Wednesday, November 02, 2016

The Tuning Slide: 2.9- The Best Practice

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Let me start this week with a quote from the book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.
The best among us do not occupy that perch because they were born with some innate talent but rather because they have developed their abilities through years of practice, taking advantage of the adaptability of the human body and brain. (Ericsson, p. 256)
“Heresy,” you say. “What about the Mozarts of the world; child prodigies who just seem to be able to do whatever they do naturally?”

Ericsson tears that myth to pieces, as does Angela Duckworth in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Research indicates that innate talent seems to be a lot scarcer than we want to admit. The reasons? We all can have a good excuse why we aren’t THAT good at whatever we do. “I wasn’t born with that talent.” While there may be predisposed for certain kinds of activities, the determining factor of the highly expert in many fields has nothing to do with that. It has to do with practice.

Oh, that again!

Yep. Even with something as seemingly mysterious as extremely advanced ability, the answer is not mysterious at all. In fact, as has often been quoted, the simplest answer is usually the most likely to be true. The incredible secret to becoming an expert is good old practice, practice, practice. Doc and Maynard and Miles got to their heights through practice. Being in the right place at the right time can help you get discovered, but there may very well be people who are as good as any of these icons who never had the opportunity to “make it.” One of the reasons is, of course, that it takes a lot of work (!!) to reach those levels. It also is because we are often satisfied to live in the “comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. [We] live in the world of ‘good enough.’ “ (P. 47)

With this introduction in mind, here is a summary from a book review:
Not all practicing is equal. Ericsson identifies three different types of practicing. The most basic type of practicing is naïve practice, the generic rather mediocre practicing that children muddle through as they go from piano lesson to piano lesson. They will not become star performers, nor do they intend to.

A much more effective type of practice is what Ericsson calls purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is not simply repetition. Instead, it is characterized by well-defined, specific goals. Instead of just playing a piece over and over, purposeful practice would require the piano student to play the entire piece three times in a row with no mistakes. The guiding principle of purposeful practice is to take baby steps –– a bunch of them that, little by little, helps you reach the goal.
There are other characteristics that separate purposeful practice from naïve practice:

• Purposeful practice is focused. Students must give it their full attention.
• Purposeful practice involves feedback. Immediate, specific feedback on where students are falling short is vital.
• Purposeful practice requires leaving one’s comfort zone. If students aren’t pushing themselves beyond what is comfortable and familiar, they will not advance.

Purposeful practice is more effective than naïve practice. (Link)
Ericsson makes it clear that there are good things about “purposeful practice.” It is possible to improve one’s abilities with it. But he points out clearly that trying hard or pushing yourself to the limits is not enough. (P. 25) Back to the summary:
But to truly become an expert requires an even higher level of practice: Deliberate practice. Deliberate practice also pushes people out of their comfort zone and involves feedback and focus. However, deliberate practice is different from purposeful practice because it is based on proven techniques developed by past experts. “Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there,” Ericsson writes. (Link)
What makes “deliberate practice” better than “purposeful practice”? One is that it benefits from a history of well established and well developed strategies and standards that produce high levels of performance. (Music training, by the way, is one of the prime examples of this!) Second is that it requires a teacher who can push and provide significant feedback. Ericsson calls it “purposeful” and “informed.” (P. 98)

Ericsson then goes on to list the traits that characterize “deliberate practice.”
• It develops skills that others have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established.
• It takes place outside of one’s comfort zone and requires the student to try things that are just beyond current abilities.
• It involves well-defined, specific goals, not some vague overall improvement.
• It is deliberate- it requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions.
• It involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to the feedback.
• It produces and depends on effective mental representations.
• It almost always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects ad working to improve them specifically.
Deliberate practice works thanks to one very special attribute of the human brain- plasticity. It harnesses the adaptability of the human brain in response to mental and physical training.

There’s a lot of information in this one post. I will spend the next couple posts expanding on these and adding some hopefully helpful examples of how this can work. I will also look at the ideas of grit as talked about in Angela Duckworth’s book mentioned earlier. This whole concept I have been discovering over the past six months is nothing short of remarkable. It makes me excited to read it and think about what it means for me. It is also quite simple. Far, far from easy. But simple and straightforward. It has worked for many, and can have an impact on any of us.

Keys to effective practice are the same as the keys to effective living. That I will also explore. But for the next week, think about these ideas and reflect some on how your practice brings some of these ideas together and what needs to be improved.

Be serious, but, in the end I think we should also be careful that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. That can result in being too hard on ourselves. Being serious about our music- taking it seriously- is essential. But if it’s a drudgery, we won’t get to where we can go.

Have fun. That is one of the keys to the success of the work ahead. We have to enjoy it. So look at that this week, too.

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