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.
Aiming for Improvement
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.
To read more of Geoff Colvin’s fascinating ideas about talent and success, check out this article.