Music and the Art of Focused Practice

Music and the Art of Focused Practice

I’ve written in the past about the role of practice versus natural ability in the learning of an instrument, and the 10,000 hour rule for mastery of a skill, popularised by the writer and intellectual Malcolm Gladwell. It is only recently, however, that I’ve begun to think in detail about exactly how this focused practice needs to be structured for the best results. It’s probably prescient at this point to say that I’m not a dogmatic adherent to the theory that all skills can be mastered by all people given enough time and the correct pedagogical techniques, but I do believe that the influence of innate abilities is often overestimated in today’s society.

In Outliers, Gladwell argues that relatively small differences in natural aptitudes at specific skills in the early stages of childhood can form a virtuous circle that results in these individuals being more enthusiastic about practising these skill than peers whose initial ability level may be only marginally lower. Those who show an innate talent for maths, for example, would be more likely to enjoy solving mathematical problems, and, as a consequence, get better at maths through consistent and regular practice, than those who initially find it harder, and thus shy away from the subject. This theory is at least partly corroborated by evidence showing that children with birthdays early in the academic year tend to perform better in national attainment tests taken later in life than those born further into the academic year. The difference is not a consequence of the age variance at the time of the tests, which is minimal in percentage terms, but is more likely to be explained by the age difference when schooling is started, when cognitive growth is most rapid, and younger children in the year group are at more of a disadvantage. This disadvantage is further amplified by the effects described above.

Gladwell goes on to describe the importance of focused practice; that is to say, the type of practice that is most likely to yield progress. Even a child prodigy such as Mozart, he indicates, would have concentrated on focused practice for large periods of his early life, helped by a father who was remarkably forward thinking in pedagogical terms. But what exactly is focused practice, and how can we use it to improve our playing?

What is Focused Practice?

For a little while now, I’ve been attempting to master the piano on the well known Nina Simone hit, My Baby Just Cares For Me. Most of you, I think, will be at least partially familiar with the tune, and will recognise its descending bassline and jazzy, bluesy piano, but for those who don’t know it I’ve included a version below. It starts with a fairly simple combination of stabby inverted chords in the right hand with a walking bass style bottom end played in the left hand. However, by about two thirds of the way through the song some tricky stuff creeps in, involving significant right and left hand separation both rhythmically and tonally.

My approach to learning and mastering this song had, until recently, been to play it all the way through, stumble over a few bits, then try again. Occasionally I would repeat a phrase that I found difficult, but most of the time I’d play start to finish and then circle back again. Unfortunately my progression with this piece of music had seemed to reach a plateau; sometimes I’d feel that I’d improved a bit, but after any sort of sustained break from playing it I would be roughly back to square one. The reason for this lack of progression may seem obvious in hindsight, but at the time I felt that I was doing exactly what I should do – focused practice on a single piece of music. This had worked for me on simpler pieces of music in the past, but for something complex like this song I needed a different approach.

Four Stages of Competence

There’s a well known theory in the psychology of learning that breaks down skills acquisition into four stages: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence. Stage one – unconscious incompetence – is not always pertinent to playing an instrument, unless you’re tone deaf or deluded about your own abilities; it’s pretty hard to be incompetent at playing a particular piece whilst also being unconscious of this fact. Most players, instead, find themselves somewhere beween stage two and stage three, with, perhaps, a smattering of stage four at some points in a given musical work.

The point to take home here is that if you practise pieces of music by playing them all the way through, all of the time, it’s likely that, unless you are in at least stage three throughout the piece, you’re not making the best use of your time. So what do you do instead?

Isolate Parts

With complex tasks it’s often best to break them down into constituent parts and focus on perfecting each of these before putting them together as a whole. It’s no good trying to correct multiple technical areas at once, as your brain will not be able to find the necessary focus, and you’ll be left with a mess. I finally perfected the solo part of My Baby Just Cares For Me, by isolating the difficult parts in each hand, then perfecting them by practising, in a critical, but not overly critical, way again and again, until each hand could play its part cleanly and consistently. After that it was just a case of putting the two hands together, which was made easier by the fact that I didn’t need to worry about exactly what each hand was playing – by this point I had mastered this and, therefore had to focus only on synchronising them.

I may be making this sound easy. Unfortunately it isn’t and wasn’t. Practising in this way can be tiresome, which is why many musicians will either move on to something else, or try to play the whole song, albeit imperfectly. One of the keys, (no pun intended!), to progression, of course, is persistence, and I strongly believe that this is a more important quality in top musicians than supposed natural talent, but this type of practice can be made more bearable and productive by ensuring that it is done in small segments. Three sessions of 20 minutes practice will yield much better results than an hour labouring away. Short sessions also allow for development time – think of it as the unconscious digesting the practice. It’s also worth understanding that the development of your playing will not be a nice linear process from beginner to expert. Instead it will be marked by a series of improvements punctuated by plateaus where no significant development appears to be happening. Ensuring that you stay committed and consistent throughout these plateaus is the key to achieving the jumps in ability level that appear to come out of nowhere, but which are actually a consequence of persistent hard work eventually paying off. It is also vital that you focus on rewarding yourself mentally for any small gains, whilst visualising mistakes not as inherent errors that are impossible to remove, but areas for improvement that will be addressed by continued work.

In the classic Simpsons episode, The Otto Show, Homer asks Bart where his guitar is. Bart apprehensively tells his father that he found it too hard, to which Homer replies, ‘It’s OK, son. If a job’s hard to do it’s not worth doing!’ The reality of learning an instrument, sadly, is the opposite of this sentiment – focus on the hard parts of playing and your weaknesses and progression will come naturally.





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