One of the books I’ve read that I highly recommend is called “The Talent Code”, written by Daniel Coyle. For those that haven’t read it, it’s an in depth look at what the components for mastering a skill are. One of the components that he discusses in the book is called “deep practice”.
Because the book discusses a wide range of skills, the discussion of deep practice that he provides doesn’t have any specifics for exactly what deep practice might look like. As a result, this post is the first in what I hope will be many attempts to provide resources that dive into what deep practice might look like for musicians. This article will cover three concepts that I believe are important to consider when deciding how to approach your musical practice.
When practicing something, one of the first questions I ask myself is “What is my baseline ability on this material?” Is this a piece of music I’ve been working on for a while? Is this a brand new skill I’ve never attempted to practice? Am I playing this instrument for this first time? We need to give ourselves the opportunity to address our starting point so we can make an intelligent plan for how to progress.
Generally speaking, I think of progress in any pursuit in terms of stimulus. That is, what stimulus do I need to apply to myself so that growth will occur. This way of thinking enables us as musicians to apply progression more gradually, which in turn gives us the best chance to retain the progress we made in any given day.
Thinking in terms of stimulus allows to ask the right questions. Instead of asking, “How much CAN I practice this material today?” it allows us to ask, “What is the RIGHT amount of work for me right now?” I’ll give you an example of what this looks like:
I have never made a serious attempt at learning to play a double C on my trumpet (for non-trumpet players, it is a concert Bb in the seventh octave of a piano). I’ve always told myself it didn’t really matter if I could; I’m an orchestral trumpet player and I don’t need to be able to do that. During the summer of 2019, I decided I was time for me to make an honest attempt at learning how to do it.
Approaching it in the manner in which I’ve laid out in this article so far, my first question was, “What is my baseline level of ability on this skill?” The answer to that was zero. Knowing this, my goal was not to begin trying to play double C’s and bash my face in until I couldn’t play. This would only lead to frustration and feelings that I couldn’t do it. I’m sure many people reading this have experienced being frustrated with a lack of progress or lacking an observable result in the practice room.
My goal was simply to try to play in the upper register more often. One day per week I would try to work up to a double C one time, and that was it. On another day during the week, I would work in the upper register, but not trying to play as high as I could. My main focus was to provide a stimulus that was greater than zero that my chops could begin the process of figuring out what was required of them to accomplish this skill. I didn’t panic if the upper register didn’t feel great, I simply focused on trying to get the highest quality repetitions in that I could manage that day.
To date, I haven’t played very many double C’s, but I have played more in the last few months than I have in my entire life. I’ve been patient and kind to myself as I explore learning a skill that I don’t have ownership of yet. By asking myself, “How much work did I do last time I practiced this skill?” and doing a little more than that, I’m ensuring that my chops will be able to respond to the stimulus in a manner in which they can handle.
How Much Is Enough?
So how do we decide how much is “a little more than last time?” How do we determine how much is enough and how much work is too much? There are a few factors to consider when determining workload: ability to focus, time constraints, and physical ability. I’m sure there are others, but those are the three that I would like to focus on for this post.
Minimum Effective Dose
I was first introduced to the concept of minimum effective dose when digesting content made by Tim Ferriss. It’s a pretty simple concept to grasp: the minimum effective dose is the least amount of work I can do and still see a response. An example would be trying to decide what is the fewest amount of times you can practice an excerpt and still progress.
This is an important question for us. It forces us to consider our efficiency of practice and how we might improve upon our current methods. Far too often I see students practicing more repetitions than they need to out of doubt or insecurity. They just want to “make sure”. They don’t have a system that allows them to feel confident that if they follow the plan, they will be prepared.
The minimum effective dose is going to be different for everyone. The concept is important though. If you only gave yourself one repetition per day to learn something, how would you use that repetition? Would you perform it at tempo? Would you slow it down? Would you change up the rhythms and articulations?
Point Of Diminishing Returns
Although the minimum effective dose is a great strategy for productivity, do we always want to be doing the bare minimum when working toward our goals? Are there times when we could and/or should do more work than the minimum amount necessary? I would say yes. So how do we decide how much more than the minimum amount is the right amount? We work until we reach the point of diminishing returns.
I learned about the point of diminishing returns in a high school economics class (I’m amazed that I remember ANYTHING from high school). To define it in simple terms, the point of diminishing returns is the point at which you no longer receive maximal productivity returns (return on investment, if you will) for the effort/energy you expend.
The way I like to think about it is: If you have one cook in a restaurant, they will do the job of one cook. But if you had two cooks, you would be able to complete twice as many orders in the same amount of time. Three cooks might be even better than two. At a certain point though, you will reach critical mass, and you might have too many cooks in the kitchen, as they say. Adding a tenth cook might make it so there isn’t enough room for the cooks to move around in the kitchen, and you won’t get the same kind of return on investment on that tenth cook than you did on the previous nine.
I would say that the minimum effective dose for any given material will be one repetition. If you can perform one perfect repetition, that is going to provide a stimulus that you haven’t experienced before. But I’m sure we can all agree that two repetitions is better than one. I would go further and say that three is better than two. But is four repetitions of something better than three? Maybe. Maybe not.
This is where we get into focus, physical ability, and time constraints. If you are not a very physically strong player, and your fourth repetition decreases in quality because you are tired, you’re not getting the same return on your investment as the repetitions before it. Because it takes a ton of focus to perform an instrument at a high level, I think a drop in focus could easily lead to a decline in desired performance as well. Some days we have more time than others. If you only have time for two great repetitions, then that is better than zero and it is better than one.
The bottom line is this: if we want maximum productivity and efficiency in the practice room, we need to ensure that the quality of EVERYTHING we play is at the highest level. These repetition constraints are all related to one individual session. If you want to play more than 4-5 repetitions to work on something, I would highly recommend splitting those up into seperate sessions, so you can regain physical strength, mental focus, and ensure you have time to invest in the quality of your playing.
It Takes Time
The last part of this discussion won’t be nearly as long. It’s something we all know, but it’s always worth remembering: progression takes time. Becoming great at anything is the result of a lot of small, positive decisions accumulated over time. If you struggle with feeling like you have to have all of the answers right now, make a deal with yourself to expect less. Don’t expect to have it all right now. Expect that you will invest in where you are right now, and make great decisions about how you will move forward.
One of my favorite quotes about this (although it’s not exactly the same concept) is in an interview with Louis C.K. He was talking about how frustrated people get when they try to look up something on their phones and it doesn’t respond immediately. Talking about those people, he yells out, “It’s going to space, just give it a second!” Our skills don’t develop overnight, and while it is ok to have a drive and a desire to improve quickly, we still need to “give it a second”.
“If the challenge is too high, you will meet anxiety. Too low, you’ll meet boredom” – Firas Zahabi from Episode 32 of the Joe Rogan MMA Show