Thursday, November 17, 2011

Practice More Effectively, Not Necessarily Longer

For the last few days, I've been thinking about a recent Study Hacks article on the surprisingly relaxed lives of elite achievers. According to a study conducted at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, the practice habits of music students considered to be elite performers were contrasted with the practice habits of merely average students. The amount of practice time between the two groups was roughly even, but the type of work utilized in the practice time was what differentiated the groups:
The difference was in how they spent this time. The elite players were spending almost three times more hours than the average players on deliberate practice — the uncomfortable, methodical work of stretching your ability.
The scheduling of practice time was also different between elite and average players:
The average players, they discovered, spread their work throughout the day. A graph included in the paper, which shows the average time spent working versus the waking hours of the day, is essentially flat.  
The elite players, by contrast, consolidated their work into two well-defined periods. When you plot the average time spent working versus the hours of the day for these players, there are two prominent peaks: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  
In fact, the more elite the player, the more pronounced the peaks. For the best of the best — the subset of the elites who the professors thought would go on to play in one of Germany’s two best professional orchestras — there was essentially no deviation from a rigid two-sessions a day schedule.
Assuming that the students that faculty had picked to be "elite" or "average" actually corresponded to those who went on to have careers (a completely different question), we can draw the following conclusions on how to rise to a high level of playing:

  • Pick the best times of day to practice and stick to them. Every day.
  • Take the time to do the detail work. Hands separately. Slowly with metronome. Multiple repetitions. Work at problem spots until they're fixed.

Apparently those who do the work and do it consistently actually have more relaxed lives than those who don't. Considering how difficult a life in the arts can be, a relaxed attitude towards life is a very noble aspiration indeed. 


  1. Charles Mason8:51 PM

    I am curious of one of your conclusions: Why you feel the need to practice "Hands separately"? What is gained, other than some motor (muscle) memory? I would think, by focusing on "hands separate" one will loose the coordination aspect of playing hands together... Comments, please. And thank you for the post.

  2. Try playing the left hand of a Chopin Nocturne all the way through, with all the intent that you would like to have with both hands (and actually hearing the right hand), but just limiting yourself to shaping with the left hand. You'll see.

  3. The better you know each individual part or voice of a piece, the better you can shape each line. Focusing on them one at a time makes this easier. Plus, the better you know each part, the more secure your memory is. Believe me--I learned this the hard way. :)

  4. Great explanations. One of my teachers in the past wouldn't allow me to continue playing unless he heard my left hand with the same quality as my right. Only way to really work on that thoroughly is to isolate the left hand for awhile.