Pop Quiz: What is the age-old topic all teachers talk about, students dread, and parents would love to see more of?….that’s right, Practice. The most written about topic in music education...ever. We have blogged about this topic before - and this blog article hopes to further explore the research about the latest truths from research about practicing. One truth - we need to learn and use deliberate practice to have much progress in real learning.
Let’s dive into this type of deliberate practice and explain a few things.
Deliberate Practice - What Is It?
One well-known researcher defines deliberate practice as follows:
Deliberate practice is the process of intelligently designing a practice session in a way that consistently achieves goals through feedback, chunking, and working at very slow speeds (Colvin, 2019). This process allows the best chance to build new, proper, neural connections and then finally, strengthen these new connections with repetition. Participation in deliberate practice must be intentional, with undivided focus. Over time, a fifteen-minute session that beginners might struggle with, soon becomes the four to five hours of deliberate practice per day for advanced performers. https://nafme.org/10-books-to-improve-practice-part-ii/
As stated above, deliberate practice is focused, slow, and requires small goals (working in chunks), and the path to those goals is lots and lots of repetition. This method flies in the face of what young students and even adults get in modern society - digestible “feel good” sensations in nanoseconds. Deliberate practice takes lots of support and encouragement from parents and music teachers. The Law of the Harvest cannot be broken - lots of slow, focused effort brings results - the discipline of learning music.
Why put in the effort? Because research shows this type of focused practice works, it results in strong neural connections, and progress is made.
Deliberate practice also avoids “negative practice”, or, essentially practicing the wrong things over and over again. This wastes time, having to relearn the notes.
One article by the National Association of Music Educators states about this way of practicing:
Neural connections are made, and myelin is recruited as soon as one begins struggling with something new. Practice should be approached carefully, or failure may occur. In Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner (1996), negative practice is described as a situation where bad practice habits slowly become ingrained over time. Practice should be structured so that proper neural connections are made early on, or the performance of mistakes will improve.
Another article explains why building myelin is needed to build skills:
“Particularly important in such changes seems to be the buildup of a substance called myelin around nerve fibers and neurons, which work better with more myelin around them . . . This process of building up myelin by
sending signals through nerve fibers, which occurs in purely intellectual fields like business as well as in sports and music, needs to happen millions of times in the development of a great performer (p. 103-104).”
Geoffrey Colvin’s book Talent Is Overrated
If deliberate practice equals progress, builds the myelin and neural connections, and takes effort, then learning musicians need lots of encouragement and sometimes gently nudging to learn the value of work. This must come from the other “power triangle” members (see our blog about the triangle) - that is the teacher and the home.
Teaching Deliberate Practice - The Teacher’s Role
Teachers need to let the students experience the fruit of deliberate practice. They need to teach that it is not “practice makes perfect”, not even ”perfect practice makes perfect” - but, progressively more deliberate and focused practice creates improvement. Slow and steady wins the race!
Teachers should follow practices during lesson time and teach parents and young students to recreate that same approach at home - over and over again.
This means at least the following for deliberate practicing:
Practice very slowly to begin - including all inflections and expressions right from the start.
Break things down into small chunks (chunking) or in other words…small achievable goals for that lesson or practice session.
Teach students to take small breaks during home practice - at least 5 minutes for every 15 minutes of focused practice.
Teach students to keep practice sessions to 15-30 minutes for younger students and 45-60 for older students. But if the student can stay focused, keep going to reach the goal
Give the student and parents a practice outline for a reminder at home
Teach them to enjoy dessert!!
One researcher has noted, deliberate practice is needed, but not much fun. A good
practice session is like a good meal, we need nutrition from the vegetables of slow repetition, but we also can use a little sweetness.
An online article put it this way:
After practicing our warm-ups and our main focus, we're ready for a little dessert. Use the last quarter of your practice for playing music you absolutely love. Pick up some fun music books, Disney play-alongs, or your favorite music score, whatever your fancy! It's important to end every practice smiling!
What the teacher needs to emphasize is that we all like to play over and over what we are good at playing - it makes us feel good. But that is like eating too many sweets - it has no nutrition. We can fill up our so-called “practice” time with stuff we already know how to play. We never grow. Eat the veggies first, then reward yourself with fun, well-known music at the end.
No success comes without support at home, it is a fact. Parents of young musicians and adult learners need support to get used to focused, deliberate practice. Let’s be honest, - it takes discipline and will always take sacrifices. The amount of effort and discipline comes down to the learner and those who support their growth. We do not need to take away challenges, but rather help others overcome and grow from them.
Parents of younger learners must really invest time to sit with their children and help them learn the valuable life skills of focus, commitment, and goal setting. There are no shortcuts. But the rewards of sticking with deliberate practice are well documented.
We want all learners to taste the fruit of their effort.
The question then is - what life skills and fruit from effort do you want your children to enjoy?
At South Florida Conservatory of Music, our teachers believe in deliberate practice, as it not only is proven in research to produce great musical results, but It emphasizes vital life skills. Educators, parents, and adults, must see how growth comes from acquiring skills of focus, commitment, confidence in oneself, and the process of learning, and setting goals. There is the joyful fruit - that is sweet to each who is willing to work. Our school wants to give gifts for life, the gift of learning to work slowly but positively - and reach higher - to reach a better future.
Slow and deliberate effort wins the prize.