The Power of Deliberate Practice

Research has shown that the most important factor in a music student’s ability to perform is not some kind of inborn musical talent, but the amount of time spent practicing. But what exactly is meant by practicing? A piano student who sits down, tinkers around a while, then plays a few favorite songs may call that practicing, but is that student getting the most out of the time spent at the keyboard? Deliberate practice has certain characteristics that can make every practice session count.


In his bestselling book, Talent is Overrated, Fortune Magazine editor Geoff Colvin uses the phrase, “deliberate practice” to describe the kind of practice that helps performers get better at what they do.  He names several characteristics of deliberate practice, four of which apply well to piano studies.



First of all, deliberate practice is designed to help a performer improve. It requires students to work on things a little beyond their current level. Deliberate practice builds skills through drills and exercises that actually make the mind and body better able to perform very specific tasks. It also rehearses and refines more complex performances, such as pieces of music, that are chosen to be challenging but not too difficult for the student’s level of ability.



Deliberate practice is repetitious. For a piano student, that means playing the same songs or finger exercises over and over again. Just running once through a song on the piano probably won’t make it any better than it was yesterday. Playing it again and again is the best way to improve.



Repetition is important, but mindless repetition isn’t enough. Deliberate practice requires mental effort. When practicing, a piano student needs to be engaged in trying to improve, in listening carefully each time, and then trying to play better next time.



Finally, deliberate practice involves feedback. Anyone trying to improve a skill needs someone to tell them how they’re doing. This is why we want parents to be positive practice partners and encourage their piano students to work toward playing their best. Piano students can also provide their own feedback by listening to a recording of a piano piece they are learning and comparing their own performance, or by watching a video of their own playing while looking for ways that they can improve. The great thing about playing an instrument like the piano is that hitting any key provides instant feedback. If it sounds good, then good stuff is happening.


These four parts of deliberate practice; aiming for improvement, repetition, mental effort, and feedback, all work together to increase a piano student’s ability to make music. Make the most of practice time by making them part of your piano student’s daily practice routine.


Happy playing,

Joseph Hoffman




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3 Responses to The Power of Deliberate Practice

  1. Sometimes, for me, getting students the music they want entails me transcribing a particular pop song for them, that involves a lot of decisions for me about trying to be true to the original melody so the students can play along with the track (key, rhythm, register, etc) or transpose the piece to an easier key and with a simplified rhythm which will enable them to play it more easily. Sometimes giving them a very difficult transcription which is clearly beyond their current abilities is an excellent motivator, and sometimes it isnt, every student is a unique individual who responds to a wide range of positive or negative reinforcements- some will rise to the challenge and work their butts off to be able to conquer the piece and some will curl up in a little tearful ball and quit. One parent came up with an excellent motivator for her daughter (who was a very commercially minded girl), she paid her $5 for every day that she practiced on her own for 30 minutes or more- but at the end of the week the child had to pay for her lesson herself. Pretty quickly the student realized that if she practiced 7 days a week she would be turning a $10 profit weekly, and promptly doubled her efforts at home. Everyone is different, and part of our job as teachers is learning what makes each pupil tick, and helping them develop good discipline which will reward them with a wealth of achievements, both in music and life. This is the way we do it at my studio, anyway…

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