In the fourth chapter of Peak, Ericsson breaks down deliberate practice for the reader in a series of seven bullet points. These bullet points help to differentiate deliberate practice from other kinds of practice that he considers less effective than the deliberate variety. It’s important for parents of music students (and music teachers) to understand these criteria and their implications for music learning.
The first component of deliberate practice is that it must be done in a field or activity that is established. Ericsson uses piano and violin instruction as examples in this chapter as both have been done for hundreds of years. There are established principles that have been verified over many years as effective towards improvement. Thus, it’s best to have a teacher that is familiar with these best practices in instruction to guide the way for the student.
The second part of deliberate practice is that it takes place outside of the student’s comfort zone. In other words, the level of difficulty for the student should be attainable yet just out of reach. This idea reminds me a bit of the feeling when playing a video game, like Super Mario Brothers or Angry Birds. You always seem to get to a level that seems like you’ll never be able to beat it. Then, finally, you do. Two months later, you go back to that level and it seems easy by comparison. Interestingly, that sense of frustration of not being able to pass a certain level is a fundamental part of deliberate practice, according to Ericsson. In other words, if you are frustrated, you are probably practicing deliberately!
The third criteria is quite impactful to me as a piano teacher: deliberate practice should be goal-oriented. It’s quite typical for parents to ask how much their child should be practicing and expect an answer in terms of time frame. This idea, however well meaning, isn’t quite right. Practice should be focused on achieving specific goals, not reaching a certain time limit. Another way to put this is that five minutes of practice that achieves a goal is worth more than ten hours of practice that doesn’t achieve a goal. An important point on this topic is that it is incumbent on the teacher to make these practice goals as explicit and understandable as possible for the student.
The fourth component of deliberate practice is that it requires your full attention. This reminded me of an anecdote from the book Famous Pianists and Their Technique. One late nineteenth century piano method advocated playing scales while reading the Bible. The idea was that if you could do this, then your scale playing technique was sufficient. Well, clearly this fails as deliberate practice as it doesn’t require the student’s full attention. It would be a better use of the student’s time to practice scales in a way that does require their full attention and puts them outside their comfort zone.
The fifth component of deliberate practice is feedback and modification. This is where having an expert teacher is so important. Teachers should be giving a lot of feedback and offering suggestions of how to modify and improve the performance. Over time, the student will develop the ability to self-monitor and provide some of their own feedback (as their mental representations improve).
The sixth part of deliberate practice involves mental representations. Deliberate practice “produces and depends” on effective mental representations. As Ericsson describes it, deliberate practice creates a kind of glorious feedback loop. Deliberate practice produces better mental representations, which then make it possible to improve even more. “They show the right way to do something and allow one to notice when doing something wrong and to correct it.”
The last part of deliberate practice is that it involves building upon or modifying existing skills. This is another reason why having an effective teacher is so important. The correct skills must be put in place from the beginning if they are to be built upon properly. An analogy would be that you don’t want to build a building on a faulty foundation.
As a teacher, constructing assignments with deliberate practice in mind helps our students to use their time effectively and to improve their performance in an efficient manner.