Why Trying to Make Practice Fun Might Be the Wrong Approach

If you’ve read any articles or books on deliberate practice, you may recall that one of its defining characteristics is that such practice is “not inherently enjoyable.”

Some have even taken this to mean that deliberate practice is actively unpleasant.

That it is “hard” or “painful” and “hurts.”

Urgh. So does that mean that practicing the “right way” is supposed to feel like a chore? That if we want to become great, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of willpower to persist in an apparently torturous activity?

Learn how to code, darn it!

I stumbled across Code Academy and Stencyl not long ago, and thought it would be cool if my kids could learn to code or design their own video games. So I set up some accounts and tried to get my oldest engaged. But he never really did.

Then Minecraft fever kicked in, and he got sucked into a world of “mods” and “skins” and was suddenly diving into hidden system folders on the Mac, downloading hacks and programs to create and tweak his own skins and mods, googling for obscure tips, scouring forums, and watching tutorial videos.

I thought CodeAcademy and Stencyl were more straightforward and structured, but that didn’t matter to him. Because he’s totally invested in solving a seemingly chaotic and never-ending series of puzzles that he actually cares to solve.

Is he always having “fun”? No, but he’s totally engrossed and engaged.

Caring matters

Indeed, caring about something and being invested matters.

A set of Canadian studies have found that passion plays a key role in the attainment of a high level of performance. The findings were a little more nuanced than this, but essentially, greater passion leads to more deliberate practice which in turn leads to a higher level of performance.

So saying that deliberate practice “hurts” and is “hard” misrepresents what this kind of practice actually feels like when you care.

Babies vs. groceries

I recently heard Wynton Marsalis give a talk in which he shared a lesson he learned as a young boy.

It was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and the streets were packed with people. He was walking with his mother, who was carrying a baby in her arms, and he could tell that she was starting to tire and laboring a bit as they fought to avoid being trampled by the crowd.

He offered to carry the baby, and his mother declined. He asked again, and was turned down once more. He continued to express his desire to help, and finally his mother stopped and said that if it was bag of groceries, she would be happy to have his help. “But this is a baby,” she said. “How heavy something is depends on how you feel about carrying it.

We have it backwards

To an outsider, tuning a note with exacting detail, experimenting with every possible combination of bowings and fingerings, playing long tones, or spending an afternoon poring over manuscripts and comparing different editions of a score may seem painful.

Whereas, playing through a piece or jamming with friends might sound like terrific fun. And at first, it might very well be.

But at some point, repeated rehearsal becomes a drag. Because it’s not a particularly effective way to get better (seriously, check out that article – it’s worth a read). It’s not very engaging or mentally stimulating. And simply putting in reps hoping that your brain will somehow catch on and do the right thing when the time comes is not going to do much for your confidence.

In reality, it’s the active, thoughtful, problem-solving variety of “practice” – masquerading as painful drudgery to the uninitiated – that leads to a more engaging, engrossing, and gratifying experience in the practice room. Because then you’re thinking. And learning. Experiencing daily micro-epiphanies. And solving problems that mean something to you.

How to get obsessed

So how do you get yourself to care? To pursue deeper engagement and discovery as opposed to fun?

What if, instead of practicing to simply “make it sound better” or accumulate enough repetitions to maintain a certain level, your larger objective is to leave the practice room having learned something you didn’t know before?

Where your efforts are centered around conducting experiments to (1) clarify what you want, (2) figure out what’s holding you back, (3) brainstorm solutions that get you closer, and (4) test yourself to see if your solutions are sticking?

What puzzles would you care to solve today?

photo credit: Tim Holmes via photopin cc

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Comments

25 Responses

  1. Deep focus is the place to be! Obviously there is a big difference between just messing around and practicing with optimum focus. I find that stacking practice tasks helps my students. I’ve got a whole lot of strategies and games to encourage them to cycle through them, dropping in and out of deep focus as they go. The more you drop in, the better you get at it.

  2. Good thoughts! I recently thought my daughter wasn’t doing much when she was practicing, as I didn’t ‘hear’ enough going on upstairs… So I went up and lay on the sofa and just hung out with her. The silences I had noticed were, her reading the score, listening to other interpretations on the Internet, trying out fingerlings with just her left hand, (she plays the violin),bowing exercises and options without the left hand…..and then more thinking. She then stands up an plays the section she’d been working as a ‘performance’ notices what doesn’t work……..And then does the repetition work on bits that are still rough….
    She seemed very engaged.
    Having said this at the end of last ‘term,’ (she’s home educated) she simply needed a complete break and time to inwardly process what had been a very intense year. So sometimes even passion isn’t enough and what is needed is a holiday!

  3. Indeed, “getting yourself to care” counts more than anything else; it’s the impetus behind deep motivation.

    And while games and other such superficial activities can entrain you into a process, in my experience they only motivate the student as far as the game itself. They won’t in themselves make students care about the music or the violin.

    In fact, for some students, overuse of such tactics creates a “game dependence.” They’ll only get their fiddles out of the case to play the game, and become quickly bored when that stimulant is removed. So use those games with caution; they’re a double edged sword.

    Obviously, there’s a lot more to learning an instrument than caring about it a whole lot. But remove the caring factor from an otherwise comprehensive practice strategy, and you’ve got nothing.

    My bottom line, speaking as a teacher to a student: “If you don’t care; I can’t help you.”

  4. Reading the title I was all almost taken aback by the premise that practice shouldn’t have to be “fun”. Then after reading the article, I realized that my idea of “fun” is actually synonymous with obsession. Lucky me? Oh well, at least I’m putting my OCD to good use this time.

    1. IAWTC. I hear people say the same thing about how to make math “fun.” My internal response to that sort of thing is always, “It already is.”

  5. I love this article so much. This is why I’m OK with having spent 7 years and lots of dollars on degrees that (for the moment) are not producing any monetary returns. This world of discovery and problem-solving never gets old, is never unexciting, and I’ll have it for the rest of my life.

  6. I agree with Janis. This is a great approach for an adult amateur, music student or professional. The trouble is that practicing an instrument isn’t intrinsically rewarding for a young beginner. Sometimes we need to stack the deck in favour of practice with a few extrinsic rewards and games.

    1. Thing is … I’m not entirely sure we should. What I’m thinking is more that, if the activity is not intrinsically fun, then the kid sort of isn’t supposed to be doing it. The games will not succeed in turning an uninterested kid into a committed one, and they will frustrate and render impatient the gifted kid who doesn’t want to waste time with games and prizes but just wants to play the thing.

      If a kid isn’t motivated to play music because they want to get outside and run around, then the solution is probably not to make music “fun” for them … because it’s just not going to be. The solution is that the kid probably should be taking gymnastics or dance or playing a sport. Or pounding on a lump of clay, or sitting in front of a typewriter writing stories.

      Kids are not incapable of intrinsic motivation and hardly have to be told when things are fun. In fact, they are almost the only humans on the planet who are capable of intrinsic motivation in an unfettered way. I think a lot of this “games and prizes” stuff just winds up failing to convert the kids who don’t want to do it (and never will) and in the process holds back the kids who do.

      We need to stop trying to turn everyone into us. I do think that more people would benefit from learning an instrument than not, and I’m up for adding it to school curricula as much as we can afford to. But we need to recognize that some people are meant to be shortstops or painters and not cellists.

      I’m sure that many happy athletes say exactly the same things to themselves about making kids play sports that we say about making kids play instruments. From the other side, I had legions of gym classes that all essentially boiled down to “games and prizes,” and I hated them from start to finish and learned NO applicable life lessons from any of them. All they did was reinforce the fact that I hate sports. It’s as spurious for a musician to say that everyone can be made to love what we love as it would be for someone to tell me that everyone is capable of enjoying a game of basketball. I wish I hadn’t had my time wasted in those classes, and if a kid just doesn’t find music intrinsically rewarding, then they should be encouraged in the direction in which they naturally want to move.

      1. So very true. I had a very similarly negative time sink experience with sports. My dad even offered to pay me $100 if I hit a triple in little league. This was back in the 80s when $100 was a lot of money. Well, he might as have paid me to sprout gills and breathe water. Instead I ended up daydreaming in left field about was how much legos and art supplies could be gotten for $100.

        I wonder what would have happened if I had been forced to play cello instead of baseball? Maybe I would hate the cello and love sports? Perhaps I should call my parents and thank them for letting me rebel against their macho education so that I could become passionate about worthier pursuits like music?

        1. I totally agree! Forcing should never be an issue. However, practicing with focus is a mature skill. We are asking children to perform an extremely complicated set of skills and this can be overwhelming at times. Young children all have times when they need to assert their willpower and kick up a stink about practice, homework, even getting dressed for school. A playful approach helps to get over these humps. I am certainly not talking about bribery or lavish rewards. They don’t work.

          The brain provides its own reward. When you are having a genuinely creative time solving problems (practice) it generates a flow of dopamine. This causes the brain to want to do it again.

          Here are a few wise words on play:

          “Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.”…. Maslow

          “Whoever wants to understand much, must play much,” … Benn

          “Happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning, truth and beauty can’t.”….. Huxley

          “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”…. Fred Rogers

          “A child loves his play, not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.”…. Spock (Benjamin not Commander)

          “Necessity may be the Mother of Invention, but play is certainly the father.”…. Van Oech

          “The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.”….. Sutton-Smith

          “Play is training for the unexpected.”…. Bekof

        2. Sue, there are DEFINITELY times when kids (and a lot of adults, really) need to learn the truth that even things they enjoy will come with at least some proportion of shit-shoveling, although you will probably want to call it something else in a classroom. 🙂

          That’s come up before I think, when people have discussed the dangerous part of the whole “live your passion!!!!!!!!!!!!” attitude, the reality that even your “passion” will include tedium and monkeywork. No job, no relationship, no hobby, nothing. That is definitely something that all human beings could stand to learn, kids and adults included. The fortunate part is that intrinsic love of the activity will usually bridge this gap — but you’re right. Sometimes it does need an external push.

        3. “I wonder what would have happened if I had been forced to play cello instead of baseball?”

          You’d have outpaced the people trying to force you in that direction to start with, I think. It’d be like trying to push a boulder downhill. I know that when I was encouraged by people outside of myself to move in the direction I wanted to go anyway, I ended up outstripping them.

    2. And this isn’t to say that there isn’t some baseline level of skill that people need in some areas: reading, writing, a basic ability to handle numbers, history, and yes some baseline level of skill in an instrument would be nice. But there are going to be kids who just dislike it as much as I cannot stand team sports and who would much rather be playing with blocks, writing stories, collecting things, running around, etc. It doesn’t seem any more guaranteed of success that we make kids like music by turning it into games than that we could make kids who hate sports enjoy it by trying to force music into it somehow.

      It all just reminds me of an educational version of low-fat vegan “burgers.” If you really want to do vegan, then eat a carrot.

  7. Re: Wynton Marsalis’ quote: “How heavy something is depends on how you feel about carrying it.”

    That’s why, at 5’3″ in height, carrying a tuba on my lap, back, or shoulder is akin to a badge of honor! I love playing the instrument (although I do become somewhat weary of the ubiquitous question, “Don’t you wish that you played the ______?”).

  8. Lately my practice has been staggered, which I think is a term I first heard about on this blog. I am not sure of the correct term…Anyway in any given practice session I may work on 3 things interchangeably. Rather than hammering away at something until I get it right, I might do 5-10 minutes on one problem section, then work on something else before coming back to the first thing I was working on. Depending on how things are going, I may then work on yet something else, or just free play, with no specific goal in mind. Letting my mind wander a bit before coming back to the problems at hand seems to allow me to keep working on something for a longer amount of time.
    In the past I would have just kept hammering away at something until I just got tired or bored of it. It seems like staggering my practice, interspersed with little breaks, seems to work the best.

  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you… I so deeply needed to read this. Especially the last part on how to get obsessed. I stopped practicing/composing since going to music college… I graduated with a fear for creating music and with severe self doubt. There was courage and passion before college. This was the little kick I needed to help me begin to re-kindle my musical child. Huge cyber HUG!!!

  10. I prefer this article because it is less productivity-oriented than the others. It follows less the idea that “there”s a maximum”. The feedback is in the process and it is concreet : to have learn something new.

  11. love this approach… I like working hard, but love working hard even more when there’s stakes on the line, or working towards a common goal, or learning while I work hard. thanks for this !

  12. The violin is a puzzle. How to identify the puzzle ?
    It is a temporal puzzle because playing a piece takes time. A standard puzzle also takes time but it is fixed.

    The violin puzzle is more tragic because you have always just played in the close past.

    The things done on the violin are words written on the sans of the desert. Few days later, the wind blows and the writings on the sand disappear.

    Is the word “puzzle” a popular science word for what I have to solve to master the violin ?
    Is bulletproofmusician popular science ?
    Is cognitive psychology popular science ?

  13. Pingback: Back to School
  14. Ericsson offers neither logic nor evidence as to why “Deliberate Practice” cannot be enjoyable. He only asserts it.

    As for all the hype about “Deliberate Practice”, the “10,000 hour rule” and related stuff, I am convinced that the majority of internet acolytes and critics alike have never read the originals by Ericsson, Gladwell, Colvin, Syed and others. That is the only reasonable explanation of how their ideas are so badly re-presented, and how beliefs are ascribed to them that they have never claimed and almost certainly do not hold.

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