Deliberate Practice is most effective
Thinking about playing music while you’re playing music is a good start, but what really makes practice most effective is to always be striving for improvement. Our goal should be that each practice session consists of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is an idea from K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, who studies how people become experts at something:
In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance.
-Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Romer (1993)
This idea of deliberate practice is relevant because sometimes students (or their parents) assume that it would be better just to play for fun most of the time, instead of spending time practicing seriously. A parent might say to me, “Little Matilda is so musical and just loves playing the piano, so I don’t want to squelch her enthusiasm by making her play scales”. And of course enjoyment of playing is important, and there is value in spending time improvising or just “noodling” on the piano, but if students really want to improve as pianists, deliberate practice is the most effective way.
Playing “just for fun” does not make you a better musician
A 1996 study by John Sloboda and his colleagues compared five groups of children who were or had been taking music lessons. The highest-achieving group consisted of children who were at a special music school, the second group included children who had applied but not been admitted to music school, the third group was children who had considered applying to the school, the fourth group were “regular” children taking music lessons, and the lowest-achieving group was children who had played an instrument in the past but had quit. When Sloboda looked at how much time children in the different groups had spent practicing, there was a clear correlation between the hours they had practiced over their lifetime, and the quality of their playing. By age 13, children in the high-achieving group had practiced twice as many hours as the children in the second group, and more than five times as many hours as the children who subsequently gave up playing their instrument.
From Sloboda et al. (1996)
There is a very clear correlation between hours spent in serious practice and the level of playing. In contrast, when Sloboda looked at how much time had been spent playing “for fun”, there was no correlation. The high-achieving group did not spend significantly more time playing previously-learned pieces, improvising, or fooling around on their instruments. It was hard practice, with their attention focused on improving their playing, that led those children to be better musicians, not playing for the sheer enjoyment of it.
Why is deliberate practice better than just playing music?
You might think (and we often do think this) that simple repetition is enough to make us learn. If you play a tune enough times, you’ll eventually know it well, whether or not you were paying full attention while you were playing it, right? Well, yes and no. You can learn something up to a certain level of proficiency without giving your full attention, but it takes a lot longer, and you won’t master it to the same level you could if you were really focusing on learning.
The difference at the level of the brain seems to be based on the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which plays an important role in learning. When we are paying attention to something, a part of the brain called the basal forebrain is activated, and releases acetylcholine into the appropriate parts of the brain for learning that particular task. Neurons that are active and have acetylcholine released onto them will be more plastic and this helps us lock in our memories of whatever we’re paying attention to.
Deliberate practice, that is, paying attention to your practice and focusing on improvement, is the most effective way of learning to play music.
Ericsson KA, Krampe RT Tesch-Römer C (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.
Sloboda JA, Davidson JW, Howe MJA, Moore DG (1996). The role of practice in the development of performing musicicans British Journal of Psychology 87:287-309.