Practicing: What is it?

By Hanno Strydom

Good intentions, poor outcomes—why?
Every new student I've encountered begins the journey of learning to play the cello with a sense of excitement. And justifiably so—it is a journey that can be very rewarding and that promises to provide a lifetime of satisfaction and enjoyment. Why then do progress and motivation so often fizzle out after just a few years, or less?
I believe the answer to this is clear. Many students never come to grips with the one element that above all else determines the success or failure of learning to play an instrument: practicing.
I'm not saying that students don't acknowledge the fact that regular individual practice should be an important part of their music learning experience—I've never met a new student who didn't express a sincere commitment to practice. What I am saying is that most students never come to understand what practicing actually is, and most teachers don't do a particularly good job of clarifying.
Dispelling Everyday Ideas about what Practicing is
For the majority of music students, their understanding of practicing never evolves far beyond the everyday use of the word. In his bestselling book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin gives the following example of this everyday notion of practice:
"We all know what practice is. I do it all the time. Odds are good that you do it in a similar general way, regardless of what you're practicing. When I practice golf, I go to the driving range and get two big buckets of balls. I pick my spot, put down my bag of clubs, and tip over one of the buckets. I read somewhere that you should warm up with short irons, so I take out an 8- or 9-iron and start hitting. I also read somewhere that you should always have a target, so I pick one of the fake "greens" out on the range and aim for it, though I'm not really sure how far away it is. As I work through the short irons, middle irons, long irons, and driver, I hit quite a few bad shots. My usual reaction is to hit another ball as quickly as possible in hopes that it will be a decent shot, and then I can forget about the bad one.
Occasionally I realize that I should stop to think about why the shot was bad. There seem to be about five thousand things you can do wrong when hitting a golf ball, so I pick one of them and work on it a bit, convincing myself that I can sense improvement, until I hit another bad one, at which point I figure I should probably also work on another one of the five thousand things. Not long thereafter the two buckets of balls are gone and I head back to the clubhouse, very much looking forward to playing an actual game of golf, and feeling virtuous for having practiced."
Sound familiar? As Colvin goes on to say, "Whatever it was I was doing out there on the range, and regardless of whether I call it practice, it hasn't accomplished a thing." This muddled understanding of what practicing is stems in part from failing to distinguish practicing from the other activities central to the pursuit in question—in our case, rehearsing, playing, and performing—none of which can be substituted for practicing.
So, if what Colvin described isn't practicing, and if rehearsing, playing, and performing aren't practicing, then what is?
A Better Idea: Deliberate Practice
In their paper The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, researchers K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer do an excellent job of explaining what constitutes effective practice. Based on extensive research they conclude that high level performance is not the result of what is often called talent, but rather that, "There is a direct correlation between the amount of time an individual is engaged in deliberate practice activities and the level of that individual's acquired performance." In his book Colvin goes on to identify a number of key characteristics of deliberate practice as elucidated by Ericsson et al:
1. It is designed specifically to improve performance
  • Key word:  designed
  • This design often requires the knowledge of a teacher or coach—it requires someone who understands and has access to the body of accumulated knowledge about how performance is improved and developed in the field in question.
  • It also requires a teacher or coach because he/she will be able to see the student in ways the student is unable to, both physically, and in terms of possessing the training to see/hear what the student cannot.
  • A clear and accurate assessment of the student's current level of performance is critical to designing the best practice activity.

  • A key part of designing deliberate practice activities is that they must lie in what we might call the learning zone. As represented in the diagram, the learning zone is the location of skills and abilities that are just beyond your comfort zone—no significant learning takes place when we practice activities in the comfort zone as these are skills and activities we have already mastered and can do easily (and well, as defined by a skilled teacher!). Similarly, attempting to practice skills that fall in the panic zone would be unproductive because we haven't yet acquired vital prerequisites to these skills. Deliberate practice activities must be continually revised so as to remain in the learning zone as the comfort zone expands. Click here for more...

2. It can be repeated a lot

  • High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a skill and performing the skill in context, when it counts. Colvin cites the example of a great golfer repeatedly practicing very difficult shots—shots he may only rarely encounter in actual game play, but if those were his only opportunities, he likely wouldn't hit very well.
  • High repetition isn't enough—the practice activity being repeated must be appropriately demanding, i.e. it must fall into the learning zone.

3. Feedback on results is continuously available

  • In Ericsson's words, "... performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further."
  • If you can't see the effects 1) you won't get any better, and 2) you'll stop caring.
  • In his book Colvin identifies another challenge: in a field like classical music it often requires considerable training to recognize and understand the desired outcomes, another reason why a teacher is essential.

4. It is highly demanding mentally

  • Deliberate practice is an effort of focus and concentration. By definition, it requires continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then working to improve them.
  • This type of work requires so much effort that Ericsson et al identify what they call the Effort Constraint. "Deliberate practice is an effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day during extended periods without leading to exhaustion." Four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit.
  • High repetition really means high repetition! As Colvin says, "Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent," or in the words of the formidable violinist, Jascha Heifetz, "To give a hundred per cent you must be two hundred per cent prepared." It doesn't mean practicing the difficult shift ten times every day—it means practicing it, and others like it, many thousands of times over the course of months and years, until it cannot fail.
Colvin identifies one further characteristic of deliberate practice: "It isn't much fun." I'm not entirely convinced about this one. I accept that the desire to improve is a primary motivator of practice, but for many musicians practicing in itself is a vital discipline without which their whole sense of well-being would suffer. Whenever I'm around truly great players, I can't help noticing that their practicing always sounds playful, joyful, and experimental. Somehow they avoided the trap of the harsh, regimented, joyless slog. This playfulness and joy is a vital component of effective practice. Of course, it is challenging to push the limits of what we can do physically, but as we practice we must never lose sight of the beauty and joy of playing. Good practice is characterized by calm focus and a complete awareness of the sounds and the sensations of playing. This type of work is energizing, joyful and most importantly, most effective.
How much Deliberate Practice does it take to be truly Excellent?
In their paper Ericsson et al conclude that, "There is a direct correlation between the amount of time an individual is engaged in deliberate practice activities and the level of that individual's acquired performance. However, maximization of deliberate practice is neither short-lived nor simple. It extends over a period of at least 10 years and involves optimization within several constraints." Ericsson goes on to elaborate on three constraints that must be overcome:
  1. The  Resource Constraint: Deliberate practice requires available time and energy as well as access to excellent teachers, a good quality instrument and bow, suitable practice space, and all of the other associated supplies (strings, rosin, music, etc.). If the individual is a child, someone in the child's environment must structure the child's time to facilitate the necessary practice, pay for the necessities already mentioned, and provide transportation to and from lessons, rehearsals, camps, competitions, etc.
  2. The  Motivational Constraint: One must overcome the fact that deliberate practice is not inherently motivating. Performers consider it instrumental in achieving further improvements in performance. Motivation comes from the results of deliberate practice.
  3. The  Effort Constraint: Deliberate practice requires so much effort that in order to maximize gains from long-term practice it must be limited to an amount from which one can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.
Many lines of research are pointing to a similar amount of deliberate practice being the basis for exceptional performance. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell refers to the  10,000-hour rule—the principle that in order to be truly excellent in any field, the specific skills involved must be practiced for 10,000 hours. This seems consistent with Anders Ericsson's contention that, " performance is acquired slowly over a very long time as a result of practice and that the highest levels of performance and achievement appear to require at least around 10 years of intense prior preparation." It also squares with the finding of a highly scientific study of violinists, conducted in Berlin in the early 1990s, in which the most accomplished players were found to practice an average of 24 hours weekly (an average of 3 hours and 51 minutes daily), and that by age 18 the best players had accumulated more than twice the practice hours of the less accomplished players in the study.
In short, if you aspire to be a professional cellist, or are really serious about playing well, you will need to practice in the range of 3-4+ hours daily, made up of individual practice sessions of no more than 90 minutes at a time.
But I don't want to be a concert cellist. How much should I practice?
We've seen how much deliberate practice it takes to reach the highest level of excellence. At this point many if you will be asking, "But, what about me? I don't aspire to be a concert soloist. How much should I practice?"
A reasonable way of establishing a baseline practice quantity is to multiply the length of your lesson by seven, i.e. your average daily practice time should be at least as long as your weekly lesson.
  • 30-minute lesson = minimum of 210 minutes of practice per week
  • 45-minute lesson = minimum of 315 minutes of practice per week
  • 60-minute lesson = minimum of 420 minutes of practice per week
At this point is must be emphasized that, to be effective, practicing must be regular and consistent. Two two-hour sessions in a week are not the same as eight half-hour sessions in a week. Regular shorter sessions are vastly more effective than infrequent long sessions, even if together they add up to the same amount of time. Shorter practice sessions two or more times per day is the most effective approach.
The Relationship Between Lessons & Practice
At this point we've established what effective practicing is and how much of it is required to achieve results. Now a few words about the relationship between lessons and practice.
The Lesson—The Teacher's Role
As we've seen from our study of deliberate practice, it is an activity that must be carefully designed to be appropriately challenging—it must consist of activities that are in the student's learning zone and must be continually revised so as to remain in the learning zone as the student's comfort zone expands.
Designing and assigning appropriate deliberate practice activities is the most important role of the teacher—this is where the teacher's training and experience is key. The purpose of the lesson is to identify what learning zone activities the student should practice, and to ensure that the student leaves the lesson with maximum clarity about how to go about practicing them.
In this regard the teacher is somewhat like a doctor who is uniquely qualified to identify the condition in question and prescribe the appropriate remedy. My professor at Eastman sometimes referred to the, "Take-your-medicine approach to practicing"—the teacher "prescribes" the "medicine," the student then follows the treatment plan!
Practice—The Student's Role
(and for young students, the parent's role)
Assuming that the student leaves the lesson with absolute clarity about what and how to practice, the student's responsibility is to put in the necessary hours of deliberate practice based on the assigned learning zone activities. To remain effective, practice should never become mindless—students should continually evaluate their work by asking themselves whether their practice is meeting the deliberate practice criteria discussed earlier. Of course, over time the resulting improvements in performance—or the lack of improvement—will be a strong indicator!
In an ideal situation, even the student's practice time would be overseen by a teacher, as is often the case at elite levels in music and sport. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of students, such a structure is impractical (a factor of the "resource constraint" cited above). This is why it is critical that the student leaves the lesson with maximum clarity about what and how to practice, making sure to ask every question necessary to achieve this clarity.
To get the most out of each lesson, it is important for the student to have made every effort to understand, master and integrate what was discussed at the previous lesson. Too little or ineffective work between lessons reduces lesson time to often tedious practice sessions during which material that should have been mastered at home is revisited, resulting in stagnant frustration and waning motivation.
The harder and more effectively the student works between lessons, the more can be accomplished at each lesson. The comfort zone expands more quickly allowing new learning zone material to be assigned. Questions that arose during the student's practice sessions can be addressed, and new skills can be added. The resulting progress makes playing fun, and provides motivation for the next round of practice, setting up a positive feedback loop that fuels progress.
How much are you willing to commit?
Now that we are equipped with a clear understanding of what effective practice is (and isn't), how much of it is required to achieve the highest levels of performance, and the role of lessons and individual practice in the learning process, each student is faced with a decision: To what extent do you want to "buy in"? I encourage each of you to consider this very carefully.
My hope is that ongoing reflection on the quality and quantity of practice will by itself be motivating and will improve results. Over the course of a lifetime of teaching, I imagine that no more than a handful of students will decide to go "all in." Many more will fall somewhere in the middle. They will come to understand and implement some of the the principles of deliberate practice—to whatever extent they choose—and they will make progress, derive satisfaction, and hopefully enjoy having their cello as a companion for life. Perhaps more importantly, these students will have learned vital lessons about how to excel in whatever field they ultimately choose. This study even has an upside for students who choose to ignore the principles of deliberate practice, or who simply don't practice enough: they will know precisely why they're making no progress, and it won't come as a surprise to anyone when motivation fizzles!
Choose wisely!

Practice Suggestions

  • Practice when your mind and body are rested and most prepared to learn. It is revealing that in a study of violinists that took place in Berlin in the early 1990s the top cohort of players—those identified as the best players by their professors—tended to practice in the late morning and early afternoon. They also slept a lot, including taking naps during the day. These players racked up an average of 24 practice hours per week. The weakest group tended to practice in the late afternoon or evening, and averaged just 9 practice hours per week. By the time they had reached age 18, the highest performers had accumulated more then double the lifetime practice hours of the weakest players.

  • Begin your practice sessions with gentle stretching to prepare your muscles for the work ahead.

  • Schedule your practice sessions just like you would any other important activity.  Don't just wait until you have the time, or until everything else has been done; this is a perfect recipe for inconsistent and unproductive practice.  Work out a weekly schedule that includes all of your activities, breaks between activities, homework, work, meal times, etc.  On this schedule assign a designated daily practice time.  Then stick to it, every day, whether you feel like it or not!

  • Before you start playing, think through your practice plan. What learning zone activities were covered in your lesson? Precisely what was the purpose of these learning zone activities? What specific skills were they designed to improve? These should be the main activities of your practice session. Remind yourself of the characteristics of deliberate practice.
  • As you practice, and between practice sessions, evaluate your work according to what you've learned about deliberate practice. Ask yourself whether your practice conforms to the learning zone principle. Are you dedicating your practice time to learning zone activities? Or are you mainly staying in your comfort zone (playing familiar pieces and doing things you already do well), or attempting to do panic zone activities (things for which you don't yet have the prerequisite skills)?
  • Refer to your Evernote lesson notebook to clarify the learning zone activities covered in your lessons—this is what you should be practicing.
  • Use your Evernote lesson notebook to record practice notes and questions for your next lesson. Some students also find it helpful to use the Practice Tracker at the bottom of their Evernote lesson notes to help focus their practicing and to keep a record of their work.

Get to Know the Culture

Students often invest a great deal of time and resources in cello lessons without taking the time to get to know the broader culture of the cello: the great repertoire written for the instrument, the outstanding virtuosi, the history of the cello, etc. It's a little like someone setting out to learn to play baseball or tennis without ever seeing the sport played properly! Hearing and seeing great playing is incredibly inspiring and motivating, and helps to establish aspirational targets. It opens the mind to the otherwise unimaginable possibilities of the cello. Every young athlete and sportsperson is inspired by—and aspires to be like—those at the top of their fields; surely the same must be true if a student wishes to play the cello well.

I would encourage students to attend as many live concerts as possible, and to make particular efforts to hear cello soloists when they come to town to solo with the orchestras (Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra). I also suggest that students make every effort to hear and get to know the top young players in the area; seeing and hearing high-achieving peers is particularly motivating!!

Listening to recordings is also a great way of exploring the cello world, something that is now easier than ever with so much music available online. YouTube videos are another fabulous resource, with thousands of great performances easily accessible. The Great Cellist Videos page features links to performances by some of the leading cellists.