Why deliberate practice matters

And why you have to sit students down and explain to them — explain and show both, and really make sure they get it — just what practice is:

Is it better to be diligent or lucky?

Diligent. Because that’s under your control. Luck comes and goes, and you can’t rely on it.

I recall preparing for recitals as a kid, and hating every minute of it. On the few occasions when I might try to talk about it, the only advice I got was, “Practice more!”

The problem was that I thought practice consisted of doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over, and it would just magically get better on its own. In other words, I might play something a bunch of times, and some times it would go okay, and some times it wouldn’t.

It felt random.

And the result of that was that, when I was on stage, I never felt like I had control over whether it would go well. I always felt like success was random, and hence whether the piece went well was not up to me. It was up to chance.

It was horrible to feel that way, to feel like I was being shot at. I had no control over my fate.

It was made worse by the fact that, for the most part, anything else that I wanted to do or was fascinated by came extremely easily to me. Ridiculously easily. Effortlessly easily. Or at least, it felt effortless. I seemed to know how to leap up and gorge myself on anything else that I loved to the point where the effort was not effort but simply fun. With music though … effort mystified me, and I seemed to have very little guidance on how to direct it. I think that I just latched onto mental effort more easily than things that required physical effort.

It wasn’t as destructive for me as it was for others, since I didn’t feel that music was my vocation at that age. Hence, it didn’t upend my life’s plans nor cause me to question my identity when I felt like I hated performing for others and felt nauseated for two weeks before a recital.

Nevertheless, some things could have gone better for me, or at least been less stressful, had anyone actually explained to me what deliberate practice was, and that having to think through how to get something right wasn’t just a crutch for people who “lacked talent.”

The thing I have to stop and admit here is that … there’s a chance that some of the adults did explain that, but that I was too young to grasp what they were saying to me. But some shepherding would have helped.

So anyhow, two things in summary:

Never assume that your students know what you mean when you say, “Practice!”

And always be aware that there’s a strong chance that they think that they wouldn’t need to practice if they had “talent,” and having to work at it means they suck anyway, so what’s the point?

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