This article about deliberate piano practice and it’s role in the ecosystem of learning was written by Gregg Goodhart. Gregg is recognised as a leading expert in the understanding of cognitive and behavioral psychology and neuroscience as it applies to teaching and learning. An award-winning high school teacher and department chair, he began studying and applying the literature in cognitive science and developed ways of teaching it to students and colleagues. Gregg has taught this to everyone from middle school students to faculties at top universities. He has developed the unique masterclass format Practiclass, and trains teachers and students through individual online Practice Coaching as well as professional development and live workshops. You can learn more about Gregg on his website.
Why are good performers able to play such difficult pieces so (seemingly) easily? We all work hard in the practice room, so it must be something else…right?
But have we really done everything we can in the practice room? I don’t mean amount of time and frustrating work. Of course, we already do that. But are we missing something?
As it turns out, yes. Almost all of us are missing something.
‘Learning’ works very different from the way it most people think it does.
The few who figure out how learning works and leverage it regularly we call ‘talented’ and ‘gifted.’ But anyone can achieve and advance at any level of skill development if they understand how learning works and leverage it well.
This means that we can give personally satisfying, technically sound, confident performances at every stage of development from Twinkle to Tchaikovsky.
Until 2007 or so, the accepted belief was that our brains grew and developed but we didn’t have much control over it. We believed that brains stopped developing around the age of 18.
But neuroimaging technology has changed all of that.
We are changing our brains, literally, all of the time through our thoughts and actions. The skills we develop and knowledge we gain is programmed and reprogrammed based on what we choose to do and think.
We are in control of this process, and research shows us how to manage our brains for high-efficiency learning. 
Brain scans show specific physical changes as a result of specific types of practice. As you’ve probably guessed, not many outside of the seemingly ‘very talented’ are using these specific ways of practicing. Here’s the secret: That is why they seem so ‘talented’.
Learning is an Ecosystem
If we want to manage our brains for high-efficiency learning, we need to understand how learning works. I call this the ‘ecosystem of learning.’
All of the elements in the ecosystem are important. Any one of them alone will improve learning. But taken together, the elements actually improve each other – making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The leading expert in skill acquisition research, K. Anders Ericsson, published a landmark study in 1993 called The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. 
His most important finding was that those who were successful did a specific type of practice. He named it ‘deliberate practice.’
Most music students are not doing deliberate practice very often, which explains why we are generally unsatisfied with our progress and performances at any level of development.
For instance, think about doing reps of an exercise or a tricky passage this way:
Most of us leave out the ‘reflect’ piece. We ‘play and pray’ hoping that we get better. The times we do improve happen because we (unknowingly) apply deliberate practice.
We can choose to apply deliberate piano practice all of the time.
Try it. Do one rep, and stop and reflect on what could be better. Then make plan to improve it and try again. If the plan doesn’t work, that’s still great – You’ve eliminated an option. Keep trying different options until you run out of wrong ones and get the right one.
You’ve replaced ‘play and pray’ with ‘play and plan.’
It’s annoying, though, isn’t it? Deliberate practice takes real mental effort, so we avoid it.
Even worse, research has shown that the less we know about something, the less we know what to improve. When we first start trying to find out what is wrong, that’s when it is the hardest to do – making it very discouraging. 
We don’t see improvement right away, so we assume it is not working and quit. The only way around this is to keep stopping and thinking.
You are working on retrieval practice. You will get better if you struggle through, trying to find the answers.
It is also mentally exhausting. At first, you may not be able to do more than 5-10 minutes at a stretch. Those 5-10 minutes are much better than 30 minutes of ‘play and pray’.
Ericsson refers to these breaks as recovery periods, and everyone at every level of performing needs them. As you do deliberate piano practice more and more, you’ll be able to sustain it for longer periods.
Give someone a fish, and they eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime.
We all acquire a mixed bag of ‘tips and tricks’ to use in practice which help us improve. These are our fish. But we apply them without understanding how each one works – we’re not ‘learning to fish’.
Practice strategies such as contextual interference (when is the last time you tried to practise a hard passage backwards? It works!), interleaving, spacing, and others will improve practice greatly.
If we understand the science behind them, we can experiment and use them in new ways as our work demands.
Self-Control/Habit Pattern Development
If all of the previous turns out to be true, then what stands in the way of anyone – everyone, really – being great at whatever they choose?
It turns out it is self-control: the basic ability to choose ‘should’ over ‘want’. Many people call it willpower.
Self-control is wired in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This means we can do things to create the behaviors which make it easier to discipline ourselves to practise and focus.
Ericsson found that “One characteristic of deliberate practice is that it is not inherently enjoyable.”
Bottom line, it’s distasteful to force ourselves to focus that hard during our practice.
The good news is that we can improve our self-control or willpower, just like we do our instrumental skills.
Start with small tasks, and build them as they become stronger. (Becoming stronger, in this case, means something which was distasteful becomes easier to do.)
When first learning to do deliberate piano practice, don’t try to power through a half hour or more. Apply deliberate practice with intense focus until you feel mentally tired or overly confused. Then insert a recovery period. As we do it more, our strength of focus will increase, and we will be able to do it for longer and longer times.
The highest state of enjoyment for the brain.
The good news is that it appears our brains are designed to crave high level problem solving/cognition. After all, that’s how humanity has advanced over the course of time.
But the price of this productive state of enjoyment is persevering through the initial unpleasant stages.
Have you ever started working on something, think it has been 10-15 minutes, but look up at the clock and it has been an hour? If so, then you have experienced flow.  Some people refer to this as being in the ‘zone’.
If a task is too easy, we will become bored. If a task is too difficult, we will become frustrated. This describes deliberate practice perfectly, and deliberate piano practice is a flow-producing machine if we follow it closely.
As you get better at deliberate practice, you become engrossed in the problem-solving process at a level just beyond your ability. When the problem is solved you move on to the next problem.
This is the highest state of learning, and it is so enjoyable that we lose track of time!
Flow is the atomic essence of motivation. When we push through the initial unpleasantness, our small victories confirm that we can solve small problems. This creates enthusiasm to attack the next problem.
Research shows that genuinely getting better at something through proper training creates a genuine interest in participating in and improving the thing. 
Using deliberate piano practice and learning interventions will increase your performing ability so significantly that you will be very motivated to do more and more practice.
In fact, it is a lack of this type of work that can make practicing and performing distasteful.
What we BELIEVE about learning matters. It matters a lot.
Researcher Carol Dweck has done over three decades of research  into what she calls ‘mindset’. Mindset addresses why, to put it plainly, most of us can’t get out of our own way when it comes to learning.
Take mistakes, for instance. How do we deal with them? For many of us, they are frustrating. They make us angry and indicate that we can’t learn.
Now consider deliberate practice. A mistake is what we would reflect on so that we could formulate a plan to correct it. In fact, if we are not making mistakes then we have already learnt the thing and it is time to move on and find more mistakes.
Dweck identifies two types of mindsets – growth and fixed. The fixed mindset sees a mistake as an indication they should quit. The growth mindset sees it as an opportunity to improve.
Growth mindset isn’t just a way of thinking – it is reality.
Because of this we don’t need to ‘talk ourselves into’ a growth mindset. We can become convinced through our own experience: Create self-control and habit patterns which allow for focussed deliberate piano practice, which produces flow and performance result. This motivates us for more practice, which produces a growth mindset because we now have evidence it works.
See how the ecosystem works together? It does this with many other areas of learning, too!
The Misunderstanding of Talent
Much of what we believe about ‘talent’ is based on an assumption and not evidence. Talent – whatever that is – does not seem to matter if the proper work is done.
(If you’re interested in this, I highly recommend the book ‘Talent Is Overrated’ by Geoff Colvin.)
It’s interesting that we can see someone perform, know nothing else about them, and proclaim that music is so easy for them. Perhaps it looked easy for that short snapshot in time, but we know nothing of what they did leading up to that moment.
These performers are certainly different from us. They’ve put in the thousands of hours of deliberate practice for many years and changed their brains in ways which facilitate such performance. 
We can do it too, but most of us don’t fill our practice hours with the right kind of work.
When we really investigate the life stories of people like Mozart and Tiger Woods, we find unique, deliberate practice training environments.
The bottom line in current research is this: Talent may exist, but whatever it is it doesn’t seem to matter as long as one is leveraging the elements from ecosystem of learning.
- Song, S., Sharma, N., Buch, E. R., & Cohen, L. G. (2012). White matter microstructural correlates of superior long-term skill gained implicitly under randomized practice. Cerebral Cortex, 22(7), 1671-1677.
- Ericsson, K. A., Krampke, R. T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of Deliberate Practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.
- Kruger, Justin, Dunning, David. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments“. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77.6: (1999) 1121–1134. Print.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). Good business. New York, NY: Penguin.
- Zimmerman, B. J., (2006). Development and adaptation of expertise: The role of self-regulatory processes and beliefs. In K. A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P. J. Feltovich, & Robert R. Hoffman (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, (pp. 705-722). New York, NY: Cambridge.
- Dweck, C. Mindset. (2006). New York, NY: Random House.
- Colvin, G. (2010). Talent is overrated. New York, NY: Penguin.