Science provides us with a lot of general information on learning. Have you noticed that much of this information can be hard to implement in the minutiae of daily work? The first step is getting past the vagaries of what science tells us about learning.
At this point, most of us have heard about deliberate practice. I use the simple image above to explain the process of deliberate practice. It seems simple, and it is, but it is not easy. What exactly does this mean in actual practice? Most importantly, how do we use this information with our students?
One simple way is to apply deliberate practice to our rehearsals – and to the work done by students outside of the rehearsal. For instance, we might play a piece of music and – upon reflection – realize that one section needs a lot of work. The plan becomes to work on that section.
(For the sake of readability, I’ve substituted “do” with “play” in this article; of course, every time you play a section of music represents “do” in the image above.)
We might play that section and upon reflection notice that there are a couple of particularly difficult bits that seem to trip us up. The plan becomes to choose one to work on and begin.
We might play that little bit and notice it is not good. Upon reflection, we might notice several problems, but for the sake of brevity let’s say we notice one specific problem. For example, let’s say it’s a misunderstanding of the rhythm. The plan becomes to not play the pitches but to tap out the rhythm.
We might tap out the rhythm. Upon reflection, we can decide if we got it right or not. Yes? Then repeat until we get it right 5 times in a row. No? Then return to learning the rhythm.
After all of this, we might meet our goal of getting the rhythm. Then it is time to add the notes by the same process, then work them up to tempo, then move on to other sections etcetera.
The Underlying Process
You likely go through this process again and again in rehearsal, but do you teach your students the underlying generic process as you do it? This requires a kind of reverse engineering, back toward the generalities of the process as described in cognitive science. As students begin to recognize the underlying process they can begin to apply it to solving problems as they play in rehearsal, or practice at home.
But there is a larger purpose to deliberate practice as well. It is related to meta-cognition, or thinking about our thinking, a crucial component to improving oneself. We must ask constantly,
“Why am I doing what I am doing? Is it working? Have I given it enough time to work to make that evaluation? Should I do something different?”
Let’s take that last one. Most teachers and players can relate to the dreaded plateau. That time when we worked so hard, but no matter what we did, or how long we did it, we didn’t improve. In rehearsal it may be those sections that we keep addressing that seem to take forever to get to where we want them, and they never really get all the way there. These challenges require a different perspective.
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The Big Picture
This is a time to apply deliberate practice to the big picture:
- Plan – I want to improve
- Do – Practice/rehearse hard
- Reflect – I’m not improving
- Plan – Either I can’t get any better, or there is something I need to learn in order to improve (whether it takes one or one hundred days, or I get the information by word of mouth in a lesson or have to read 5 books).
I’ll give you an example of something that can lift one right out of a plateau in rehearsal or practice that I use sometimes in my Practiclasses (masterclasses on practicing). It may sound familiar, but I’ve found that many people who try using this technique are not doing it properly. The few that do appear to be very talented as they improve so quickly. In cognitive psychology what we experience as a plateau can be described by the power law of practice. [Learn more in this study.]
There are variations, and differing ideas about cause, but the main idea is that the rate of improvement as one repeats something during learning decreases with each repetition.
Repetition is, of course, important in motor skill development and I discussed a neurobiological reason for this in my previous deliberate practice post.
- Do – Reps, reps, reps…
- Reflect – Things stopped improving a while ago
Now the plan stage is where most of us fail. The plan is usually to keep doing things the way we always have, and as a result, we never give that really satisfying performance. There always seems to be something wrong, no matter how much we practice. The problem is that we continue to practice the same way we have been practicing ever since this type of practice stopped working.
What if there was always an answer? Well, there is – there always is, and it is not something magical called “talent.” There are actually many solutions for your plan here, and we’ll look at one.
It turns out that cognitive psychology found something out about the power law. It can be kind of a reset and the significant gains present at the beginning of the learning process can be enjoyed again. [This study provides details.]
We do this by working on the same thing, but in a different way, by creating confusion, causing us to work through the confusion. This strengthens the performance of what were are working on significantly. This idea is known as desirable difficulty.
We can do this in music with one of those nasty passages, or with a beautiful crescendo that the orchestra can’t seem to grasp. You know, the kind of things that you work on for weeks – over and over – that still don’t come through on stage. Try this, but warn students ahead of time that at first we may look extremely untalented, confused, and will really want to give up. Most people would. Again, the few that don’t give up will appear to be exceptionally talented.
Be transparent with students. If this is a group rehearsal let them know that it will be a struggle and that struggle is what we want. Once they experience the benefits, they will become more and more receptive to the process.
First take the section and play it slowly enough to get it perfectly. We are reinforcing a neural network in the brain here, so speed does not matter, only accuracy of movement. When you’ve got it slowly and accurately play it with a metronome at that tempo.
Now learn to play it with a dotted rhythm. Focus on the section you have isolated, playing it with dotted quarter to eighth repeating. If the passage is not a bunch of the same note values then play each note evenly as if each is a quarter note then apply the dotted rhythm.
We know we are doing this right if we struggle. That is what we want. Work through this until it can be played with the dot four times in a row correctly.
If you’re unclear about the process, here is a video and a downloadable sheet that both offer more detail.
Once you can do that, or if you do not struggle and get the dotted version right away, then you need to look for something more difficult. It is time to use what I call a reverse dot (properly called a Scotch snap). Play your isolated section with eighth to dotted quarter repeating.
It’s okay for students to struggle to learn this rhythm. Reiterate that this is a struggle NOT because they are not talented, but because they are learning. This will feel mentally exhausting so take little breaks to refocus.
Once you’ve done this go back to the original metronome number from when you started. Ask your students: “Feel that? Hear that? Wow, right?” The realization will be powerful. Now begin to speed up the metronome a few numbers at a time. Pretty crazy right? Now ask students to think about how long we’ve been struggling with some things and how quickly we just made it that much better. How good can we really be? The answer is however good we’d like to be. It just depends on how much deliberate practice we are willing to do.
Teaching Students How to Work
There is a great need to teach students how to work, and the fundamental elements of all learning are necessarily present in good music instruction. We’ve had the good sense over the course of the last few centuries to separate out the complex areas of our education into their own course of study – theory, history, ear training, etc. Yet we leave the most crucial element – how to efficiently learn performance on our instrument – to the student to figure out on their own. We use small bits of these things in our lessons, but would not expect mastery from that little instruction, yet that is about all the time we have to teach practicing isn’t it?
That is why you see differences between your most talented students and everyone else. Everyone else needs to practice the way the talented students practice. Plus there are a whole host of issues that need to be satisfied in different ways for different students so that they will want to and be able to do that work. These include:
- Habit pattern development
- Flow, etc.
You might consider exploring additional instruction with your students on deliberate practice, as well as the whole ecosystem of learning. This is why I offer practice coaching. These are 4-8 week sessions conducted between private lessons. We go deeply into how existing practice time is used to meet and exceed teacher goals, and it works at any level. Once one learns, participates in, and internalizes the process they can begin to use the same techniques in new situations (future practice).
It no longer surprises me when formerly tentative competition participants win it all after a few weeks of Practice Coaching. That is the power of learning how to learn, and anyone can teach it with the right experience. As a side effect, the confidence in performance this approach produces eliminates performance anxiety as well.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Learn how to deliberate practice, practice, practice.