8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently

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As my kids were (begrudgingly) practicing their Tae Kwon Do patterns the other night, I caught myself telling my oldest that he had to do his pattern five times before returning to his video game.

My goal, of course, was not for him to go through the motions of his pattern five times like a pouty zombie, but to do it one time with good form and authority. But the parent in me finds it very reassuring to know that a certain number of repetitions or time has gone into something. Beyond the (erroneous) assumption that this will automagically solidify his skills somehow, it feels like a path to greater discipline, and a way to instill within my kids some sort of work ethic that will serve them well in the future.

Some degree of time and repetition is necessary to develop and hone our skills, of course. But we also know on some intuitive level that to maximize gains, we ought to practice “smarter, not harder.”

But what the heck does that really mean anyway? What exactly do top practicers do differently?

Pianists learning Shostakovich

A group of researchers led by Robert Duke of The University of Texas at Austin conducted a study several years ago to see if they could tease out the specific practice behaviors that distinguish the best players and most effective learners.

Seventeen piano and piano pedagogy majors agreed to learn a 3-measure passage from Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1 . The passage had some tricky elements, making it too difficult to sight read well, but not so challenging that it couldn’t be learned in a single practice session.

The setup

The students were given two minutes to warm up, and then provided with the 3-measure excerpt, a metronome, and a pencil.

Participants were allowed to practice as long as they wanted, and were free to leave whenever they felt they were finished. Practice time varied quite a bit, ranging from 8 1/2 minutes to just under 57 minutes.

To ensure that the next day’s test would be fair, they were specifically told that they may NOT practice this passage, even from memory, in the next 24 hours.

24 hours later…

When participants returned the following day for their test, they were given 2 minutes to warm up, and then asked to perform the complete 3-measure passage in its entirety without stopping, 15 times (with pauses between attempts, of course).

Each of the pianists’ performances were then evaluated on two levels. Getting the right notes with the right rhythm was the primary criteria, but the researchers also ranked each of the pianists’ performances from best to worst, based on tone, character, and expressiveness.

That led to a few interesting findings:

  1. Practicing longer didn’t lead to higher rankings.
  2. Getting in more repetitions had no impact on their ranking either.
  3. The number of times they played it correctly in practice also had no bearing on their ranking.

What did matter was:

  1. How many times they played it incorrectly. The more times they played it incorrectly, the worse their ranking tended to be.
  2. The percentage of correct practice trials did seem to matter. The greater the proportion of correct trials in their practice session, the higher their ranking tended to be.

The top 8 strategies

Three pianists’ performances stood out from the rest, and were described as having “more consistently even tone, greater rhythmic precision, greater musical character (purposeful dynamic and rhythmic inflection), and a more fluid execution.”

Upon taking a closer look at the practice session videos, the researchers identified 8 distinct practice strategies that were common to the top pianists, but occurred less frequently in the practice sessions of the others:

  1. Playing was hands-together early in practice.
  2. Practice was with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection.
  3. Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s.
  4. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes.
  5. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared.
  6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.
  7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct).
  8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.

The top 3 strategies

Of the eight strategies above, there were three that were used by all three top pianists, but rarely utilized by the others. In fact, only two other pianists (ranked #4 and #6) used more than one:

6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.

7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct; or speeded things up to test themselves, but not too much).

8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.

What’s the common thread that ties these together?

The researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage.

The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over, leading to a higher proportion of correct trials overall.

And one to rule them all

The top performers utilized a variety of error-correction methods, such as playing with one hand alone, or playing just part of the excerpt, but there was one strategy that seemed to be the most impactful.

Slowing things down.

After making a mistake, the top performers would play the passage again, but slow down or hesitate – without stopping – right before the place where they made a mistake the previous time.

This seemed to allow them to play the challenging section more accurately, and presumably coordinate the correct motor movements at a tempo they could handle, rather than continuing to make mistakes and failing to identify the precise nature of the mistake, the underlying technical problem, and what they ought to do differently in the next trial.

And if this sounds vaguely familiar, you might recall that a basketball study found something very similar in the practice habits of top free throw shooters…

Take action

What is your number one takeaway? How might you integrate these findings not just in your own practicing, but in the practice habits of your students?


References

Duke, R. A., Simmons, A. L., & Cash, C. D. (2009). It’s Not How Much; It’s How. Journal of Research in Music Education, 56(4), 310–321. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022429408328851

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

79 Responses

  1. This article might be the best practice advice I’ve come across! As a pre-college private studio teacher, I have a number of students whose parents haven’t studied music formally and don’t know how to oversee their children’s practice. This piece is succinct and accessible to a layperson, and also caused me to rethink what I tell students at lessons. Thanks for an outstanding resource!

  2. Thank you very much for this article Dr. Kageyama! Coming from a computing background, this definitely confirms my hunch of the similarity of studying computer science with music. It seems the two fields, distant as they may seem do have a number of similarities.

    1. The similarities between coding and practicing anything are strikingly similar. But then again we are essentially biological computers, and practice is like debugging and compiling code for a search engine that uses machine learning. The more organized and modular your algorithm and error checking are, the more efficient and productive the practice session will be. Also, our software is so complex that it is never fully free of bugs.

  3. Wow, I’ve been using these techniques for years with ensembles & individuals. A caution, targeted practice, like any good thing, has to be used in moderation.

  4. Thanks so much for this. It is very helpful and a good one. My teacher and I regularly discuss your posts. Thanks for all!

  5. Great artilce . These towo bits fascinate me.

    From the intersting findings list:
    -The number of times they played it correctly in practice also had no bearing on their ranking.

    From the what did matter list:
    -How many times they played it incorrectly. The more times they played it incorrectly, the worse their ranking tended to be.

    These seem to contradict each other .The number of times played correctly in practice had no bearing on the ranking, but the number of times they played it incorrectly did ? If they constantly played it correctly they are not playing it incorrectly. By not playing it incorrectly they are then not reducing their ranking (i.e their ranking holds at leats at a specific rank). Although the correct playing may not be increasing their ranking is it not still keeping their ranking from falling though ? Which in turn is effecting their ranking ?

    1. Hi Ko,

      Good question. There’s a nice chart on p.316 of the study that breaks down how the pianists each fared. Overall, there was just no consistent trend between the raw number of times a pianist played the excerpt correctly and their ranking. For instance, one of the lowest-ranked pianists played the passage correctly 63 times – more than any of the top 3 pianists. I think that’s why the relative prevalence of correct trials seemed to matter. The greater the ratio of correct trials to incorrect trials, the better the ranking tended to be.

      Regarding the number of times the pianists played the passage incorrectly, there were some individual differences of course, but overall, the top eight ranked pianists had much fewer incorrect trials (mean=3) than the bottom nine (mean=13.56).

      1. Great information, but I didn’t quite understand the first two strategies. Specifically, can you explain what you mean by “hands-together early” in the first tip, and what you mean by inflection in the second tip?

        1. Hi Alex,

          Sure – hands-together, meaning instead of learning the left hand and right hand parts separately, and then putting them together, the participants started playing with both hands together sooner in the process.

          And by inflection, this would be things like phrasing, dynamics, articulation, color – all the musical details that were part of the music beyond the notes and rhythms.

    2. ko: The more times you play it wrong in practice, the more you are teaching yourself to play it wrong.

      Part of the learning in practice is the proper set of motions that have to occur when you are playing the passage correctly. Every reiteration of the wrong motions is linking the optical sensation of reading the passage to a now-incorrect motion of the fingers. When playing at full tempo, there’s no time to individually instruct every finger as to where to go when. Slowing down enough to not miss the motion – even so slow as to make it possible to deliberately move each finger correctly from one point to another – lets your fingers feel that proper motion from point A to point B. After that it’s a matter of speeding it up to tempo, now that you’ve taught your kinesthetic sense what playing it right feels like.

      1. thanks for the reply Joe. I alaways enjoy hearing others input in to the subject of learning. As a subject Learning is a fascinating one.

  6. There’s a pretty widely held belief that practising hands separately is a very useful and important strategy for pianists, but is there any neurological evidence for this? The best pianists in the study played hands together early on does this mean playing hands separately is not useful because something quite different goes on your brain when you play hands together? Or does it simply mean that if you have to play a piece hands separately it may be too hard for you?

    1. Interesting question.

      I think there’s a time and a place for simplifying things, whether it’s hands separate, or slowing things down, or playing without vibrato, etc. But if we start with hands apart, we might be creating more work for ourselves down the road – because once we put the two hands together, we may discover that our hands have to do slightly different things than what we had been practicing with hands separate, necessitating more work to incorporate the new adjustments.

      1. Very interesting about the hand together/separate comments. Would be nice to see a blog devoted to that since it is always in debate. I recently read a book by famous pedagogue Ruth Slenczynska and she said to start separate but quickly put together as soon as one can.

        I think how fast one goes hands together could also be depending on the score. I’ll be working soon on a Beethoven Sonata and I will try hands together at a snails pace but I still think Bach with 3 or more voices should start out separate until all voices are under the fingers .

  7. Fast Practice = Slow Progress
    Slow Practice = Fast Progress
    No Practice = No Progress

    In addition, I have found the following to be valuable:

    Mental Practice: If you are going to make a mistake, do it before you play it.

    Learn the rhythm (air bow, study, counting)

    Learn the notes (silent fingering, notice finger patterns or half steps, shifting)

    Learn the bow directions (air bowing)

    Put it all together in your mind or with your “air violin.”

    By the time you actually make a sound, it will be correct (as humanly possible). Mistakes that are made before they are audible do not “stick.”

    1. I agree about “air” piano. I had a student traveling to Europe for two weeks just as he was beginning a concerto. I insisted he take his music and air practice on the plane, working 2-4-8 measures at a time and memorize. He rolled his eyes. Upon returning he barreled into the Studio grinning ear to ear, ” air piano works!” He had his concerto down and knew his way around the score because he had internalized it without hearing mistakes. I was very proud of this 17yr old! I love my job!?

      1. Thank you for this post! I just Googled “air practice piano” and found a good article that shed some insight on me. I’m looking forward to applying some of the concepts to my practice. I believe air practice helps ties in with deliberate practice, as implied in the article I found.

    1. Yes. I believe this is an effective way to approach sight reading. Obviously, the more experienced you are, the faster you can go through the process.

  8. I am very happy to see the value of pausing just before tricky passage to check ‘in balance’.
    “Hesitate without stopping”

    Reading this article reminds me to add for student coaching is the value of timed pauses in working larger sections — ie, in a passage of steady 16th, play one group, one beat rest, play next.

  9. Actually, the more I think about it, the more flawed I think this study is.
    There was no control for the ability of the pianists. A more proficient pianist would naturally put both hands together quickly, may even sight read the piece. And they would play with intonation, while a less able pianist, struggling with just the notes, would play hands separately without dynamics. I think the study just shows what good pianists, rather than what good practisers do. Or at best, shows nothing conclusive about what good practisers do.

  10. This is very thought provoking article on what makes for effective practice. The tips to slow down, stop before repeating errors, and respond thoughtfully to errors are all part of the Alexander Technique approach to learning. Rote practice and extended practice time don’t necessarily lead to improvement, and conversely may lead to practicing errors. That said, the sample size in this study is too small to draw any conclusions – so although the findings seem intuitively true, they may not be.

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