Home for the Curious Musician

This Psychologist Wants You to Stop Wasting Your Practice Time

“Practice makes perfect” is a classic cliché — it contains elements of the truth but misses the whole story by a long shot. As musicians, we’ve all experienced times when we master a new concept in seconds, and other times when we’ve been working on the same song for years with seemingly no progress. What accounts for the difference?

If you’re anything like me, your practice routine is something you do intuitively. It often involves sitting down with your instrument, playing a few scales, banging around for 20 minutes on a few songs or improvs, maybe working on something specific for 10 minutes in a repetitive manner, and then bowing out. Basically, it’s casual, repetitive, and thoughtless.

The problem is that these tendencies are the exact opposite of what we should be doing if we want to see real improvement, according to Dr. Anders Ericsson. And we might be wise to listen. Dr. Ericsson is widely considered one of the foremost thinkers on the subject of “expertise.” His research is one of the primary sources that inspired Malcolm Gladwell’s now-famous “10,000 Hour Rule” — that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to be an expert in anything. But that rule, though memorable, is far from the whole story.

In his new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, which is excerpted here, Dr. Ericsson and his co-author Robert Pool argue that the best practice habits, what they call “purposeful practice,” involve specific goals, focus, feedback, and leaving your comfort zone.

Dr. Anders Ericksson
Dr. Anders Ericksson

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Memorize Any Piece of Music”

Get Specific with Your Practice Goals

His first tip is to move away from vague goals of “getting better” to really specific, deliberate goals, such as playing the first page of Mozart’s Sonata three times in a row without a mistake. The key is, as Dr. Ericsson writes, to “take that general goal — get better — and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation of improvement.”

The problem is many of us don’t really think that way. My personal musical goal right now is to play piano like Errol Garner. How the heck do you start on that journey? Well, it begins with a process of breaking things down into smaller and smaller steps until you wind up with something that can be realistically accomplished in a practice session (or a few).

So starting with my big vision (Garner, I’m coming for you!), I know I’m going to have to work on my stride playing and block chords a bit. That’s still pretty vague though, so I think I’ll start by trying to figure out the left hand part of “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Suddenly, that’s totally something I can figure out in a few sessions and I’ll be a little bit closer to my overall goal.

Be Focused While You Practice

Often I find myself using practice to shut my mind off and escape my day-to-day concerns. Playing becomes meditative. And there’s absolutely no way I’m going to stop doing this — it’s part of why I play music. Back off, Ericsson!

But at the same time, it’s important to realize that this doesn’t really count as practice. As Dr. Ericsson writes, “You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention.” If you’ve had a long day and your mind feels like it’s drizzling out of your ear lobe, then maybe that’s not the best time to try to focus intensely on a very difficult leap forward.

For me, one way to do this is to pick a certain amount of time and decide I’m going to do focused practice for that length of time. Even better if I have concrete goals laid out for that time, such as “play the left hand to ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ successfully six times in a row.” When the time limit is up, I can happily jam around on whatever I want and let my mind wander whither it will.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “7 Ways to Practice While on the Road”

Make Sure You’re Getting Feedback

Here’s Dr. Ericsson again: “You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong.” The good news for us musicians is that practicing music has a built-in feedback mechanism — you can generally hear it when you play something wrong, even more so as you get better or if you record yourself playing. This is different from say learning a language in a vacuum where you would have no idea if your pronunciation was right or wrong.

There’s something else important to realize about this: You don’t necessarily need an expensive coach or trainer to give you feedback. Often you provide yourself with the most important feedback. Here’s a great paragraph from Dr. Ericsson, referencing someone who was trying to learn how to memorize ever-longer strings of numbers:

“Perhaps the more important feedback was something that he did himself. He paid close attention to which aspects of a string of digits caused him problems. If he’d gotten the string wrong, he usually knew exactly why and which digits he had messed up on. Even if he got the string correct, he could report to me afterward which digits had given him trouble and which had been no problem. By recognizing where his weaknesses were, he could switch his focus appropriately and come up with new memorization techniques that would address those weaknesses.”

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By paying close attention to your playing and constantly giving yourself feedback, you can focus in on the moments that give you the most trouble and work at those specifically. One additional way to give yourself feedback might be to record yourself. If I record myself playing my Errol Garner tune, I can even compare it to the original, and make notes about the spots where I’m not quite getting it right!

+ Read more on Flypaper: Looking for more ways to improve your practice routine? Check out all our practice tips here!

Push Yourself Outside Your Comfort Zone

Lots of times we think the best practice should feel easy, when the opposite is actually true. I remember this point coming up a lot in the another useful rundown of effective practice techniques, the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. The authors talk about “desirable difficulties” — basically, by practicing in such a way that feels difficult rather than easy you facilitate more long-term learning.

Dr. Ericsson makes a similar point. Playing the same thing over and over again might feel good without ever really helping you improve at the parts that are giving you the most trouble or mastering how to approach a similar piece next time. This passage was particularly illustrative to me:

“This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve. The amateur pianist who took half a dozen years of lessons when he was a teenager but who for the past 30 years has been playing the same set of songs in exactly the same way over and over again may have accumulated 10,000 hours of ‘practice’ during that time, but he is no better at playing the piano than he was 30 years ago. Indeed, he’s probably gotten worse.”

That point hits home even more for self-guided learners like myself. As you’re practicing, try to focus in on things you’ve never done before. For me, that’s stride piano at a fast tempo. When you achieve one milestone, ask what’s next. By continuing to push yourself into new areas of exploration, you’ll continue to push your skills forward and make sure you’re actually improving the way you want to. Luckily, we have all sorts of online courses that might help you find new directions to push yourself.

So how are you going to practice today? Let us know in the comments below!


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Ian Temple

Ian is a pianist, entrepreneur and professional musician. He started Soundfly to help people really find what gets them most excited musically and pursue it. He's toured all over the world with his experimental trio Sontag Shogun. Check out his most recent course Building Blocks of Piano or follow him on Twitter at @ianrtemple.

  • Gabo Palacios

    Damn it. I always knew I was in trouble but never thought I would get worse by playing the same things always. To be honest with you I wanna get better at guitar but I have lost the will to make an effort. When I get home after work I just want to eat, chat with my wife, watch a movie or play videogames, drink coffee and eat some cookies, and then go to bed. And, at the gig, every saturday, I play the guitar but I feel stressed, and I don’t want to commit any mistake but at the same time I don’t really care about practicing at all. To me is like homework: there is no fun about it, but you gotta do it anyway. And you may learn something, and feel great about doing it but just because your teacher won’t give you a bad note. Do you think there’s a reason why I feel like this?

    • Ian

      Wow, @gabo_palacios:disqus, I’m sorry to hear that, but I also totally empathize with the fatigue you’re feeling. Don’t beat yourself up too much about it — sometimes music is a bigger part of our lives, and sometimes it’s less. I’m not an expert, but here are a couple quick suggestions that have worked for me in past:

      1) Have you thought of taking a break? Sometimes I just need to stop playing the instrument I’ve played since I was 6 to start appreciating it again. I’ll take a month or two or even four off and hopefully come back a little rejuvenated.

      2) What about a new instrument or style? Maybe you’re just feeling a little bored with your instrument. I’ve recently started learning Chiptune from our online course, and I’m loving it. It makes me feel like I’m learning a whole new instrument! I’ve got all these tunes I never thought I’d be able to make before.

      3) Start REALLY small. One reason you might feel exhausted is because PRACTICE itself feels overwhelming and you’re beating yourself up for not doing it. So start with something totally achievable: 15 minutes once a week, a new song once a week, etc. I’ve blocked off an hour on Sundays to make music, and while it’s not as good as practicing every day, it feels great that I’ve done it successfully four weeks in a row. That success starts to build on itself.

      4) Find new people to play with? This can be a ton of fun. I’m always the most motivated when I have a new project I’m excited about.

      Let us know how you do. We’d love to hear more about your journey, and are here to encourage you in any way we can!!! Best of luck. – Ian

      • Gabo Palacios

        Thanks for the quick answer, @Ian. I’m actually in a band, and we play every saturday. We used to write our own stuff and it was so fun and new to me, I was so excited about it that, to this day, I keep listening to the things I wrote and the things we recorded… but then our drummer got married. He had a lot of trouble with her wife so he was always mad. Eventually we just quit. I stopped playing for almost 1 year and a half untill the drummer got divorced, so a few months after his divorce we got back, but with the idea of playing covers just for the fun of playing and hanging around. At first I felt good, it felt great to turn the amp’s volume up again and to adjust my guitar for the gig. We’ve been rehearsing a setlist for a friend’s birthday lately, but, as a master once sang, “the thrill is gone”. I keep putting aside the “homework” that means to me getting the songs chords right ’till friday night (maybe because I don’t care enough).
        When you read this you may feel a little confused. Trust me, I feel exactly the same. I DO want to improve my playing, but I don’t really know what for. I don’t know what I’d do with that. I know it’ll help my band, but I don’t really care that much (wonder if that makes guitarists or singers go solo after a while).?
        Have you ever been there?

        • Ian

          Yeah, for sure. I hear that. Most of the projects I’ve been in have involved original music, which keeps me constantly on my toes, but I’ve mostly stopped practicing the piano the way I used to because I don’t know where it’s headed… I’ve just kind of let it go for the time being, while I focus more on writing music, which has got me excited again. I don’t know, man, it sounds like you need a project that’ll get you more excited about it, whatever that is 😉

          • Gabo Palacios

            Hopefully. Thanks a lot mate. Anyway, I will still check the your page and try to see where it leads me to. Greetings from México.

        • ruthenium66

          Creative collaboration is inspiring…but consider taking lessons, in person or virtual: I find that the best teachers can inspire me, especially if I’m challenged to master something that had eluded me (for me, it’s palm muting) or in a new area that gives me a different sound (alternate tunings, Afro-Pop). There are some great collaboration sites where you can find a virtual mate to create works (like Wikiloops, Indaba). Another thing that inspires me (I’m a singer-songwriter, play guitar and piano to write) is to create artificial constraints like…learning songs using different voicings than I usually play or using a capo and learning it in a different key (that is, with different chords)…or making it work in a different groove than the record. Maybe it’s time for you to get back to composing…and there is no better kick in the pants than the Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook…I love these guys…they suggest finding a bunch of musicians and giving yourself a 24-hour deadline (on a weekend) to write X number of songs. And the book includes other “games” and tips for getting you to write. It’s a lot easier to practice when you first spend time writing and playing in new ways so that there’s a REASON and a DESTINATION for working on your chops. Good luck — I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you LOL. Maybe you’ve outgrown your band…and it is time to create the next thing, whether it’s solo or with new creative companions?

          • Gabo Palacios

            Great input. Sounds like a good and fun way to get back on my feet. Everything you listed here is actually inspiring. You’re totally right about the challenge being a great way to find inspiration. Right now I’m practicing a lot more than I used to, just to see how far can I go, how my practice can lead me to the tone and touch I’ve been thinking of. Having a goal is what brought me back to playing guitar again. And my PS3 finally broke. Hahaha. So I got nothing better to do than being a musician again. My band and I are playing covers again (wich is not as exciting to me as creating a song from nothing) but it won’t last since our lead singer is about to be a father again, and he won’t have enough time for us soon. So I’m just enjoying the view while the trip lasts… But, as soon as it vanishes, sure I will do what you just recomended me. I didb’t know anything about the material you mentioned so I’ll start with that. Thanks a lot, mate.