Practicing for Peak Performance

It’s now more widely discussed and beginning to be scientifically validated that “talent” is a product at least as much of the right kind of training as of genetic or innate ability. Making practice time effective is one of the greatest challenges in attaining high levels of skills in anything – whether it’s tennis, basketball, chess, violin, or golf. However, an investment of time devoted to “cracking the code” of effective practice is a wise goal to pursue if you have any desire to reach your highest potential in one of these pursuits. More practically, making the most out of limited practice time is a valuable exercise in time management.

What does effective practice time require?

1. Knowledge of fundamentals and prioritization of these fundamentals (or, First things first). In my violin teaching, I emphasize position and posture first, and we spend much of the first year of each child’s training focused on developing the correct position, from feet stance all the way up to the head angle and out to the finger placement. From that foundation, all other techniques can be built. Without it, all of the other techniques will suffer at some level. This is why I instruct my students from day one that it is not how many pieces you play, but how you play them that matters most. An effective teaching program will tell you what the fundamentals are and keep reminding you of what to prioritize in your practicing. Your job is to take that advice to heart, and focus on fundamentals in a disciplined manner.

2. Practice approaches should isolate the skills and techniques that will be applied in performance settings. My golf pro always reminds me that there should be no perceivable difference in the mindset or physical approach on the driving range versus on the golf course. For the inexperienced player, it will take time to develop course playing experience (and encountering its unique challenges) in order to refine a practice routine on the driving range that simulates playing conditions. To be effective, the learning process must involve enough time on the practice range simulating real play situations, coupled with enough real course play to provide goals for effective practice. For our violin students, practice time must not simply be the repetition of each song from beginning to end, as if performing it each time. In order to effectively work on the techniques that comprise the finished product, practice must isolate individual skills, repeat them slowly and carefully enough to discern whether there is improvement, and finally test them in the context of a simulated performance. In addition to the physical and technical skills, it is important to remember that the “muscles of concentration” must also be exercised and will grow stronger with more frequent use during practice, so that they eventually become unperturbable under any conditions.

3. All practice should be “deliberate practice”. Deliberate practice is defined by two things – first, a mindset of concentration, and second, the presence of constant critical feedback focused on improving weaknesses and reinforcing correct habits. Any other time spent repeating the skills – whether it’s without thinking, or without feedback – is considered something else, but it’s not practicing. It could even be considered “un-practicing“. Countless hours could be saved if only you would eliminate all the “un-practicing” from your practice time. At the early stages, it is particularly important for the neurons in both the brain and the muscles to form stronger connections in the desired activity, while extinguishing the connections associated with the incorrect habits. That means for every repetition done the wrong way, you will need many more repetitions done the right way to “reteach” the brain and muscles. This also means that the most difficult sections (where the connections are the weakest because the actions are the most “unnatural” at first) must be practiced the most number of times correctly in order to master them. Too many students spend most of their time practicing the things they are already good at, leaving the least amount of time for the things they need to work on most.

4. Trusting what you are told to practice. I often provide my students exercises to isolate the development of certain muscles that are necessary for the violin. At first, these may seem like arbitrary assignments in discipline, like the “wax on, wax off” exercise in The Karate Kid. However, with the passage of time, I am always pleased to see that when students take those instructions to heart and actually do the exercises at home, they experience a leap in improvement in their violin skills. If you are with a teacher you trust (and I believe everyone should find someone they do trust), it behooves you to do what they tell you. You should first assume that what they say will work…and then try it! This, of course, assumes that you actually remember what was said (see my blog entry on “Videotaping lessons”).

5. Mastering the right technique at the right time. One of the “secret sauces” in our teaching methodology – and the real genius of my own teacher, Betty Haag – is the selection of repertoire for each child to learn, with an awareness of the techniques embedded in each of these pieces of music that, accumulated over time, build better players. I believe that the painstaking care with which each piece is taught – and the belief that each child must master all of the techniques in each piece before moving on, with no arbitrary time limits on how long it will take to do so (it being simply a product of achieving effective practicing) – is what has allowed her to achieve such extraordinary results with such a wide range of children’s abilities. She never believed in so-called “prodigies”, but was relentless in her drive to see every student improve and reach toward their own highest level. Without explicitly stating it in these terms, Mrs. Haag has been in fact a great practitioner and advocate of “deliberate practice” (a term coined by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, discussed in “The role of myelin in developing talent” entry) and the “growth mindset” (described in Professor Carol Dweck’s work, in “The power and peril of praising children”) among her students.

All of this boils down to caring as much about how you’re doing something as what you are actually doing. In our culture of “checking the boxes” and racing to get things done, this mindset of heightened awareness and observation is particularly challenging. However, the results can be rewarding and inspirational.

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