There have been a few reports of studies on musicians’ practice habits that have recently shown up on Facebook. Two that I found interesting were the one about what kind of practice habits are most effective, and another claiming that the much-touted 10,ooo hours or practice is not what makes a musician good. I have some opinions about both of these so-called studies.

One cannot do a truly scientific study on something as esoteric as how musicians practice, because there are too many variables. Every musician is different in background, attitude, and aptitude.  One simply cannot make blanket statements about what makes us good musicians or not. And it amuses me that these studies were done to acquire information that could have been obtained by just asking musicians how they gained their skills.

The “study” debunking the 10,000-hour rule hints that you’re born with talent or you’re not, and that if you’re not, no amount of practice will help. Worse, it suggests that if you are talented you don’t have to practice. Both of these ideas are proven wrong by millions of musicians very day.  As a professional musician, I can definitively say that no matter how much talent you possess, if you don’t practice extensively you can’t play well. And I can also tell you from a lifetime of careful observation that many people with talent who don’t work really hard can be bypassed by those with less talent who work harder.

Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at New York University, remarking about talent and practice, states in his book Guitar Zero, “Hundreds of thousands of people took music lessons when they were young and remember little or nothing.” Well, sure. I took a number of courses in school about which I remember nothing. Why? Because they didn’t interest me. Any kid forced to take music lessons without wanting to is not likely to remember much. That’s not a significant way to look at the effectiveness of practice.

The other study stated that the difference between ineffective and effective practice, which leads to the difference between mediocrity and mastery, is practicing deliberately. This I agree with. It’s not how long you practice, it’s how you practice.

Many of us tend to be self-congratulatory about our progress much sooner than perhaps we ought to be. Good practice includes consistent self-evaluation and constantly correcting weaknesses. Practicing isn’t simply playing what’s fun and easy. Playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not the same as striving to reach a new level. Simply playing what you play best, or just goofing around on the instrument, is fun and necessary but it’s not all there is. You have to push yourself and focus on what you don’t yet know or can’t yet do, if you are to make progress.

Doing what you already do pretty well can include, by the way, just reading through tunes on a page. That doesn’t do much for one’s skills unless the music is also used as a tool for focus, analysis, and deliberate skill enhancement.

So, what are some good practice habits? See my previous blogs, and also consider:

There are two necessary kinds of practice: that which you do when learning a piece, and that which you do in preparation for a performance. They are very different.

  1. When learning a piece:
  • Learn by playing every tune
  • Learn a phrase at a time (don’t just read through an entire piece; that is not productive).
  • When you make an error, don’t just correct it and go on –  that is actually practicing the error! Figure out why you made it. Correct the fingering, eye movement or technique.
  • Address all errors by making the awkwardly executed phrase into an exercise and repeating it slowly until it feels natural and is easy to do right. Then you can play the phrase in context.
  • Always breathe while playing the hard parts.
  • Play with a metronome to increase accuracy.

Never shirk on any of this! These steps are absolutely necessary. Yes, even the metronome.

  1. When practicing for a performance, you will already have done the above quite a lot for every piece you plan to perform. You’ve already done what you can to correct errors. Since some errors will occur anyway, now it’s time to:
  • Learn to play through your mistakes and to disguise or ignore them.
  • Imagine being in the performance situation as you practice. Imagine the stage lights, the audience, the sound system, or whatever the situation will probably be.

Pushing ourselves to excellence through actual work, and never letting ourselves say, “That’s good enough,” produces real results.