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

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Comments

79 Responses

  1. Great article!

    I wonder though about what controls were used in the study concerning ability level. For instance, the reason better pianists often play a passage hands together at first is simply a higher level of playing. Ditto for needing less repetitions. If this cause and effect relationship was misunderstood, wouldn’t it easily make it seem as though the number of repetitions doesn’t matter?

    1. @Matt and Samantha,

      Very keen observation, and a good point. I imagine determining ability level would be quite a thorny task to undertake. For what it’s worth, time spent practicing and number of repetitions weren’t related to ranking, so it doesn’t seem that the top ranked pianists learned the passages any more quickly or easily than the others.

      While degree program is not a very reliable indicator of ability, that information is listed in a chart in the paper. It might be interesting to note that there were two BM students in the top 9, and five graduate students in the bottom 8; the two lowest ranked pianists were a DMA and MM student.

  2. What a great article! I have sent this to all my students and it is now circulating among our teaching faculty at my music school. Thank you! If possible to share on pinterest I have a page dedicated to practice tips for students and parents and would love to include this article.

  3. Pingback: Studio Musica Vita
  4. Two interesting aspects for me, two related to each other. First, there is a fallacy in the presentation as regards the first part (the did/did not matter). As presented, the findings did not account for whether the players might already have had in their repertoire pieces with elements similar to the elements found in the Shostakovich. That would account greatly for the “What did matter”:

    “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.”

    In the second part, of the 6/7/8, it seems to me only #7 is relevant, because if you have #7 you naturally have ## 6 and 8, and if not #7, then most likely not ## 6 and 8

    If I may switch mediums for demonstration: The best dancers are body aware of the totality of the motions of the dance: they are not just “pointing their arm out”, they are putting their arm in a specific position, engaging the whole of the musculature of their arm in their performance of that position. To wit, they are “sticking” it, which takes conscious attention to every element of the motion. It is the same thing as with the best of any art form, as with the music: it is attention to the _whole_ of the medium, breaking it down, understanding not just the music but how the notes and elements integrate and how the _hands_ integrate with the music.

    As I would say it with writing, it is a depth awareness of the medium, not just attention to the surface effect of intended results (of “intended” meaning, as it were).

    Of course, it circles around: those people who work through #7 are more likely to recognize common element between pieces and more likely to be able to extend the learned memory of a known element into the learning of a new one.

  5. This is a really interesting article. The study reinforces the Montessori approach to general academic learning. Montessori teachers encourage a precise study and mastery of each concept before building complexity, a focus on mastery, individual pacing, opportunity for repetition until mastered, and quality over quantity. You could easily replace the piano passage learned in this study for any Montessori lesson.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve been learning so much about how to practice deliberately, but it’s so easy to fall back into old patterns. I found this at the perfect time. I’ve been struggling with motivation to practice recently because I’m spending hours and hours and just getting frustrated with my progress. I was starting to worry about whether I’d be ready for my recital. This was a helpful reminder to approach my practicing differently. Thanks!

  7. This is absolutely the best article on practicing that I have ever read. Thanks for the post! The interesting question is why some students seem to intuitively understand this and why some do not. Or is it not a question of “understanding” but rather behavior? Whatever the case, this accounts for the real difference in outcomes and not the common myth that “talent” has anything to do with it. I guess the encouraging thing is that anyone can learn how to practice in this way. I’ve recently had success with an adult student who had largely plateaued for several years. This all relates to the idea of “Deep Practice” as put forth by K. Anders Ericsson and the reality of myelin production that Daniel Coyle discusses in his book The Talent Code. I look forward to learning more from your blog!

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