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]

Bach, Busoni, Segovia, and the Chaconne

N.B: On December 28, 2015 I published an expanded and updated version of this post on my music-only Guitar Whisperer Blog. You can find the direct link to that post here. I’m leaving this post as is, though, in case anyone has linked to it.

I argued in my recent talk on "The Re-Imagination of Performance" at the Guitar Foundation of America's International Convention and Competition this past June at Ithaca College that the concept of historic authenticity in the performance of early music actually developed concurrently with modernism and shares its values. As Richard Taruskin writes in Text and Act, historically authentic performance—or “informed,” whichever you wish to call it—is actually a modern construct that is “implicitly projected back into historical periods that never knew it.”

First, we need to uncover the modern constructs that we might be projecting backwards. Without being exhaustive, here are a two of the characteristics of modernism in the performance of classical music as put forth by Taruskin:
  • It is text-centered, hence literalistic.
  • It is impersonal, hence unfriendly to spontaneity.


The text-centrictricy of early music can be seen in the proliferation of Urtext editions. I find these editions invaluable, yet often the sound of a modern, historically informed performance based upon them “presents the aural equivalent of an Urtext score: the notes and rests are presented with complete accuracy and an equally complete neutrality” (Taruskin). This is both literal and impersonal, a privileging of standardization, virtuosity, accuracy, perfection, and patterns of conformity above experimentation, idiosyncrasy, interaction, individuation, and creative play. And it is anathema to the modern performer to add notes to an historic score. As we’ll see, a prescient Ferruccio Busoni was complaining about the rise of literalism in performance almost a hundred years ago.


Taruskin sums up the impersonalism of early music nicely:

The impersonalism of Early Music has resulted in performances of unprecedented formal clarity and precision. It has also resulted in a newly militant reluctance to make the subtle, constant adjustments of tempo and dynamics on which expressivity depends…

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) in his Sketch for a New Esthetic of Music from 1911 thought that music notation was simply an expedient device to capture the composer’s inspiration for the purpose of releasing it later. But Busoni was concerned that the musical “lawgivers” (his term) were now requiring performers to reproduce the rigidity of the signs. The more closely they did so, complained Busoni, the closer performers were convinced they could come to perfection. Busoni maintained that performers were obligated to use their own inspiration to turn the rigid signs back into emotion and to make the work manifest. This was the essence of creativity in performance: What the composer’s inspiration necessarily loses through notation, his interpreter should restore by his own.

What Busoni saw before anyone else was the early stage of a shift from the work existing primarily as a performance, to the work existing primarily as a written text: the notation was beginning to stand for musical art itself. And as the century progressed, so did the rise of literalism and impersonalism. Toscanini demanded that his musicians “play what was set before them exactly as written regardless of ‘tradition,’” and Stravinsky railed “against ‘interpretation," and wanted his performers to be obedient ‘executants’ of his will,” (Taruskin). These positions typified a performance aesthetic that was gathering strength in the 1920s and 1930s and was the dominant performing style by the 1940s and 1950s.

Guitarists and the Bach Chaconne

Most of today's concert guitarists prefer to play J. S. Bach's Chaconne from the Partita in d minor, BWV 1004 directly from the violin score, and the piece works fine that way—although I find most of the readings of it
rather anodyne—but Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) didn't transcribe the violin score. He transcribed something in the 1920s, published it in 1934, performed it in Paris in June of 1935, and recorded it in 1955, but it wasn't based exclusively upon Bach's violin score. Segovia transcribed parts of Ferruccio Busoni's transcription/arrangement of the Chaconne, a transcription made in 1891-1892 while Busoni was living in Boston, and premiered by him in that city in 1893. Busoni published new editions of it in 1902, 1907, and 1916, continually refining his ideas.

What Segovia transcribed is important, because, although many amateur guitarists perceive Segovia's transcription as the sine non qua of the guitar repertoire, most professional concert artist reject it for its lack of "historic authenticity," a tricky term, but influential nonetheless.

Historic or simply old-fashioned?

It's one thing to reject something on the grounds that it lacks "historic authenticity," or, more correctly, fails to meet a modern criterion, a criterion that had yet to develop when Busoni made his transcription, and betrays the modernist disdain for adding notes and expression markings where there were none in the original; and it's quite another to reject a Romantic tour de force. Busoni's dynamic and atmospheric transcription made no claim to historic authenticity, so why should we ascribe such a claim to Segovia's transcription, which was based upon Busoni's work? If we accept there is no claim to historic authenticity in Segovia's transcription, then perhaps we can place it in a different context and see it more clearly.

Would we have a different reaction to Segovia's version of the Chaconne if it had been published as being by Bach-Busoni? Incidentally, this wasn't the only time Segovia failed to correctly attribute the source of his edition: Segovia based his 1945 edition of twenty studies by Fernando Sor on a nineteenth-century edition by Napoleon Coste.

Rather than accepting Segovia's Chaconne transcription out of unquestioned loyalty to Segovia, or out of some sort of "Maestro inerrancy," to which many amateur guitarists used to subscribe, we should see this piece as a separate genre: not exactly Bach's Chaconne, but not a failed transcription either. What we have is a beautiful and effective concert piece and a wonderful Romantic masterpiece. Busoni's piano transcriptions of Bach’s works have been returning to the concert stage and have been showing up on disc, why not Segovia's version of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne? And after roughly a hundred years, does not this genre acquire its own historic status?

I am not suggesting that performers who choose to play from the violin score should take up Segovia's transcription instead; I am suggesting that Segovia's transcription falls into a different category, a category that has largely been ignored by guitarists and which embodies a nineteenth-century approach to Baroque music. This genre is small and includes only a handful of Bach pieces arranged by Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909) in addition to Segovia's Chaconne transcription, but that it includes one of the finest solo instrumental pieces in the Western musical canon makes the genre significant. To reject this genre because it doesn't fit our idea of Baroque performance practice is to miss the point.

To my knowledge Segovia never indicated that he based his work on Busoni's and we have no statements to that effect, but we have the music, so let’s look at that.

Musical Evidence

Let’s compare just a few excerpts from the two versions, occasionally looking at Bach’s original. We'll start with something simple.

Example 1:

In measure 4, Bach accompanies the melody with a single note, "d":

Busoni lowers the accompaniment an octave and adds a fifth (note that the upper stave is in bass clef):

Segovia does the same thing and with the same voicing:

Example 2:

In measure 29 (and elsewhere), Busoni creates a bass pedal derived from the rhythm of the opening bars:

Segovia does the same, although he limits himself to one bass note because of the compressed range of the guitar:

Example 3:

In measure 33-35 Bach presents the illusion of two voices from a single line, the harmonies for which are not explicit. Here's the first bar of the phrase:

Busoni fills out the harmonies:

and Segovia follows suit:

Notice also that Segovia’s dynamic markings reflect Busoni's.

Example 4:

Sometimes common errors can be evidence of links between scores. Bach writes an "a" pick-up to measure 137:

Busoni's score has a misprint which has moved the "a" down a line to an "f-sharp," a not uncommon type of error in engraved music (note that the upper stave is in the bass clef):

(Busoni has added five measures to the piece so the comparable bar in his score is m. 142.)
Segovia's transcription has the same error:

Example 5:

Finally, in measure 168 of Busoni's score he picks up on a three-note motif introduced by Bach (in m. 163) in the upper voice,

and answers it in the bass (in octaves):

(This section starts earlier and I've not marked all instances of Busoni's additions.)
Segovia once again follows Busoni's example, although without the octaves:


Busoni certainly did things in his piano version that would not be possible or convincing on the guitar: larger chords, thicker textures, extended octave passages, and Segovia navigates those sections convincingly in his arrangement. I maintain, however, that there is as much Busoni in the guitar arrangement as there is Segovia.

Whether Segovia was strongly influenced by Busoni, whether he worked directly from Busoni's score, or whether he used both the violin score and Busoni's arrangement matters little. (The latter is the most likely as Segovia did not include the five extra bars that Busoni added to the piece.) Almost all of Segovia's added notes and harmonies were predicated on what Busoni did. And most of Segovia's tempo and interpretive indications, while being only a fraction of what Busoni included, are either identical to Busoni's or convey the same character. This (and other things) may be the subject of subsequent posts.

Busoni's transcription of Bach's Chaconne is a masterpiece of Romantic performance style and there is much to be learned from studying it, either in the original piano score, or through the filter of Segovia.


For an interesting and intelligent conversation about the Bach Chaconne on the Watson Institute’s Open Source program between Christopher Lydon and violinist Arnold Steinhardt, listen to the January 1st, 2007 edition of the show and read the Open Source blog.

Appropriate Abandon

When classical music can no longer be played with appropriate abandon, performances lose the capacity to raise the spirits of performers and their audiences, to transport them into a higher realm of existence. Prudence, caution, and calculation, so prominent in everyday life but so inimical to the spirit of the arts, come to shape performances as they shape everything else.

—my adaption/transposition of a comment by Christopher Lasch about sports to music (from The Culture of Narcissism, 1979)

The Cosmic Dance

Ever since the early Greek philosophers, creation had been figured as an act of music. There was the further notion that the created universe was itself in a state of music—it was one perpetual and complex dance.

(To account for the movement of the planets, the ancient Greeks placed each of the known seven bodies that moved around the Earth— Sun, moon, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Saturn—in its own moveable sphere, which rotated independently of the other spheres. Additionally, each of the seven spheres was associated with one of the seven notes of the musical scale: hence, the Harmony of the Spheres.)

The idea of the sound of creation actually has been receiving some serious consideration by astrophysicists. While giving a concert at the University of Virginia last April, I became re-acquainted with Mark Whittle, an astronomy professor at UVA. Mark had travelled down to South Carolina for a week-long guitar workshop I gave in 1995 and we became friends. After my concert, Mark and I chatted at length about his research, which involves Big Bang Acoustics. It's fascinating, but not unprecedented, at least by the mediaeval and metaphoric mind.

Isadore of Seville, the mediaeval scholar wrote, “Nothing exists without music; for the universe itself is said to have been framed by a kind of harmony of sounds, and the heaven itself revolves under the tones of that harmony.”

The ancients saw their created world as part of a cosmic dance. This, incidentally, is essential to understanding Renaissance instrumental music, which is often glossed over in music history classes in favor of sacred, text-based, vocal music, but dances had their own less-literal sacred qualities, and it is no accident that dances dominate instrumental music in the Renaissance.

Creation as a dance implies motion, and motion implies degree. To the Elizabethan mind, for example, the regiments of earthly, ethereal, and divine beings were sped on varied but controlled wanderings to the accompaniment of music. The slightest disruption of degree was seen to upset the order of the universe.

Shakespeare knew this well when he had Ulysses say in Troilus and Cressida: “Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what discord follows.”

Here lute playing serves as a metaphor for the state of political, social, and cosmic order. The abstract heavenly world of the ancients is united with the harmony or discord of earthly life through lute playing. Dance music was important because it helped the Renaissance mind tame a bursting world, a world increasingly difficult to fit into a rigid order.

Although the characteristics of individual dances might have changed over time, to the musicians of each generation the dance forms themselves were as immutable as the crystal spheres that held the planets in place and reflected the order of the universe. This was less a conscious connection than an unquestioned belief that was simply there.

But this received order was showing its cracks as early as 1543 when Copernicus published his theory that the earth revolved around the sun. Still, this great work had limited effect and was banned by the church. The cracks grew larger as the century progressed. In 1577 Tycho Brahe’s observations of the orbits of comets could not be reconciled with the existing view of the universe.

In 1596 Johannes Kepler went public with his laws of planetary motion. Yet even Kepler could not separate his scientific views from his religious views. In 1618 he wrote: “It is no longer a surprise that man, the ape of his Creator, should finally have discovered the art of singing polyphonically, which was unknown to the ancients, namely in order that he might play the everlastingness of all created time in some short part of an hour by means of an artistic concord of many voices and that he might to some extent taste the satisfaction of God the Workman.”

But the biggest bombshell was the publication of Galileo’s Starry Messenger in 1610. Galileo’s invention of the telescope and subsequent observations offered irrefutable proof that the universe was not engaged in a cosmic dance. (Incidentally, Galileo’s father and younger brother were both lutenists.) The slow, gradual, but inexorable divorce of instrumental music from heavenly activity had begun. This freed instrumental music to be used for purposes other than a reflection of God’s order of the universe.

(Galileo’s 1632 book, Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), compared the ancient Ptolemaic system with the new Copernican system. This was placed on the church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum and was not removed until 1822. In 1983 Pope John Paul II retracted the ban on Galileo and in 1992 issued an apology on behalf of the church and lifted the edict of the Inquisition.)

The importance of instrumental music and its connection with heavenly activity did continue in some circles into the seventeenth century. This connection is made explicit by the manuscript La Rhetorique des Dieux, an anthology of lute music by Denis Gaultier. Created around 1652 in Paris and consisting of dances and occasional preludes, its existence implies that although speech was the language of man, music was the language of the Gods.

By the early eighteenth century musical pieces began to appear without dance titles but with simple tempo indications: largo, allegro, presto. By the time of J. S. Bach’s death in 1750, the dance suite was old fashioned, the Enlightenment was well under way, and musical forms, while retaining certain musical characteristics of the dance, became formed more and more out of their content: sonata-allegro; theme and variations. The cosmic dance had ended.