Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Yet more support for the idea that it’s not what you practice that is important, but how you practice.  An article written by Annie Murphy Paul for Time Ideas, entitled The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’ covers how it’s not so important that you practice for a long period of time, but that you practice in such a way that you address your weakness.

On the surface this seems like it would be a no-brainer, but when you look into the psychology of how and why we practice it makes perfect sense.  It’s all to easy to fall into the trap of avoiding working on things we struggle with because it is more enjoyable to play things we can already play well.  Paul writes:

We’ve often achieved a level of competency that makes us feel good about ourselves. But what we don’t do is intentionally look for ways that we’re failing and hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up. But almost two decades of research shows that’s exactly what distinguishes the merely good from the great.

Paul cites research by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson (unfortunately you will have to purchase the full paper at that link but those with academic library access should be able to obtain the full paper through interlibrary loan).  Ericsson’s abstract states:

Individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice.  Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 yrs.

In my personal experience both as a performer and teacher one of the most difficult obstacle to overcome is how to actually identify your weaknesses.  It’s very easy to fool ourselves into thinking we’re doing things correctly.  This is one of the best reasons to find a good teacher.  Athletes always have coaches that are able to watch them perform from a objective point of view, but musicians tend to reach a particular level and then stop taking lessons.  For some reason there is a culture in music that encourages us to consider ourselves “finished” with guided lessons.  I’ve seen many people state that once they have won that audition or completed that degree that they must be doing things correctly, therefore any troubles they have in their playing must be related to something else (neurological, psychological, medical), but rarely simply playing incorrectly.

Even if you regularly take lessons it can be very useful to record yourself and take the time to listen back critically to your practice (both audio and video).  I also recommend that you save some of the recordings of your practice sessions over time so that you can go back and compare your performances from years earlier.  I have audio recordings of practice sessions saved from about 15 years ago that I should go back and listen to.  Hopefully I should notice some improvement, but there may actually be some areas where I’ve not made any headway or even gone backwards.

Even more telling for me are the video recordings I’ve taken of my practice sessions from a couple of years ago.  After taking another lesson with Doug Elliott this summer I went back and looked for issues he spotted in my playing in video recordings I took a couple of years ago.  Sure enough, some of them were there to note and another seemed to be cropping up slowly over a couple of years.  Had I been more diligent about looking through these videos I’d like to think that I could have noticed them myself and made those corrections before they started to effect my playing.  Then again, it’s just simply hard to find your own problems, that’s why I like to catch lessons here and there.

The most important part of deliberate practice is simply being honest with yourself.  It’s a fine line to tread here.  You want to address your actual weaknesses, but you’ll also want to avoid discouraging yourself from actual practice.  My advice is to always address one thing at a time and always spend some time every day playing just for the pure enjoyment of making music.

Lyle Sanford

Great post. How we practice defines our approach to how we make music. Couldn’t agree more with the advice of recording practice sessions and performances – I think there’s more value in that for me than any other single thing.

On sort of a tangent – “hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up” – seems to me only the negative part of the picture, the positive part being having a good idea of why and what it is we’re trying to do. Working toward something can be as valuable as trying to work away from something. My sense is that thinking about problems in more than one way increases options and ways of solving them. Of course my clientele is different from yours and this may not be much of an issue for music educators with talented and motivated students.


On sort of a tangent – “hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up” – seems to me only the negative part of the picture, the positive part being having a good idea of why and what it is we’re trying to do.

I agree with you here, Lyle. Positive feedback always seems to work better than negative feedback, but it’s a hard line to walk when teaching. It’s simply easier to sometimes state what isn’t going well, rather than instructing the student on how to do it better. For example, I try to remember to say things like, “Sit up straight,” rather than remind a student, “Don’t slouch.” It’s challenging to think of ways to be positive when looking for your flaws, though, and sometimes it may be better to simply be honest with students and ourselves.

Maybe one day I’ll have all this figured out, but in the mean time I’ll have to keep working on both my playing and teaching flaws.

Lyle Sanford

Dave – Didn’t mean not to point out flaws, you absolutely have to. Also, with talented students who have a good idea of what they’re shooting for, talking about and trying to demonstrate the ideal is probably way less important. This subject of how we practice goes to the heart of the whole endeavor of making music, and is tough to talk about in 25 words or less and I was not as clear as I should have been.

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