Practice strategies

Today I came across Bulletproofmusician , a website that provides advice to budding musicians.

Noa discussed about the practice habits in great detail, that left me thinking “Am I practicing in a right way?”

He discussed

  • Deliberate practice vs mindless repetition
  • Interleaved vs blocked practice
  • Variable vs constant practice

Deliberate practice vs mindless repetition

Rubinstein believed that a foremost danger for young pianists is to practice too much. Rubinstein regularly advised that young pianists should practice no more than three hours a day.

The key for practice is not the amount of time being put in practice rather the type of practice.

Usually we do practice by repetition(i.e repeat the action for 1 hour or repeat the action 5times etc.,) or practice on autopilot(i.e practice till we encounter a mistake and then repeat from the beginning till we complete the act flawlessly)

The disadvantages of this kind of practice are:

  1. Repetition will form a habit : An action repeated continuously will form an habit. If we simply do rote repetition, even our unwanted actions too form a habit and will actually make it more difficult to correct these habits in future.
  2. Repetition won’t improve our confidence : We will not feel confident just because we practiced an act 100 times. Instead, we feel confident only if we performed the act flawlessly 100 out of 100 times. If we were able to complete it successfully 60 times and fail for the rest, then we will attribute it as coincidence and still be worried about our performance on D-day. Real confidence comes from
    • being able to nail it 10 out of 10 tries
    • knowing that this isn’t a coincidence but that you can do it the correct way on demand, mainly because
    • you know exactly why you nail it or miss it i.e from the technique standpoint, you know exactly how to do correct act every time.


Deliberate practice

Simply put, deliberate practice is take time to stop,analyze what went wrong,why it happened,how to correct the error permanently.

In Noa’s own words,

Deliberate practice involves monitoring one’s performance(in real-time and also via recordings) and continually looking for new ways to improve.This means really listening to what happens,so that you can tell what went wrong.For instance,was the first note sharp?Flat?Too loud?Too soft?Too harsh?Too short?Too long?

Let’s say that the note was too sharp and too long with not enough of an attack to begin the note.Well,how sharp was it?A little?A lot?How much longer was the note than you wanted it to be?How much more of an attack did you want?

Ok,the note was a little sharp,just a hair too long, and required a much clearer attack in order to be consistent with the marked articulation and dynamics.So,why was the note sharp?What did you do?What do you need to do to make sure note is perfectly in tune every time?How do you ensure that the length is just as you want it to be,and how do you get a consistently clean and clear attack to begin the note so it begins in right character.?

Now let’s imagine you recorded all of this and could listen to how this last attempt sounded.Does that combination of ingredients give you the desired result?In other words, does that combination of ingredients convey the mood or character you want to communicate to the listener as effectively as you thought it would?

Problem solving model 

  • Define the problem(what do I want this note/phrase to sound like?)
  • Analyze the problem(what is causing it to sound like this?)
  • Identify potential solutions(what can I tweak to make it sound more like I want?)
  • Test the potential solutions to select the most effective one(what tweaks seem to work best?)
  • Implement the best solution(make these changes permanent)
  • Monitor the implementation(do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for)

To become exceptional you have to put in a lot of hours, but of equal importance, these hours have to be dedicated to the right type of work. A decade of serious chess playing will earn you an intermediate tournament ranking. But a decade of serious study of chess games can make you a grandmaster.

…………to be continued

Geoff Colvin, an editor at Fortune Magazine who wrote an entire book about this idea, surveyed the research literature, and expanded the DP definition to include the following six traits (which I’ve condensed slightly from his original eight):

  1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
  2. It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
  5. It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
  6. It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

To become a grandmaster requires 5000 hours of DP. But to become a highly sought-after CRM database whiz, or to run a money-making blog, or to grow a campus organization into national recognition, would probably require much, much less.

Why? Because when it comes to DP in these latter field, your competition is sorely lacking.

Let me use myself, in my role as a theoretical computer scientist, as an example.  There are certain mathematical techniques that are increasingly seen as useful for the types of proofs I typically work on. What if I put aside one hour a day to systematically stretch my ability with these techniques? Taking a page out of the chess world, I might identify a series of relevant papers of increasing complexity, and try to replicate the steps of their key theorem proofs without reading them in advance. When stuck, I might peek ahead for just enough hints to keep making progress (e.g., reading an induction hypothesis, but not the details of their inductive step).

The DP research tells me that this approach would likely generate large gains in my expertise. After a year of such deliberate study, I might even evolve into one of the experts on the topic in my community — a position that could yield tremendous benefits.


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