She’ll definitely go out with me after tonight.
The year is 2002: I’ve had four years of piano lessons and now I’m on stage. Getting to this point was a pain – I’ve put two hours into it every other day since I started – but I’m about to reap my reward. There’s a girl in the second row I’ve been trying to impress, and playing a concert for her ought to do the trick.
The lights dim, my fingers touch the keys…and I suck.
Maybe my timing is off. I try to speed up; now I’m playing too loudly. More than fear or embarrassment, my reaction is: Why? I don’t get stage fright, and I’ve practiced this piece dozens of times. Why am I bombing? This does not compute. This is not fair.
It’s thirty minutes of thinly veiled mediocrity. I have to get my sheet music out between songs, and I cut the set short so I can leave sooner. The audience claps politely, but not like they would for a decent musician.
I didn’t end up going out with that girl.
What I Did Wrong
In the four years leading up to that night, I had practiced the same way almost everyone practices the piano. I started with fundamentals – rehearsing major scales and chords – and then transitioned to songs and pieces when I thought I had mastered the basics. I’d continue to review the scales, but they stopped being the focal point of my practicing: They were easy. I could play them using muscle memory, so I didn’t keep consciously improving them.
That’s where I messed up, and it’s where almost everyone messes up when they’re learning a new skill. We think pure rote repetition can maintain fundamentals we’ve previously mastered. According to twenty-two years of peer-reviewed research, it can’t.
In 1993, Professor Anders Ericsson published a paper titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Up until Ericsson published, the conventional wisdom within the field of psychology was that skill acquisition was the result of a simple equation:
Innate Talent + Hours of Practice = Skill Level
(If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s still the conventional wisdom outside of academia.)
What Ericsson found was that his own experiments weren’t yielding any evidence that talent was even a factor in skill acquisition. A study at the Music Academy of West Berlin, for example, showed a direct correlation between hours of practice and increased skill with a violin, regardless of almost all other factors in students’ backgrounds. Instead, the factor that most heavily influenced skill level was what Ericsson termed “deliberate practice”: The most skillful violinists were those who not only practiced often, but also tailored their practice to focus on developing basic skills beyond the minimum necessary to play.
In other words, being the best meant consciously focusing on basics, forever. Songs never became the fundamental unit of practice; they were always viewed as amalgamations of lower-level techniques. A revised equation might look like this:
Hours of Practice + Degree of Tailoring = Skill Level
So when I decided to play scales from muscle memory – and not think about the notes I was playing, or how to make them sound better – I shot my skill with the piano in the foot. After that, there was no scientific reason to expect consistency in my playing. When technique degrades to the point that it’s a matter of luck, you’re going to bomb just as often as you bring down the house.
How Important is Tailoring Your Practice?
Extremely. I repeat: It’s extremely important. It determines whether you’re improving quickly and by design, or slowly and by chance.
The rarity of “deliberate practice” can very likely explain the people we know who acquire a skill and then stop getting better, or even get worse. They think they’ve maxed out their talent, but they probably got complacent in some area of their practice, and have never realized it or been willing to course-correct.
I’ve definitely been there: I stopped taking piano lessons two years after that failed concert. I only picked it up again in 2011.
But now? Stop by the Thought office if you’re ever in DC.
There’s a piano nearby. I’ll play you a good show.