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Deliberate Practice and Practice Habits, Part 1
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Deliberate Practice and Practice Habits, Part 1

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In the paper, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, K. Anders Ericsson, et al, note that “the maximal level of performance for individuals in a given domain is not attained automatically as function of extended experience, but the level of performance can be increased even by highly experienced individuals as a result of deliberate efforts to improve.”

Ericsson attempted to discover the characteristics that played a role those performers who were considered exceptional. He argued that most people believe that “the expert performer must be endowed with characteristics qualitatively different from those of normal adults.” However, he concluded “the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain."

Deliberate Effort

Ericsson stated that, in contrast to the “talent” argument, “the amount of a specific type of activity (deliberate practice) is consistently correlated with a wide range of performance including expert-level performance.” One the most-cited characteristics for optimal learning and performance, according to Ericsson is “the subject’s motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance.” One of the key contributions to this characteristic is that the tasks, when practicing deliberately, “should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance.”

Correlation With Recent Studies

Ericsson’s findings correlate with those of Duke, Simmons, and Cash. In their paper, It’s Not How Much; It’s How, Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills, they note that practice strategies were more important than how much or how long musicians practiced. Duke, et al, studied the practice habits of advanced pianists and noted that the top-ranked pianists, in their study, did not make fewer mistakes during their practice sessions. However, the authors noted, they seemed much better at correcting their mistakes. And, they practiced in such way to that the error would not occur again.

Practice as a Habit

Duke and Ericsson did note that musicians that performed well had, indeed, dedicated years of their lives to their instruments. Gaining proficiency on a musical instrument takes years. As we did for many of our finals in college, we cannot, as musicians wait, pull an all-nighter before a performance or competition, and expect to do well. We must dedicate time to our craft. Those musicians who have achieved the pinnacle on their chosen instrument have practiced, almost religiously, on a daily basis. There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence that suggests that the best musicians make practice a habit, Ericsson began to quantify that hypothesis in his study.

We can glean several conclusions from Ericsson and Duke’s studies. Firstly, in order to improve, we need to practice deliberately focusing on making improvements during each practice session. Secondly, we must have feedback on our work. We should also make practice a habit. And, finally, we should focus on the long term.

In my next post, I’ll apply these conclusions to physical blowing mastery.

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Mark Olson Mark Olson is a software engineer in Omaha, NE. Over the years, he has played numerous musical instruments including the bagpipes, guitar, piano, flute, and saxophone. As a young man, Mark competed as a solo piper. Due to the demands of raising a family, Mark had to forgo his musical pursuits. While he regrets the fact he gave up the bagpipes, he is proud of the fact that both of his sons have grown to be fine young men. With the nest now empty, he has picked up the pipes once again. If he gets his chops, and his groove, back, he plans to compete again as a solo piper.

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