Unless my practice sessions are deliberate, they are really not productive practice sessions at all. Undisciplined practice sessions, no matter how many hours I put in, will not lead to improvement and progress, are basically a waste of time, and will erode my confidence in learning the fiddle.
Many times folks fail to master a new skill, either giving up or achieving mediocre or “acceptable” results because they don’t know how to practice. We all follow pretty much the same pattern with any new skill we learn, whether it is driving a car or playing an instrument. We start off with a general idea of what we want to do, get some instruction, practice until we reach an acceptable level, and then let it become automatic, expecting that the repetition alone will improve our performance. Just because we keep “doing it”, does not mean we are getting better or progressing in our skill level. And, there is nothing wrong with this, but once we get into this mindset, we are no longer progressing or improving. I have experienced this myself in the past, and I don’t want to fall prey to this when it comes to learning the fiddle.
What is Deliberate Practice?
The subject of numerous articles about focused and productive practice speaks to the research of K. Anders Ericsson. Ericsson is a Swedish psychologist who is internationally recognized as a leading researcher in the psychological nature of expertise and human performance. Professor Ericsson has been researching talent for over 30 years.
Ericsson studies expert performance in many fields of skill focusing exclusively on extended deliberate practice. Ericsson asserts deliberate practice isn’t about simple repetition of a task or skill, accumulating a lot of hours of training, or just “trying harder.” In fact, the popular theory we read so much about, the so-called “10,000 hours of practice” and you’ll become an expert, is a misinterpretation of his work. For Ericsson, it’s not the length of practice, but the quality of practice that counts. Practice to be effective must be structured, sustained, consistent, purposeful hard work directed at specific goals for improvement. It takes time and requires constantly getting outside our comfort zone and pushing the limits of our abilities. It is the means in which expert performers acquire their superior performance. It is not just “putting in the hours”
There are many recorded interviews with Dr. Ericsson on this subject. I have chosen this one because it focuses on deliberate practice when it comes to music. It runs for 48 minutes, but it is well worth the listen if one wants to begin to grasp the idea of deliberate practice when it comes to learning the fiddle, or any musical instrument for that matter.
Major Principles of Deliberate Practice
Purposeful practice has specific and well-defined goals. Purposeful practice is about planning out and putting a bunch of micro steps together to achieve a well-defined goal. If I have a goal of learning a new tune, how do I get from point A to point Z? What are the little steps, or elements of the whole, I need to accomplish? I need to map these out before I begin. I then work on each step, one step at a time, joining the steps together, one by one, until I can join all the steps together and accomplish my goal, to be able to play the new tune.
Purposeful practice is focused. Deliberate, purposeful practice is hard mental work. I need to get rid of as many distractions that may impede my focus and concentration. No distracting noises, turn off the phone, be hydrated and nourished and as physically comfortable as possible are just a few examples. Additionally, I need to realize when I have reached the point of diminishing returns and take a break and do something totally unrelated. I need to relax and then come back to the task I am trying to learn with a renewed energy and focus.
Purposeful practice involves feedback. How do I know I am doing something right? Where are my mistakes? What is causing them? Depending on the practice situation, feedback can vary. Listening carefully, using a mirror to watch myself, audio and/or video recording for playback so I can hear/see what I am doing, submitting a recording for peer review, meeting with a teacher are examples of feedback. Without feedback, either from myself or others, I cannot figure out what I need to improve on or how close I am to achieving my goal.
Purposeful practice requires getting out of my comfort zone. Pushing myself is probably the most important principle here. Unless the seed pushes through the soil, it will never grow into a flower. Pushing myself beyond what was familiar and comfortable is crucial to making progress. If I never push myself beyond my comfort zone, I will never improve. Moving beyond my comfort zone means trying to do something I have never done before. Finding ways to solving new challenges is a key to deliberate and purposeful practice.
I want to “learn some and have fun”, and that means enjoying myself and getting better as I go along learning how to play the fiddle. I know I will progress and have fun doing it if I practice deliberately. Now, let me plan out today’s lesson.