The Power of Practice

What do Lang Lang, Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams and Mozart have in common?

As you might have guessed from the title of this week’s post they are all shining examples of individuals who have become experts in their field through the act of purposeful practice.

Over the next four weeks I am going to explore practice from the perspective those involved; the pupil, the teacher and the parent. Today though I’m considering the power that practice has.

Have you ever tried to work out how many hours in your lifetime you have spent practising the piano? It’s an interesting thing to do and, as I sit here drinking my coffee, I have roughly estimated that between the ages of 8 – 22 (when I started lessons to leaving college) I clocked up 10,650 hours.

Now the 10,000 hours figure is interesting. Research into the practice habits of outstanding violinists, carried out by Anders Ericsson and his team back in 1991, is well known these days. Ericsson concluded that:

‘by the age of twenty, the best violinists had practised an average of ten thousand hours’. [1]

The research study created a big shift away from the idea that some individuals are born with a special ‘talent’ or ‘gift’. Nowadays it is widely accepted that what really makes the difference between those that become experts and the rest of us is the amount of time spent practising a skill.

But, as my estimated practice hours demonstrate, just practising for 10,000 hours doesn’t automatically lead to ‘expert’ status – in case anyone is in any doubt I am not an ‘elite’ pianist! There are a number of other factors involved.

It’s no accident that the children of so many sports people or musicians follow their parents into the same profession. Living in a household where practising an instrument is an accepted part of life can lead to an early adoption of the same practice routine by the children.

Tiger Woods’ father Earl was a passionate golfer and Tiger Woods was given his first golf club for his first birthday and went on a golf course at the age of 18 months. Mozart’s father Leopold was a musician and Mozart is often referred to as a child prodigy. However, Michael Howe [2] estimates that by the time Mozart reached his 6th birthday he had already done 3,500 hours of practice.

Both Tiger Woods and Mozart have been credited with having a prodigious amount of ‘talent’ but it is now thought that ‘hidden practice’ plays a large part in exceptional, early development. So instead of special individuals being born with talent, it is more about chances and choices. Being fortunate to live near a centre of musical excellence, have access to an exceptional teacher or a school with an inspirational music department are all examples of ‘hidden’ practice.

Most crucially, the support and encouragement of parents and other family members and friends have a big role to play in the development process.

Vitally, the urge to practise has to come from within the child. We have all heard sad stories of tiger mothers who, in their quest for their child to be outstanding, push him/her relentlessly and single-mindedly. Unfortunately, this single mindedness is often a one-way push from the parent with the desires and choices of the child ignored.

Practice is most powerful when it is seen as being fun and playful.

‘It’s the child’s desire to play that matters, not the parents desire to have the child play’ Tiger Woods [4].

Children who are lightly guided towards the next, tiny challenge and the next and the next are soon going to want to play the ‘practice game’ as much as they can because every little achievement helps their sense of self and purpose to grow. Who wouldn’t want to do more? (You can read more about the importance of play in our blog post on Play and Playing HERE).

The final factor involved in the practice jigsaw is the development of purposeful or mindful practice. Experts practice with a focussed and committed approach to what they are doing. What’s more, they are prepared to attempt something that is beyond their current ability level. Just imagine a high jumper who never raises the bar because s/he is afraid of knocking it down! The progress made would be minimal.

Expert practisers are always attempting to achieve new goals, that are just out of reach. They focus totally on the specific task; they are in the moment which allows them to learn from their mistakes and adjust their next attempt accordingly.

As I’ve already mentioned it appears that I did manage to get in the 10,000 hours quota of practice and yet I am not an elite pianist. So what happened?

Well, as a youngster certainly some of the conditions were right for me in that I had parents who encouraged me, a lovely, warm teacher and a piano. I was the only musician in the family however, and I was also the only musician at my school. It wasn’t until I did my A’ levels at the Coventry School of Music that finally I began to feel that I could be a musician. On reflection, the most telling omissions were the ways I practised in my formative years, for neither did I ‘play’ at the piano nor was I encouraged to take a curious and mindful approach.

So what’s your practice history? Can you estimate how many hours you have spent working at your instrument? What ‘hidden’ practice influences can you uncover?

Whatever you discover do join me next week when I will be looking at practice from the student’s perspective.

[1] p. 12, Bounce (2010). Matthew Syed.
[2] Genius Explained (2001). Michael Howe.
[3] Outliers (2008) Malcolm Gladwell.
[4] p. 59, Bounce (2010). Matthew Syed.

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Co-Founder & Director of The Curious Piano Teachers

3 thoughts on “The Power of Practice

  1. Angela

    It is certainly the focussed practice that makes all the difference.
    Last week a Mother was really dismayed when I asked if her son had had a ‘tricky week’ for practice, everything for his imminent Grade 1 had been dreadful. “Oh yes,” she replied, “he’s played everyday”. Given that everything had been less good than the previous week this was hard to imagine but I had to take her word for it and we discussed doing some of the things we do in the lesson at home, sorting out tricky bits, playing hands step, clapping the rhythms, a game for finding chords quickly etc and this week was much better. I had assumed he would do at home what we did in the lesson but I needed to make it clearer for him. Teaching how to practice is so important and whilst my parents always sort out good teachers for me I can’t remember any of them teaching how to practice particularly, maybe I have a selective memory! I probably wasted many hours at the piano just playing things through – and in fairness to my teachers I seemed to get by on that in the early stages. I love the way we can be so much more involved in the children’s learning by teaching them how to practice in ways that stimulate their imaginations and learning. Showing a particular way to practice can solve a problem just like magic, even if not always immediately, but this is very gratifying for students and they can really feel they are making progress, and as a teacher you can then see them taking another step towards independence.

  2. Alice F.

    What about children learning off the internet songs like Skyfall, a Thousand years, etc. My student has spent much time doing this after earning distinction on grade 1 and now struggles reading his music from the page. He will be doing grade 2 this summer so fingers crossed!!

  3. Susan H

    All those kids spending hours glued to video games must be putting in some serious hours of hidden practice at something – I’m just not sure what!
    Hidden practice for me was accompanying local amateur operatics several times a week as a teenager – it gave me a social life, a bit of pocket-money, and ace sight-reading skills. Sadly my piano teacher disapproved and we parted company when I refused to buckle down to Bach….


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