You’ve heard it before: “practice makes perfect!” The chances are you’ve taken the advice to heart and consistently dedicate daily time to mastering your instrument, improving your ear, and crafting your music.

So why do some weeks, or perhaps even months, leave you feeling like you’ve only made a tiny bit of hard-earned progress for all of those hours of work?

Perhaps you find yourself saying “I guess I’m just not talented at this.”

Don’t despair. We have good news: science tells us that expert musicians were not born with innate abilities that you don’t also possess. You are capable of becoming a “talented” musician.

So why are some experts and you are not?

Becoming An Expert

The truth is, practice itself doesn’t make anything perfect. It’s more correct to say Perfect Practice Makes Perfect. The quality of your practice is just as important as the quantity. How you practice determines your results.

The experts have achieved great abilities as a result of consistent and deliberate effort toward their music. Their work has both steady quantity and high quality. They are experts at practicing perfectly, and this perfect practice is called deliberate practice.

Do you experience deliberate practice, leading you toward perfection through consistent and deliberate effort, or are you going around in circles?

Deliberate Practice

Scientific studies have allowed us to extract the critical principles for deliberate practice in cognitive, perceptual and motor tasks. Whether you’re preparing for a musical recital, a chess match, or a sports contest, your practice sessions will need these four key elements. Plan to make your perfect practice session intentional, improving and appropriate, responsive and repetitive.

1. Intentional

You must be motivated to exert effort. It probably won’t be inherently fun, but eventually you’ll find great pleasure achieving your milestones.

For musicians: If your practice time is consumed mostly of playing through pieces you know well, with only a small amount of time spent on new or more challenging music, it sounds like music-making meets your needs for relaxation, pleasure and camaraderie. This is healthy. We wouldn’t want to have work time if there were no promises of play time to come. But if you’re ready to really improve as a musician, set aside some additional time dedicated just for hard work.

Motivation and perseverance outweigh talent and innate ability every time. The highest level of musicianship you’ll achieve is determined primarily by how motivated you are to apply yourself to your music. Ready to work hard? It’s guaranteed that your play time will be even more rewarding if you do.

Good. When you schedule music time, be very clear with yourself: is it work time or play time? Get your attitude set before you begin.

2. Improving and Appropriate

Practice sessions must have specific, challenging, appropriate goals. Achievable tasks always slightly build, improve and expand existing skills.

For musicians: You already decided this is serious work time. Now you need to be sure there’s actual improvement happening. It’s a two-step process that begins with finding weaknesses or challenges and then setting goals to overcome them.

Do you ever play through a new piece start-to-finish twenty times and wonder why you still haven’t mastered it? Deliberate practice requires goals that challenge you to improve, so scrutinize the piece and find the toughest measures, trickiest fingerings, or most confusing rhythms. Focus fiercely on one small aspect or task until you master it.

Be on the lookout for your weaknesses. Identify those weak skills and assign yourself drills or tasks to strengthen them, or ask your instructor for specific work to help you improve.

Each day or week, write down your goals. Never practice without a specific, achievable goal in mind, even if the goal is only to play through a piece to determine where it needs improvement. Before you sound the first note, say to yourself “I’m about to play this section, and my goal is to ____.” This thought process is key to this second step in deliberate practice.

Your weekly goals will be broken into tiny, momentary goals. “In these next few minutes, I’m going to play this line of music with perfect fingering” is a momentary goal that contributes to the weekly goal of “master the first page of this piece.”

Never begin to play without awareness of your goal for that moment.

3. Responsive

All tasks have immediate, informative feedback.

For musicians: Without feedback immediately after each trial of a new skill, improvement is minimal. You’re probably wondering “How can I get feedback if I’m practicing by myself!?”

The answer is: you’ll be your own best critic until lesson day. After playing through a section of music, pause and think back on your performance. What was the goal of the task and was it met? Were fingerings and rhythms correct? Was the speed where you wanted it? What could be done better? In order to critique yourself, you’ll have to really pay attention to how well you’re playing.

Listening to recordings of your music will help you be an even better self-critic. Once you know the music well, you can audiate (hear the music in your mind) while you simultaneously perform. Is the sound coming out of your instrument the same as the sound you hear in your mind? “Talented” musicians will quickly recognize mistakes in their playing and give themselves feedback. With ear training, you will have the power to hear even more in recorded music, and better judge your own playing. You will be talented, too.

4. Repetitive

You repeatedly perform the same task.

For musicians: You’ve thought it over and realized the fingering could be better, so you try again. And again. Eventually you realize you’ve done it just right. Do it again. And again. Becoming a master requires performing perfectly, repeatedly. Then you’ve achieved your momentary goal and can go on to a new momentary goal: “now I will play that line of music up to tempo.”

The Mindless Student

If you’re thinking that deliberate practice seems like a lot more work than grabbing your instrument and playing through whatever songs come to mind, you’re right. Some of the extra work will be planning and writing goals, but the majority of effort will be mental.

Consistently creating practice sessions that contain the four key elements requires a high level of attentiveness and mindfulness. When you exhibit mindfulness, you have an awareness of the experience of the moment. You are aware of your thoughts, perceptions, and actions. You notice what is happening, you notice mistakes, and you notice what you are doing that works and doesn’t work.

Imagine a student who is not mindful while practicing. He’s in a rush to play through his piece five times because his teacher told him he should play it at least that many times each day. He’s not sure what to focus on while playing, so he does his best to get through it. He doesn’t notice that he’s making the same errors every time. He notices a few other mistakes, but doesn’t know what to do about them. Mysteriously to him, they are problematic every single time. After five times, he is a little bored, but pleased that he successfully finished his practice for the day.

The Mindful Student

You, mindful student, will have a different approach and remember the four essentials of practice. First, you come to practice ready to work hard. You have the intention to make real improvement today. You focus your attention on the practice tasks. You know this will be a mentally strenuous workout, but you’re not backing down.

You want today’s work to improve your skills, so you know you’ll need appropriate goals that challenge you. You mindfully focus on the piece as you play it through. You’re really looking for sections that are difficult to play or mistakes that you make. You circle a section that is challenging and decide to make mastery of those measures your first small goal for the next several minutes. You even decide to assign yourself some drills related to performing the skill in that section.

As you play, you are aware of your music and compare it to the recording you can hear in your mind. You are aware of how you are creating the sounds. You pause to give yourself instant feedback about your playing. You know just what is needed to make it better.

You use the feedback to repeat and improve the task at hand until you achieve your small goal. You know you’ve made progress today because you can hear and notice the improvement in that bit of music.

Your practice session has been practically perfect thanks to your mindfulness and mental effort.

Are We Experts Yet?

Remember, the experts were not born with any natural ability that you do not also possess. Intentional, perfect practice sessions will allow you to improve your skill dramatically. The final skill level you achieve will ultimately depend on your endurance.

It takes years of focused practice to become a master. On the other hand with years of mindless practice you’ll stay right where you are!

Which path are you on with your practice hours? Do you have the motivation to be a perfect practicer?

This week, strive to have a perfect practice by making it:

  1. Intentional, think “practice, not playtime”.
  2. Improving and appropriate, with goals for every task.
  3. Responsive, with immediate feedback.
  4. Repetitive, mastering each momentary goal.