Peak, Chapter 1: Purposeful Practice vs. The Usual Approach/by Patrick

            The first chapter of Peak begins by recounting a twentieth century phenomenon.  Ericsson calls it “the rise of extraordinary performers.”  Basically, over the course of the twentieth century, various records and accomplishments across disciplines have been shattered.  He lists several examples.  In 1908, the world record for marathon running was just under three hours.  Since then, that record has been improved upon by about fifty minutes!  Indeed, the 1908 world record time only just qualifies a runner for the Boston Marathon today.  He also mentions Alfred Cortot, the French pianist.  His early twentieth century recording of the Chopin Etudes was once considered definitive.  Now, it’s considered sloppy.  These are just two examples, though there are many, many more. 

            Ericsson believes that the reason why expert performers have so dramatically increased their abilities in the twentieth (and 21st) century is because teaching and learning approaches have improved.  His thesis is that these expert performers simply engage in more “deliberate practice” than non-experts.  In Chapter 1, Ericsson describes the difference between the practice that most people engage in and the kind that actually leads to improvement.  He calls these two types of practice the “usual approach” and “purposeful practice.” 

            Everyone is familiar with the “usual approach.”  Here’s how it works.  First, you take up a hobby.  Then, you spend time practicing and repeating various aspects of it, quickly improving.  Then, at same point, you reach a level that you consider acceptable.  Maybe that means you can play the first few measures of Fur Elise on the piano, speak a few phrases in German, or hold your own with your friends in a basketball game.  Ericsson writes: “But there is one very important thing to understand here: once you have reached this satisfactory skill level and automated your performance, you have stopped improving.  People often misunderstand this because they assume that the continued driving or tennis playing or pie baking is a form of practice and that if they keep doing it they are bound to get better at it, slowly perhaps, but better nonetheless….But no. Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of ‘acceptable’ performance and automaticity, the additional years of ‘practice’ don’t lead to improvement.” In order to improve past this point, it takes something more than the usual approach. 

            Ericsson then describes “purposeful practice,” a better strategy than the usual approach (but still not as exacting as “deliberate practice”).  Ericsson identifies four characteristics of purposeful practice. The first: “Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals.”  Of the four characteristics, I believe that this one is the most important for music teachers to consider.  Students are too often given vague, unclear, or goal-less practice assignments.  It is my sincere belief that giving specific, goal-oriented practice assignments is one of the best things we can do as teachers.  The second characteristic of purposeful practice is that it is focused.  Going through the motions won’t cut it and won’t lead to improvement.  Playing your favorite piece over and over again won’t lead to improvement.  The third characteristic is that purposeful practice involves feedback.  This is another area where having a good teacher is beneficial.  It often takes an experienced teacher to notice the specific areas that deserve the most attention.  Lastly, purposeful practice “requires getting out of one’s comfort zone.”  For piano teaching, this characteristic is important in two ways that come to mind.  The first is that to improve you need to focus the most attention on the parts that are the most difficult.  The second is that repertoire should be chosen that is slightly more difficult than what the student can currently play.  This keeps the student out of their comfort zone. 


The following are four piano teaching scenarios that demonstrate each of the characteristics of purposeful practice in a positive way.  See if you can tell which of the principles is demonstrated by each scenario. 


Scenario 1, Teacher: “Your goal for this week is to improve your rhythmic accuracy in the A section of this piece.  Use the strategies (tapping, counting aloud, using syllables, listening to a recording, etc.) that we discussed in your lesson to help.  You will have achieved your goal if you can play the A section with consistently (greater than 90%) accurate rhythm.” 


Scenario 2, Student: “At first, I thought the piece that my teacher assigned was really hard.  I especially had trouble with the octaves in the right hand.  But, after working on it for several months, I can play it much better and I feel like I’ve improved.” 


Scenario 3, Student’s parent: “At my child’s lesson, the teacher makes many comments that are both specific and constructive about the performance.  This helps us to know what can be improved.” 


Scenario 4, Student: “When I’m practicing, I’m concentrating on something specific.  Like in this spot, I’m thinking about how it feels to move my hand both quickly and effortlessly.  I have to use my full concentration when I’m doing this kind of practice.”