same mistakes. To make matters even worse, it’s going to be that much harder to correct them in the future.

Mindless practice can also be tedious and can quickly become a 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 bored or 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 really matter how much time we spend practicing something. Ultimately what’s important is that we know how to produce the results we want, and can do so 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 and does involve a lot of repetition albeit for very specific sections & processes instead of just playing haphazardly 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. You continually identify new ways to improve. This means really listening to what happens so that you can tell yourself exactly what you choose to change.

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.”

And that’s the basic framework for deliberate practice. I really can’t stress enough how useful this can be in helping you grow as a musician. If you decide to start adding deliberate practice into your routine, I promise you’ll be amazed by the results!

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 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!

Marc Gelfo 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. He is currently the founder of Modacity, a music practice app designed to help musicians practice better and learn faster.

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