In his book Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin considers what makes world-class performers different from everybody else. It’s an intriguing thesis and obviously highly relevant to musicians.

Numerous theories have been proposed to explain why only a small percentage of people attain a high level of skill in music, athletics and other fields. Historically it has been assumed that superior performance is a function of genetics – either you’ve got it or you don’t. Most have proposed that a combination of innate talent, unusually high intelligence, wide-ranging experience, and/or superior memory is requisite.

According to Colvin, though, none of these theories stand up to the actual data. Instead, he posits that superior performance is a result of something called “deliberate practice.” Colvin even claims that given enough “deliberate practice,” nearly anyone can become a world-class performer!

Deliberate Practice – The Key to Superior Performance

So what is “deliberate practice”? It’s a specific style of training with several highly-specific attributes:

It’s designed to enhance performance

A deliberate practice regimen is designed to enhance performance, preferably by someone with extensive experience in the field – a teacher, coach and/or great performer. Such people have extensive knowledge and experience about how to learn and improve, and how to help someone else exceed their current abilities.

It involves a tremendous amount of repetition

Colvin suggests that the most effective practice activities are those which can be repeated at high volume.

Feedback is continuously available

Feedback leads to immediate adjustments and improvements. The alternative is wasting time practicing the wrong way, or perhaps more commonly almost, but not quite, the right way.

It’s highly demanding mentally

It requires intensive focus and concentration (which is an aspect of applying what I call the Golden Rule of Practicing).

It isn’t fun

Deliberate practice is mentally exhausting. It requires focusing on the things we don’t know how to do well, rather than playing it safe by concentrating on the things we can already do well.

How Does Deliberate Piano Practice Differ From “Normal” Practice?

Depending on a given musician’s knowledge of how to practice effectively, the elements of deliberate practice may or may not seem surprising. But even for pianists who understand the nuts and bolts of effective practicing, there are a few takeaways that most of us can benefit from.

The most important one, it seems to me, is the idea that feedback should be consistently and continuously available. Generally speaking, we pianists tend to practice by ourselves.  Often the only feedback we get during practice is a result of how much attention we are giving to the results of our practicing. Can we do better? I think so.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll elaborate on feedback and the other elements of deliberate practice, and consider how pianists can turn “deliberate practice” into “ordinary practice.”

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