Monday, March 25, 2013

The Myth of "Practice Makes Perfect" - Annie Murphy Paul

The Myth of "Practice Makes Perfect" 
By Annie Murphy Paul

(Originally posted here)
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice. In a groundbreaking paper published in 1993, cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson added a crucial tweak to that old joke. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Deliberate practice.

It’s not a minor change. The difference between ineffective and effective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you’re not practicing deliberately — whether it’s a foreign language, a musical instrument or any other new skill — you might as well not practice at all.

I was reminded of the importance of deliberate practice by a fascinating new book, Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. Its author is Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at New York University who studies how the brain acquires language. Marcus is also a wannabe guitarist who set out on a quest to learn to play at age 38. In Guitar Zero he takes us along for the ride, exploring the relevant research from neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology along the way. One of his main themes is the importance of doing practice right.

“Hundreds of thousands of people took music lessons when they were young and remember little or nothing,” he points out, giving lie to the notion that learning an instrument is easiest when you’re a kid. The important thing is not just practice but deliberate practice, “a constant sense of self-evaluation, of focusing on one’s weaknesses, rather than simply fooling around and playing to one’s strengths. Studies show that practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours; playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not necessarily the same as efficiently reaching a new level. Most of the practice that most people do, most of the time, be it in the pursuit of learning the guitar or improving their golf game, yields almost no effect.”

So how does deliberate practice work? Anders Ericsson’s 1993 paper makes for bracing reading. He makes it clear that a dutiful daily commitment to practice is not enough. Long hours of practice are not enough. And noodling around on the piano or idly taking some swings with a golf club is definitely not enough. “Deliberate practice,” Ericsson declares sternly, “requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.” Having given us fair warning, he reveals the secret of deliberate practice: relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out. Results are carefully monitored, ideally with the help of a coach or teacher, and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation.

It sounds simple, even obvious, but it’s something most of us avoid. If we play the piano — or, like Marcus, the guitar — or we play golf or speak French, it’s because we like it. We’ve often achieved a level of competency that makes us feel good about ourselves. But what we don’t do is intentionally look for ways that we’re failing and hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up. But almost two decades of research shows that’s exactly what distinguishes the merely good from the great.

In an article titled “It’s Not How Much; It’s How,” published in the Journal of Research in Music Education in 2009, University of Texas-Austin professor Robert Duke and his colleagues videotaped advanced piano students as they practiced a difficult passage from a Shostakovich concerto, then ranked the participants by the quality of their ultimate performance. The researchers found no relationship between excellence of performance and how many times the students had practiced the piece or how long they spent practicing. Rather, “the most notable differences between the practice sessions of the top-ranked pianists and the remaining participants,” Duke and his coauthors wrote, “are related to their handling of errors.”

The best pianists, they determined, addressed their mistakes immediately. They identified the precise location and source of each error, then rehearsed that part again and again until it was corrected. Only then would the best students proceed to the rest of the piece. “It was not the case that the top-ranked pianists made fewer errors at the beginning of their practice sessions than did the other pianists,” Duke notes. “But, when errors occurred, the top-ranked pianists seemed much better able to correct them in ways that precluded their recurrence.”

Without deliberate practice, even the most talented individuals will reach a plateau and stay there. For most of us, that’s just fine. But don’t delude yourself that you’ll see much improvement unless you’re ready to tackle your mistakes as well as your successes.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Faculty post - Putting Your Education into Practice

Putting Your Education into Practice

By Steven Kennedy

As students majoring in music, you are preparing to follow one of two primary career paths within music – performing or teaching.  As such, it is important to get as much real-world experience in these areas as you can while you are still in college and are able to learn from the mistakes you will make, and to learn from the situations you may encounter.  Getting this experience involves searching out performance and teaching opportunities within the area.  Simpson is uniquely located in a small to mid-sized metropolitan area (Des Moines) that allows for many great opportunities for musicians that smaller, and even larger cities, often do not afford so easily.  In this post, I would like to share some advice and general thoughts on taking advantage of these opportunities while you are a student at Simpson.

Performance Opportunities

Churches, coffee shops, restaurants, and other venues are always looking for musicians to perform.  Though getting paid to perform should be any musician’s primary objective, as students, just getting the chance to perform in front of people can be a greater benefit (though certainly seek out as many paying gigs as you can!).  Many churches (particularly mainline denominations) are always looking for young and talented students to perform for offertories, communion, and other special music needs they may have.  Churches are usually friendly environments, too.  Congregants have no idea that you messed up the first few measures of the Schubert song you sang; they are just appreciative to have you perform for them.  Performances like this can boost your confidence significantly. 

Coffee shops and restaurants are great places to perform, particularly if you have a hard time playing in front of an audience that is completely focused on you.  These gigs are more easy-going because you are often relegated to the background.  This is okay though, because it allows you to relax, causes you to focus more (due to the constant noise of a restaurant), and it is a good opportunity to play pieces that you have not performed yet.  Each week, convocation gives you an opportunity to perform for your peers and professors, and it is something you participate in regularly.  However, it can be an extremely intense situation to be in, especially if it is your first performance of a piece.  Your nerves are high, and only performing a piece or two does not allow you to settle in the way you might during an hour-long performance.  Background music gigs are a great stepping stone to performing in convocation, then eventually in your recital.  The noise at most background gigs also forces you to focus on the music, both mentally and aurally.  If you can play through a piece by Bach with a waiter dropping his tray ten feet from you while also overhearing an awkward conversation at the table next to you, then surely you can play through someone’s cell phone going off during your recital.

Also, the more you perform, the more you learn what equipment you will need to bring with you to future gigs.  There have been a few times where those who have hired me choose to set me up in a spot where there is no electrical outlet for my amplifier.  Now, I always have extension cords and a power strip with me when I go to a gig.  It is better to figure things like this out now while you are students, than in a few years when you are getting paid several hundred dollars to make someone’s wedding extra special. 

Teaching Opportunities

There are a number of teaching studios and music stores within central Iowa that offer lessons and are always looking for great teachers.  Additionally, advertising yourself to local schools as an independent instructor can yield great results.  Teaching gives you the chance to put into practice the concepts you are learning from your applied instructors and in your methods classes, and can even generate decent money for yourself.  When I was a student at Simpson, most of my income came from giving lessons, and I was able to live relatively comfortably from what I made.  Further, teaching bolsters your resume, so when the time comes to get a full-time job employers see that you not only have a great education, but also real experience. 

In closing, remember that your education and experience cannot come exclusively from Simpson.  You have to get out into the world and experience how things will be once you graduate.  The more prepared you are as a performer and/or as a teacher when you leave Simpson, the greater is the chance of you being successful in your career (an obvious point, but not every student takes the necessary steps to ensure this).  It is better to do the preparation now while you can still learn and recover from mistakes, than when you are getting paid to be the expert and your reputation is at stake.