I just read a fascinating article review of the idea of Deliberate Practice in top performers (case studies by K. Ericsson, R. Krampe and C. Tesch-Romer) from Psychological Review. Read the whole article here in Psychological Review. Here are some more GREAT articles on deliberate practice: from Annie Murphy Paul, Geoff Colvin, Brett and Kay McKay, Daniel Coyle of “The Talent Code,” Lukas Kyska. I’m sure there are many more, and I will add them as I find them. Please read them!

The gist of the story is not only that most musicians tend to have from 7,300 to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (or 10 years, whichever comes first) under their belt when they are considered “elite performers” but that it is not only the hours but the WAY they practice that makes the difference between the top musicians and just “good” musicians. (Maybe the hours of practice is why singers take so much longer to develop, since singers don’t tend to practice so many hours a day?)

Most of the top performers slept an hour more, as well. But the conclusion was not “the more you sleep, the better you play.” The conclusion was that these elite musicians were so much more tired – from concentrating so much when they were practicing – that they needed the extra hour or so of sleep to recover. Sleep was a by-product of the way they were practicing. Oh, so THAT’S why I sleep all the time! ;-)

The criteria for eminent performance goes beyond expert mastery of available knowledge and skills and requires an important and innovative contribution to the domain. But it starts with expert mastery of the technique of the instrument at hand. You can’t express what you want to express until you have the technical TOOLS to make it happen. Some interesting things about the practice of the best players:

  • They tended to practice alone from one hour to an hour and half at a time, and at least 3 hours a day.
  • They tended to practice late morning and then again later in the day, between 10am and 2pm.
  • They might nap in the afternoon to recover from their morning practice.
  • They judged getting sleep as important.
  • They had spent considerable efforts to seek out the very best musical teachers during their musical development.
  • Most performers spent 8 hours a day on music-related things.
  • They DELIBERATELY PRACTICED: deliberate practice is highly structured with the goal of improving performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. Deliberate Practice requires getting out of your comfortable zone and “stretching” your limits; it is not always the most fun activity. Musicians do it, however, because it enhances performance. SMART practicing means finding ways to slowly and methodically (and sometimes annoyingly) correct mistakes or technical faults out of their context, isolating the parts that are in need of remedy, getting immediate feedback (either from yourself, a recording, a teacher or a good set of ears), repeating the corrections methodically while concentrating on accomplishing the refinement at hand, and only after that is mastered to put the music back into its context. Render one skill or aspect of singing at a time into a habit, slowly and surely, in bite-size chunks. Teach your muscle memory what is RIGHT.

    Procedural memory is created through “procedural learning” or, repeating a complex activity over and over again until all of the relevant neural systems work together to automatically produce the activity. Implicit procedural learning is essential to the development of any motor skill or cognitive activity.[Wikipedia entry on Procedural memory]

  • One teacher from blog.kennedyviolins.com: found that often the more academically capable students were usually the laziest when it came to practicing. He believes the reason for this, is that they were used to not having to try very hard in the classroom and naturally expected learning an instrument would be just as easy for them. When they found out that mastering an instrument like the violin was incredibly difficult and cognitively demanding, they lacked the determination and drive needed to overcome tough obstacles during a typical practice session. … They found that if they gave the student very targeted exercises utilizing scales, arpeggios and etudes, they became much more technically proficient at their instrument. In turn, this greatly assisted them in being able to learn just about any piece and it made the entire learning process easier and more fun.

Young “wunderkind” performers:

  • usually had their first exposure to their domain between ages 3 and 8, and started studying then.
  • After extended time with an acceptable practice level, individuals adapted their bodies and lives and slowly and gradually increased their level of practice.
  • Bloom (1985b) found that there seems to be at least one central person in a promising child’s near environment who firmly believes, as the child develops, that the child is special, that is, talented in the domain. This person’s belief prevails even though Bloom (1985b) found no evidence that, during the early phases, the individual exhibited any clear evidence of prowess.

    People believe that because expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance the expert performer must be endowed with characteristics qualitatively different from those of normal adults… We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain. [Ericsson]


  • They did not go through their music without concentration.
  • They did not just repeat the skills they had already mastered.
  • They did not allow themselves to repeat or “get by” with mistakes, so that this became engrained in their muscle memory.
  • They did not go through their music by rote.
  • They did not just repeat things, mistakes and all, or keep playing the music through, over and over..

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (“flow” as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in

  1. full concentration
  2. analysis after feedback
  3. repetitions with refinement.

It’s so EASY for you!

Everyone always tells me, “Oh, it’s just so easy for you, you just get up there and sing!!”

Aren’t you funny? Ha ha ha. Uh, no, Dimwit, that “ease” comes after I have worked my patootey off so that I am prepared, so it will LOOK easy. I deliberately go through many steps, painstakingly (and it can be tedious and boring, as well, but I try to stay concentrated) before I have rendered automatic ONE aspect of singing what I’m singing. Then I move on to the next aspect, trying to make sure I don’t screw up the one I’ve already worked on to “perfection.” I try to concentrate on one thing at a time, to isolate each thing I’m working on, and don’t let myself repeat wrong things so that my muscles and memory get used to doing that.

WAYS THAT *I* PRACTICE DELIBERATELY – this is how I learn a song or a section of music.

You must relentlessly focus on your weaknesses and figure out and invent ways to address them. Simply playing through the things that are already easy for you does you no good.

It is helpful to do these following instructions IN THE FOLLOWING ORDER, I have found. It is painstaking and requires a lot of concentration, but you will be astounded at the progress you can make if you actually go through all of these steps. And your practice time will fly by, because you are so concentrated. PLAN what you want to accomplish and what you want to work on in your session. Keep a practice notebook and make your “plan of attack.” After you have finished, spend another 5 minutes writing down what you have accomplished, and the progress you think you have made, or observations or “breakthroughs” or insights you had during your practice. Share these with your teacher at your next lesson. There is no time to get bored! Too many things to think about and do!!

  • I write out a word by word translation in my music and then speak through the English translation. This is actually part of your PREPARATION for your practice time. Go back and TRANSLATE EVERY WORD AGAIN so you are sure that you know the meaning of every word. A lot of times we think we know the meaning because we’ve read someone else’s translation, but you’ll be surprised how many times you may find a slightly different word in translation that makes more sense of the phrase to you. Sometimes there are multiple translations of one word – write as many as possible over the word, and then go back in context when you know the other words to figure out WHICH meaning is the right one for your poem.  Many times translating will reveal new things for me in the interpretation and meaning of the song. Many times I will find that something doesn’t make sense, and I need to search for a better word in the translation, or put it in better grammatic perspective. Sometimes I have even found that the foreign-language text has mistakes in it while reading the English translation because it just plain didn’t make sense! At that point, I go back to the original poem (NOT on recmusic, but on a literary site in the original language) and check that the original language text I have is correct. Recently in a German song, there was the word “Lüfte” and when I checked the original poem, it was actually “Lüste,” which made a heck of a lot more sense in the translation. Some music publisher had been careless. If things just do not make sense to you, talk or write to a native speaker about that phrase. It may be a misprint. But do the homework of looking up every word yourself. Ask a native speaker to help you with words you can not find – they will probably be forms of verbs that you don’t know.
  • I mark and practice the rhythm. Preparing your score is part of your practice.  I write in “hash marks” in my score, if the rhythm is complicated, indicating the beats and say out loud “ta ta ta” to the rhythm, making time to consciously breathe well with support where I need to breathe when it will be sung. I will repeat certain tricky passages out of context slowly if I am having problems with them. I plan my breaths in the music, so they don’t just happen by chance.  I put in parentheses  where I might need one and it would work both musically and textually.  When I have mastered that, I slowly work it up to speed. Only then do I add in a measure at a time in front of the difficult passage while I am still slow, (working from the back end) and then slowly speed up the entire passage.
  • I read the words in rhythm, repeating slowly the words I make mistakes on. I isolate the words I have problems with and repeat them slowly and methodically, only getting faster when I have mastered the word. Then I slowly put them back into context, one word at a time working from the back… (Example – the line reads: “alles Sieche ist betäubt von ihrem Wohlgeruch.” I keep forgetting the umlaut on “betäubt.” So I say “betäubt” slowly three times in a row. Then I say “ist betäubt” in rhythm three times, then I say ” ist betäubt von ihrem” three times in rhythm, then I say “ist betäubt von ihrem Wohlgeruch” three times in rhythm, then I say “Sieche ist betäubt von ihrem Wohlgeruch” in rhythm three times, then I FINALLY say the whole line (breathing well beforehand) in rhythm: “alles Sieche ist betäubt von ihrem Wohlgeruch.” Whew! I’ve got it in my mouth now. My muscle memory will remember it now better so my brain doesn’t have to consciously recall every sound as I’m singing – I can concentrate on other things. Perhaps you only need to repeat things twice to “get” them, or maybe you need to repeat them five times or more – that is what your feedback (to yourself) and analysis of your practice time does. Learn how YOU work best.
  • I then read the foreign words out loud again, while looking at the ENGLISH word-for-word translation. Rinse and repeat. If you have problems with the foreign language, mark up your music with help! Write in markings of how to pronounce things, write in stresses in the text, where the accents of the line go, etc… Give a sustained, legato recitation of the text in the foreign language while looking at the English translation.
  • Now I add a descriptive gesture for almost every word while saying out loud the foreign words in rhythm and reading the English translation above. It’s a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head and playing the organ with your foot at the same time. ;-) I gesticulate something specific on every word. It gives me a physical gesture that applies to each word (pointing up to sky for “cielo,” for example.) This helps cement in the mind the words and their meanings. Your body and brain computes in “Sky” while you say “cielo” because you are READING the word “sky” and pointing up to the actual sky while you are saying “cielo.” This is ESPECIALLY helpful if you’re having problems with memorization and/or do not speak the language in which you’re singing. You may be able to incorporate a few of these gestures into your interpretation of the piece eventually, funnily enough!
  • Then I sing the music on one vowel (whatever my best vowel may be,) eliding one note into the next, taking care to “spin” the sound and connect it to my breath, while keeping the opening of the throat and jaw the same for all the different notes and make sure I am spinning one note into the next, making portamenti from one note to the next. I stop and isolate parts that are giving me trouble, concentrating on breath compression, placement and freeing up any tension in these problematic parts and repeating them slowly in bite-size chunks until I master them and then sing them in context. This way, I train my body to support in between the notes and at the ends of notes as well as attack phrases well (an attack that is not airy and not glottal.)
  • I isolate the end of the line if I am having problems with getting through it on one breath, so I can build finishing that line with plenty of breath support into my muscle memory. Once I have mastered the very end of the phrase, I add one word at a time onto the phrase from the back, repeating just those isolated words a few times until I am totally comfortable still at the end of the phrase. Then I keep adding on words on the back end, one at a time, repeating from that spot until the end each time, until I have built back on the whole phrase well. I do NOT allow myself to squeeze out the end of a line EVER in practice, as this only reinforces the bad muscle memory. I teach my body the muscle memory of ending that line well.
    Let me add that usually breath problems at the end of a phrase (unless it’s just CRAZY LONG) mean that either I need to take an extra breath somewhere or that I am losing air somewhere along the line. So I do a few exercises to check where that might be. I sing the entire line with a tongue bubble outside of my mouth (like giving someone a raspberry!) and see where my tongue stops vibrating. THAT is where I am not supporting.
    I also do a sort of “technical checklist” before emitting any note in practice – sometimes I try to do all of them, and sometimes I just need to concentrate on doing one of the list until I get it mastered before moving on to the next item. Singing, in the end, involves remembering simultaeously ALL of the list, so the more you can get at once, the better, as they are all connected:

    1. Am I opening my throat, keeping a wide palate, and giving space to that note, breathing IN on that space in which I am going to sing?
    2. Have I breathed deeply and low as if through a straw, kept my ribs wide, my sternum soft
    3. While keeping all this rib area open, am I connected to that spot about 2 inches below my belly button and inside my body about 2 inches before singing? The spot you activate when you’re doing Kegel exercises?
    4. Have I closed my vocal cords before I start that phrase? (I check by SAYING – mezzoforte – the word on which I’m losing air and then do a few glottal stops so that I feel my vocal cords closed before I begin the phrase or word.)
    5. Am I keeping that connection to my breath support and singing on the EDGE of my vocal cords as I go through the phrase, or am I letting air (HHHH) blow through my cords at certain points, diffusing the sound?

    If I go through this checklist before singing each little part of the phrase and slowly fix the things I am forgetting to do, I guarantee you I will not be blowing extra air through parts of the phrase, and I will have a lot more “air” left at the end of the phrase. The breath support has concentrated the flow of the air to the good tension of the vocal folds by working slowly and diligently (concentrating until my brain wants to burst) on small bite-sized chunks of the music. I can condense them down to a almost-one-word checklist that I can use as key-words for ideas while I’m singing:

    1. space
    2. wide-rib
    3. spot
    4. closed-cord
    5. edge

    These mean something to me, and I can use them while I am breathing or singing in context as quick reminders of entire concepts on which I have worked slowly and diligently in practice.

  • Then I sing the music on the original vowels, keeping the throat open for all the vowels and making sure I am spinning one note into the next in a portamento. I stop and isolate parts that are giving me trouble, concentrating on keeping the same “default” embouchure inside my mouth and jaw for all the vowels, using only slight modifications to my tongue to make the different vowels and repeating them slowly until I master them, then putting them more and more into context, one measure at a time.
  • I now add back in the consonants on top of this legatissimo line.
  • I PLAN AND MARK MY BREATHS IN MY SCORE. I plan in LONG intakes during the entire measure before I sing. Sometimes I even remind myself to swallow in this certain phrase, relax my neck in this certain phrase, relax my tongue in this certain phrase, breathe on these three or four beats before I come in, and then SING! As mentioned before, I isolate the ends of long lines with a good breath. This way my body builds the habit of finishing the line with enough breath. Only then do I add to the phrase, beginning the phrase one note earlier every time, making sure I still have correct opening of my throat and mouth at the end of the line and I am concentrating the sound with my support from way below, until I can do the WHOLE phrase in one breath.
    Then I sing the phrase that comes before the breath and practice taking the time to breathe slowly and well before the problematic phrase, so I can “program in” the breath in context. Then I repeat the phrase beforehand, taking a quicker breath every time *that is still a good breath* until I can get the breath up to speed.
    I find it especially helpful to do the following: sing each phrase in time with the pianist, but take all the time you need at EVERY breath while the pianist just stops and hangs out while you organize a great breath and a great attack for EVERY breath. Then begin the next phrase and sing it in time. In this way, every breath gets programmed well in your brain and body. You ONLY take good breaths. Slowly work the breaths up to speed, so you program in that you breathe well and are not just gasping. Rinse and Repeat…
  • Now I repeat the song, concentrating on my breath and keeping my jaw open and relaxed.
  • NOW I sing through the entire song to remind myself to sing the markings, etc…
  • I repeat the song, now thinking and acting out the translation.

Doing this on ONE song, aria or section of music will take you at least an hour to an hour and a half. I go get a drink of water, and do something else, and then come back to the music to SLOWLY go through it again after the break, to see where I might still have faults.

This is the way to SLOWLY learn things, and once you put in this work, it will all sound “so easy.” It isn’t. It’s work. But this kind of work is what puts you in with the ELITE musicians and not just the “good” ones. Do not just run through your pieces and allow yourself to sing faults into your throat’s muscle memory. Stop yourself immediately and isolate problems, and FIX THEM. Only then reward yourself with the joy of singing through something!