It’s “deliberate practice” time – just as even the great Rachmaninoff had to practise before performances

Practice is such an important activity for those of us who want to achieve a good performance, whether it’s singing or playing an instrument, and, for that matter, playing a sport, giving a speech, or making business decisions (this is the same concept that underlies the Harvard case study method), or investing.

Critically, there is good practice vs bad practice.  This is well understood by most people although perhaps not always well implemented!  The art and science of practising is sometimes captured in the concept of the 10,000 hour principle – to be any good in anything, one needs to have put in that amount of time investment.  What many people have not paid adequate attention to is the equally important part of the thesis: the need to learn and develop habits for “deliberate” practice” which is about an iterative process of feedback, try again, further feedback, try again, and repeat.  

One of the central findings of Anders Ericsson, whose research underlay this 10,000 hour rule, is that this type of practice is the most important ingredient in achieving excellence or expertise.  It means pushing past one’s comfort zone, as well as frustration, struggle, setbacks and failures.  These are all necessary if one wants to continue to improve, or even maintain a high level of excellence.

And the emphasis is on effective practice, not the length of practice.  The length is important, but only if the practice is effective.  Ericsson makes it clear that the secret of effective practice is to relentlessly focus on our weaknesses and invent new ways to root them out.  Results are carefully monitored and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation.  See or listen to this 2016 interview with Ericsson, “Beyond 10,000 hours of practice”.

Most people hate practice, but here are 3 pianists who enjoy practice:

  • One of the most respected pianists today, New Yorker Murray Perahia, shares with us that if we make practising a quest, it becomes more than an exercise and makes sitting down to practice for six hours a day much less strenuous.
  • Even the great Rachmaninoff had to practise his Third Piano Concerto before performances, in one instance on a dummy keyboard while sailing to America.
  • The great Claudio Arrau when asked what general advice he may have for pianists, stressed they should “practise much more than you need or will use in performance”, “create technical reserves”, and “not just overcome the difficulty only but surpass the difficulty”.
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