Three kinds of practice

K. Anders Ericsson, Swedish psychologist and recognized expert in human performance

I know–I’ve misused the word “practice” in these posts before–and for most of my life! But as I am reading more and more of the writings of Anders Ericsson (I’m reading Peak right now), I’m learning  how to distinguish the three different types of practice, and this turns out to be a helpful distinction for getting better in trumpet performance.

  1. Regular old practice. This is basically what most people talk about whenever they do talk about practice. Doing something repeatedly, hoping that it gets better. This is the least effective kind of practice. In fact, once you’ve achieved a certain plateau after initially learning how to do something, mere repetition of what you already know will, at the very best, keep you at the exact same level of expertise that you had. But what is more likely is that you will begin to loose your level of ability slowly over time. Trumpeters, be suspicious of that favorite routine that you play exactly the same way every day!
  2. Purposeful practice. This kind of practice seeks to get better ON PURPOSE, hence the name. There may not be a clear path to getting better, but you try different methods to see how effective they might be. You know your present level, and you strive to get better by measuring your efforts. You evaluate, and you try to fix problems. With purposeful practice you will get better, and it happens to be the best tool for fields of study that are new and unexplored. In terms of trumpet playing, this might be the method you use to get better at a new piece, especially one that uses extended techniques.
  3. Deliberate practice. This is the best kind of practice, because it can take you the farthest and the quickest to your goal of mastery. As in purposeful practice, you will need to engage the three “F”s: Focus, Feedback and Fix it. One difference between purposeful and deliberate practice is that not all fields of endeavor can be pursued with deliberate practice. The deliberate-practice field must be well-established, and it must have an accepted path to expertise (methods, books, accumulated advice). Fields such as chess, tennis and music are areas where deliberate practice can be used. These fields typically offer lessons with a teacher. Ericsson strongly encourages lessons with a good teacher to help tailor your deliberate practice and to give the best kinds of feedback. Even with the best kind of deliberate practice, you will need to spend thousands of hours getting to the point that you are a recognized expert. Why? This is simply because in fields such as chess, tennis and music, thousands of other people have put in these kinds of hours. So, in order to compete or play at their level, you have to do the same.

See you in the practice room. Remember the three “F”s!


2 responses to “Three kinds of practice”

  1. Karl Hovey Avatar
    Karl Hovey

    Very good! An interesting thought that a teacher once put to me when I was a high school student re: practice. He asked me what I did for ‘practice’. I said I had been practicing my band music and some etudes I was preparing for a competition. He said (loosely), “No, that’s rehearsal. What you do to improve your playing, is practice.”

    1. Good comment, Karl. Making the definition of “practice” more strict, forces the student to think about getting results.

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