Deliberate Practice

Perhaps the biggest problem I’ve encountered with the hundreds of guitar students who have played for me in master classes or who have auditioned for entry into the guitar program at the School of Music at University of South Carolina, is the assumption that practice and performance are the same. The result is that they often mistake the final goal for how to get there, which means they do what they believe successful performers do: only play their pieces. But this is as nonsensical as trying to infer the existence of a pig from seeing a sausage.

In general I find discussions of how many hours to practice scales, slurs, arpeggios, etc., rather tedious, as the practice of these will vary according to a student’s playing level, and, more importantly, the level of awareness about what the real problems to be solved are. If I had to distinguish between practice and performance, the blurring of which is the cause of a great many artistic, technical, and procedural problems, I’d say this: In practice we create the conditions for a later spontaneity and freedom. Anything that would impede spontaneity and freedom in performance must be discovered, examined, and overcome. Practice and performance are two distinct activities: in practice we turn experience into ability; in performance, we turn ability into experience. And on and on.

So the goal of becoming a better performer is really fulfilled by developing the ability to dedicate oneself to the right kind of work. A recent article [link updated 2014-08-16] about deliberate practice and chess grandmasters has inescapable relevance to the mental work musicians must master in order to devote themselves to the right kind of work.

Before offering the brief summary and commentary on this article that I sent to my students, I thought it might be instructive to mention two not uncommon approaches to studying the guitar that have resistance to deliberate practice baked within:

Personal Revelation (Solipsistic)

  • A self-centered self cannot become more complex. The result is an inability to grow beyond a certain level. An example of this is the self-taught player who believes that formal instruction might somehow contaminate or inhibit artistry.
  • Characterized by investment in the confirmation of rules the self had made up
  • Occasionally creative

Received Wisdom

  • Often unexamined: investment in orthodox ideas that may never have been true or things that may no longer be true
  • Usually imitative: maestro so-and-so does this, so I will! This is the master class model and is characterized by uncritical acceptance of whatever is offered.
  • Sometimes wise
In my own work as concert guitarist and teacher, I find that the work of critical thinking to discover what is a problem and what is a symptom in order to excavate the real problems to be solved, is the work that leads one to more deliberate and productive practice. I address some of this in my article “The Virtuoso Teacher, but the synopsis below serves as a complement to that discussion.

Deliberate Practice


Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours (see his book Outliers), although a necessary condition for becoming excellent at your work, are not sufficient. The way you practice is the lever upon which your artistic world may be moved. Great musicians from all eras have known this intuitively (and some, consciously).

Study the traits below to see how your work may be improved. I’ve added a few comments after each item and the link to the original article is below:
  • It's designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don't do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
Part of this “stretching” is to ensure you’re increasing your accuracy and attention to detail. If you’re going too fast and adding errors to your work, you are not stretching yourself. Here the carpenter’s dictum can apply: “Measure twice, cut once.” Sometimes learning to be more careful in the early stages of study is the “stretching” that needs to be done. And sometimes the “stretching” that needs to be done is to experiment with unconventional phrasing ideas.
  • It's repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
There’s no getting around the fact that deliberate practice must occur every day.
  • Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn't what counts.”
The idea of the musician who practices to fix notes or rhythms that were learned incorrectly is anathema to high-level and rapid development. If practice is devoted to fixing things, as opposed to developing something or expanding the ability to focus, progress will stall at a certain point.
  • It's highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
Those who have developed the ability to visualize that which is to be performed have found that their span of concentration and focus have become deeper and more reliable, i.e., mindful.
  • It's hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
One must continually find ways of approaching the things that are uncomfortable, difficult, or obscure. This means overcoming our investment in confirming the ideas about ourselves that we have made up. Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to this as the “confirmation bias” in his book, The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010. p. 59).
  • It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”
This should be common knowledge to everyone in the guitar program: The goal is not playing J. S. Bach’s Suite, BWV 1006, but the goal should be studying it well. The more distant goal of performing that work will flow effortlessly from having mastered a series of goals that will lead to performance.

You can find the original article here. [link updated 2014-08-16]
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