If you’ve ever tried to learn how to sing or play a musical instrument, you know how important practice is. You not only have to UNDERSTAND how to read music and make your instrument work, it has to seep into your muscles. To become an automatic part of you. To reach a level of mastery, you have to be able to remove conscious thought from the multitude of actions muscle movements that constitute making music. Only then are you free to focus on playing or singing expressively. This only comes about with hours and hours of practice. That’s where Deliberate Practice comes in…
What is Deliberate Practice?
According to Rob Nightengale in his article “Want To Become An Expert At Something? Try Deliberate Practice,” Deliberate Practice is “a highly structured activity engaged with the specific goal of improving performance in a certain area” that seeks to improve a skill by “focusing largely on improving the sub-skills that the overall skill is composed of.” Deliberate practice “differs largely from both play, and simple repetition of an activity (in the false hope that this will help you to become great at something).”
Below is a list summarizing Nightengale’s 6 steps for Deliberate Practice, each followed with notes for music teachers. (If you are a music student, see if you can get your instructor or a friend onboard so you can get some outside feedback and accountability.)
1. Start with a Clear Goal
It is important for you to know exactly what you will accomplish during each practice session. This can be accomplished by setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realist, & Timely).
- At the end of each weekly music lesson, spend a few minutes discussing your students’ goals for the week.
- Note: Get the student involved in the goal-making process. Guide the student in making reflection-based goals rather than just dictating the week’s goals to the student.
2. Split that Specific Goal into Various Sub-Skills
This is an important part of the goal-making process. As the old adage says: “You can eat an elephant one bite at a time.” By breaking down an overarching goal into its subset of skills, you are, in effect, creating an outline for the week’s practice.
- Once the week’s goals have been defined, encourage the student to think through the skills needed to accomplish that goal.
- Give the student specific exercises and tasks designed to build up those skills.
3. Keep Track of Progress
This step keeps the student on task and appeals to their inherent desire for instant gratification. By keeping track of progress and the small victories, the focus is shifted from the destination to the journey. The gratification comes with each successfully-completed goal rather than some mystical point in the future when mastery is reached.
- Try having your students record their practice sessions or at least the mastered tasks from the week’s goals.
- Note: It may be helpful to have your students record shorter practices, each with 1 specific focus, rather than recording the whole practice session at once. This is a good way to encourage them to focus on 1 thing at a time.
- Have your student keep a written log of their progress (i.e. time spent practicing, goals achieved, etc.).
4. Create a Feedback Loop
According to Nightengale, a Feedback Loop is “a way to more accurately spot your errors and identify potential improvements that are having an effect on your learning.” In order to learn as efficiently as possible, students need to acquire the necessary information to achieve the desired outcome, finding out exactly what they need to change to reach their goals more quickly. This feedback can come from within, through reflective practice, or from an external source such as a teacher.
Feedback through Self-Reflection
- Have your students review their victory logs (recorded footage or written logs).
- Encourage them to reflect on how they could meet goals more efficiently and effectively in the future.
- At the beginning of the weekly lesson, spend a few minutes reviewing the student’s victory log from the week.
- Guide the student as they think about how they could improve their performance and outcomes for the next week.
5. Avoid Distractions During Practice
Practice is most effective and efficient when the student remains focused and uninterrupted. Distractions come in many forms, but all of them waste valuable time. Once distracted, it can take several minutes to get back on task.
- Having clear goals and knowing that practice session footage is being recorded and could be observed goes a long way towards keeping the student focused and on task. (See the Hawthorne Effect.)
- Encourage the student to remove further distractions by turning any devices on “Do Not Disturb” mode and having only what is necessary for the practice session open.
- Talk to the student (and/or parents) about creating a distraction-free environment for practicing. During the practice session, limit outside noise, people walking through the room, etc.
- Have the student set a timer or alarm rather than constantly checking the time.
- Note: I find it a good idea to hide the clock. The more I pay attention to the time, the longer time seems to drag out.
Some people are more self-motivated than others, but having some form of accountability is a vital part of staying motivated.
- Each week, review your students’ victory logs, checking to see if the practice goals were met.
- Go a step deeper by having students write self-reflections and questions ahead of time.
Deliberate practice requires much mental energy. After each successful practice session, it is important to recover by performing some self-care. Indulging in a reward for a successfully-completed practice session reinforces that good behavior/habit.
- Rather than practicing in large chunks of time, have your students practice in short increments, each with 1 specific skill/goal as its focus.
- Encourage your students to take a break and do something fun that doesn’t require too much focus between each practice session.
These ideas may seem like no-brainers, but they are easy to forget in the heat of the moment when you’re just slogging through your daily practice requirements. Whether you’re an instructor or student, applying these concepts will help you make the most of your time.
Have YOU tried any of these concepts? What results have you seen? Do you have anything you’d like to add to (or take away from) this article? Let us know in the comment below!