Monday Motivation: Deep Practice

Happy Monday, practice pals! 

Today’s Monday Motivation is about the concept of “deep practice.”

In the neuroscience world, this concept has earned a few different names, including deep practice and deliberate practice. While the titleage varies, these terms all represent the same concept. Deep or deliberate practice is the kind of practice that helps us grow skill by setting goals, practicing through repetition, analyzing performance, and making adjustments. In application, this cycle of goal, attempt, analysis, and adjustment is constant.

This can be a difficult concept for young musicians. From my own experience, I was never taught the “right” way to practice. For a solid eight years of life as a student violinist, I assumed that just playing through my music assignments was practicing. It wasn’t until I reached high school and began preparing for concerto competitions and collegiate auditions that I learned that this kind of superficial practice wasn’t helping me make progress. It was just helping me plateau.

To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with “superficial” practice now and then. Playing just to play has its merits. Quick run-throughs of pieces can offer you a baseline on the status of your ability. But, without consistent, mindful, deliberate practice, our ability will essentially stay the same.  This was uncovered by psychologist Anders Ericsson in his research of several highly accomplished performers. He found that performers who practiced deliberately continued to grow and develop ability, while performers who didn’t only maintained their ability.

So, in the interest of making continued progress, the notion of deep practice speaks for itself. But here’s another reason why deep practice is essential: it legitimately alters your brain.

Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, has compiled decades of research and observations of what he calls “talent hotbeds” – organizations that have produced an impressive number of highly capable performers, athletes, and even chess masters. 

Coyle spends much of his book discussing the concept of myelination.

Yes, let’s briefly put on our science hats.

Myelin, if you are unaware, is the sheath of proteins and fats enveloping the neurons in our brains. Myelin is what allows our neurons to communicate with each other – the stronger the myelin, the faster the communication between neurons.

How myelin grows around our neurons

Coyle has learned that deep, deliberate, regular practice has the stunning ability to grow more myelin around the neurons of a particular circuit. For example, if we practice violin deeply and deliberately, the neurons in the violin circuit of our brain will literally grow more myelin, work faster. This helps us develop technique that feels easy and effortless. The key to growing myelin is deep and deliberate practice wherein skills are repeated until mastery is achieved.

So, see how deeply you can practice this week. Here’s a playbook for you:

  • Run through a song you’re working on to get a baseline. Try to identify any places for improvement. Ex: play through Pepperoni Pizza and notice what still needs improving.
  • Set a goal based on areas of improvement. Try to take small bites. If you notice that the pizza’s need to sound more staccato, play three pepperoni pizzas in a row with good staccato is a better, more manageable goal than play the entire twinkle with good staccato. Smaller goals are always better.
  • Work on it. This is where the need for repetition comes in – my rule of thumb for students is that if you can do it five times in a row correctly, you’re doing it right.
  • Play it again to assess if progress was made.
  • If progress was made, either dig deeper into the same goal, or set a new one.
  • Rinse, repeat!

Happy practicing!