Why a Little Reflection Should Be a Regular Part of Your Practice Routine

A part of me has always been rather fond of the “no pain, no gain” mentality. The giving “110% percent” mindset, and the idea that if you’re not actively engaged in effortful activity, nothing is happening.

But I’ve come to appreciate that gains don’t always happen when we’re in the midst of an activity. I’ve learned, for instance, that muscle growth doesn’t happen during a workout, but between workouts, when we are in recovery mode – hence the importance of proper nutrition and sleep to help our bodies recuperate (on a side note, isn’t it curious how we need excuses to justify getting more sleep?).

And as it turns out, learning might be enhanced by the right kind of rest as well. Where rather than feeling guilty about breaks and time away from our instrument, they can be an integral part of maximizing the learning that takes place in practice sessions, as well as in and between lessons and performances.

But it’s important to note that not all rest is created equal. There is one activity in particular we can engage in during our rest periods that appears to help us learn more effectively – and may even make our next practice session more fruitful.

Reflection vs. dwelling

If you’ve ever put your foot in your mouth or done something you wish you hadn’t, you probably have some experience dwelling on past events that you would love to go back in time and erase.

Reflection is an activity with some similarities to this teeth-gnashing and dwelling on regretful gaffes, but is different in that it is structured around learning from past mistakes and guiding future practice, as opposed to simply ruminating on the past and making ourselves feel bad.

As described in the book Make it Stick, “Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.”

The idea is that since we don’t usually have time to do any meaningful reflection during a performance (or surgical procedure, important speech, or crucial and precarious conversation with one’s in-laws), reflecting on these experiences afterwards can be a key part of the learning process.

National vs. international junior athletes

A group of researchers in the Netherlands conducted a study of 222 young competitive junior-level athletes to see if there were specific factors that separated the national-level athletes from the more elite international level.

In particular, they were curious to see what differences might exist in how effectively the athletes were able to guide their own learning process. Intuitively, one would think that “self-regulated” learners, who are better at planning, monitoring, and evaluating their performances, would generally attain a higher level of performance than learners who rely on others to tell them what to do.

So, all athletes were assessed in six different areas of self-regulation – planning, self-monitoring, evaluation, reflection, effort, and self-efficacy.

Then, the national level athletes’ results were compared with the international level athletes to see if there were any differences between the two.

Turns out there were no significant differences on these measures between the national and international level competitors.

Except in one area.

Namely, reflection.

All the elite international athletes had average to high reflection scores, while the national level athletes’ scores varied quite a bit.

The authors suggest that to perform at the international level, it seems that an athlete has to have at least an average amount of skill in the area of self-reflection.

Reflection & effort

Another Dutch study of 444 elite and sub-elite youth soccer players yielded similar findings. Specifically, that the elite athletes tended to have high scores in not just reflection, but effort as well.

It appears that reflecting on training and competition may help the elite athletes more clearly identify the weaknesses in their game, which makes it easier to strategically plan how to work on these in subsequent practices and games – perhaps leading to increased motivation to address these areas in future training session as well.

Take action

So, the next time you finish practicing, rather than rushing out of the practice room to whatever is next, try taking a minute to reflect on what you learned in your practice session.

Or after your next rehearsal or performance, reflect on what happened and what you might do differently next time to make things even better.

Or after your next lesson, reflecting for a moment on what you just learned (or, if you are the one teaching, might it be worth saving a minute or two at the end to help your student do a bit of self-reflection on what they learned?).

Additional reading

Interesting thoughts by a surgeon on deliberate practice and reflection: Maximizing postgraduate surgical education in the future

A recent University of Texas study found that reflecting on previously learned material during rest enhanced learning of future material. Memory tasks and polishing current repertoire are two very different things, but still…intriguing: Mental Rest and Reflection Boost Learning

The one-sentence summary

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” ~Peter Drucker

photo credit: gryhrt via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that if I just put in the time, the nerves would eventually go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more bad performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking the gap between practice and performance, because their practice looks fundamentally different. Specifically, their practice is not just about skill development – it’s about skill retrieval too.

This was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing more fun (and successful), but practicing a more satisfying and positive experience too.

If you’ve been wanting to become more “bulletproof” on stage and get more out of your daily practice too, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and how to start making every day a good practice day. 😁


12 Responses

  1. Your subject today – reflection – is right on target for me. I had a big concert last night and a dress two days before. In between these events I got the idea that spending some time in thought about problems I encountered at the dress rehearsal might be beneficial. So I engaged in quiet reflect over each phrase of each piece of music to pinpoint the problem areas. (Note: I play trumpet and most of the problems involved accurately hitting very high notes that ran rampant throughout the entire program.) During my period of reflection I tried to determine how I might marshal my energies to play more accurately during the concert itself. I am happy to report that I totally nailed every note at last night’s concert and I fully attribute that to time spent in quiet reflection. Thanks for your always helpful “lessons!”

  2. The process of learning is very long, not instantaneous, it’s like when I eat, that’s not because I ate that I am nourished, there is what we call “digestion”, the food goes through all the organs (oesophage,estomac intestine, grele intestine) and apart from rice, there is a part of the food which is useless to the body and rejected.

  3. Great article. As a surgeon, flutist and educator I often suggest the mental imagery of performing a surgery prior to the moment that the learner surgeons are scrubbed into the operating room, and run through the necessary steps with them. I will definitely include reflection after giving the feedback on what portions went well, and what steps could have been performed better.

    Read your blog every Sunday am without fail.

    Karlotta Davis

  4. Spot on! This is another reason why I advocate micro practices for young beginners. I hadn’t thought too deeply on reflecting on the previous practice while away from the instrument, but isn’t this just what a very keen parent will do. This must have a lot to do with the comparative success of musicians who had a lot of nurturing support as beginners.

  5. Another fine article, thank you!

    This fits well with my research linking Flow (ideally relaxed/focussed state for practising or performing) with other mind-body concepts, such as Ericksonian Hypnosis and Feldenkrais Method.

    In the “Awareness through Movement” sessions that characterise the Feldenkrais Method, gentle physical exercises are interspersed with short periods of rest and reflection. During these moments, the conscious and unconscious mind “compare notes”, so that learning is consolidated on multiple levels. It’s a bit like working at the computer, and saving your work every few minutes – the data gets stored properly.

    Ericksonians consider music teaching to be the type of concentrated, focussed interaction, with intense absorption and good rapport, where teacher and student may well spontaneously enter a shared, natural state of trance. Good solo practising can be a kind of self-hypnosis. Experienced hypnotists know that the moment when a client re-orients out of trance is particuarly delicate, a brief time where both the trance-state just ended and the real life about to continue are available to conscious awareness. This is an ideal moment for Reflection (solo, or guided by a teacher), so that insights gained during practice (i.e. in trance) can be shared between unconscious and conscious mind.

    The lesson for teachers and practisers alike is that brief moments of Reflection are certainly not a waste of time. Ideally, one should develop the habit of including these moments, and develop also the ability to make optimal use of them.

    All best wishes


  6. The idea that reflecting after practice is as important as protein, carbs, and sleep after a workout is very fascinating. I just cracked open a 2nd practice journal (the first one is all filled up with two years of data) and I never thought of it as more than a refrence log to track progress or remember details of a breakthrough moment. But now that I think about it, my biggest break through moments happened while I was no where near my cello, but was instead thinking or writting about my latest experienes.

    This is probably why I always look foward to reading your sunday blog posts ;). They are some of the most thought provoking on the internet.

  7. Reflection vs. dwelling is certainly an important distinction. I often catch myself over-thinking my most recent lesson, concert, or practice session. I’ll say to myself “what’s the take-away?” and then attempt move on. A difficult behavior to keep in check, for sure.
    Thanks for the article.

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