Shinichi Suzuki

The Suzuki Experienece

From one Suzuki parent to another

Deliberate practice: what is it? How to do it? A new series

The first of a series of articles on deliberate practice. Learning to practice with focused intent.

Alan Duncan

6 minutes read

This week, I'm beginning a new series of articles on deliberate practice as it relates to the work of the Suzuki parent and student.

I hope you'll stay with me as we explore deliberate practice and how it's different from all of the other ways we can practice. We'll dive into what exactly we're trying to accomplish with practice, how mental representations about playing contribute to improvement, how to build better mental representations, and several other topics.

Let me say at the outset, deliberate practice is about expert performance. Suzuki's intent, of course, was to raise better citizens of the world, not necessarily world-class soloists.1 So how do we reconcile a discipline of practice with Suzuki's belief that it's not about the achievement anyway? Here's how I think about it:

Regardless of your goals, it's more enjoyable to play well than to play poorly. Furthermore all of the organizational skills and focus that kids develop as a result of practicing deliberately will provide a roadmap for development no matter what they ultimately pursue in life. Given a choice between practicing effectively and practicing haphazardly, why not do it well?

How do you practice?

A cautionary tale: When I was a young music student, while I enjoyed playing, I didn't enjoy practice. So my practice was mostly focused on doing better at what I already did well. Left unattended, I suspect everyone would regress to a similar pattern. But achievement is questionable under such conditions. What I was doing is what Anders Ericsson, the famed researcher on expert performance would call naïve practice. Putting in the time - some time, at least - but not really digging into the details with focus. Sadly, very little improvement is likely under these conditions. Eventually, I learned to practice much more effectively in high school and as an adult. It turns out that old dogs can be taught new tricks! 🐶

Ways of practicing

Ways of practicing

When we began Suzuki violin lessons 7 years ago, something between naïve and purposeful practice was about all we could manage. It wasn't exactly wasted time, because we were establishing a practice habit, building stamina and slowly working in expectations and goals. But soon we have to move beyond this sort of naïve practice.

So what happens if you introduce another factor, namely goals into the equation? This opens up many more possibilities because this form of practice, purposeful practice is designed to build specific skills, prepare the repertoire that supports and integrates those skills, and is designed in such a way that students are focused on exactly those factors. When the teacher says: "Work on this passage, repeating it 5-10 times starting with doubles, then slowly with singles in separate bows," and the parent dutifully takes this down in the lesson notebook and helps execute it in practice - this is purposeful practice. And when done well, can result in excellent performance.

End of story? Not quite.

Expert performers, of course, do all of this. They do it a lot; and they do it well. But there's more.

What they do differently is deliberate practice, the theme of this series of articles.

We can distinguish deliberate practice from purposeful practice in the following ways:

  • There is a body of knowledge about how to become very good at your discipline. Of course, for music, this is definitely the case.
  • It requires very specific, highly personalized feedback from skilled teachers.
  • It requires near maximal effort and focus.
  • It is often perceived as not very enjoyable.
  • Most importantly, it is designed to address specific elements of technique that are lacking.
  • Finally, all of these aspects of deliberate practice are designed to build, and to build on, mental representations, structured ways of understanding the discipline - in this case music - that aid expert practice and performance.

Getting closer to deliberate practice

I'll dive into each of these aspects of deliberate practice in the coming weeks; but for now, what can we immediately implement in the practice room and in our daily family lives to introduce purposeful and deliberate practice?

For parents of young beginning students, simply establishing a practice habit with a few purposeful elements - bow hold, posture, hand position - is often all that can be accomplished. This is all OK because we're planting the seeds of deliberate practice.

For parents of more established students, we can support an ever-increasing focus on specific elements of technique they need to acquire or improve. Turn a magnifying glass on small regions of a piece - one shift, an appoggiatura that needs a faster or wider vibrato. And we, as practice parents need to give more specific feedback to inform the next repetition.

Next week, we'll cover the all-important idea of mental representations and how expert performers use them to practice and perform better. But for now, I'll just emphasive that the most important mental representations in music are aural. This is an area where Ericsson's research and Suzuki's philosophy overlap completely. How does listening help? By building mental representations of sound, form and structure.

In practical terms, how else can we approach deliberate practice?

  • Repetition: Making repetition a natural part of practice is fruitful. In fact, in our practice at home, 90% of our work is on very small units of the piece. Maybe a phrase, a measure or two. Sometimes our focus is on a single note. The point is that the vast majority of most pieces, once learned need little maintenance. So spending time on what lies just outside your grasp is where most of the improvement takes place. This is a cornerstone of expert practice.
  • Understand where technique is lacking - Practice parents can keep a list, either mental or written, of what elements of technique, what parts of a piece, and so on, need work. These ideas will often come from the teacher; but there's nothing to say that the insights you have in practice can't also inform this list. Why is this so important? Because it helps you keep the focus on pushing the boundary between where your child is playing now, and where could be.
  • Immerse yourself in the process: ABL, "Always be learning." If you have experience in music, then this will come naturally. But if not, it's a great opportunity to build a deep base of knowledge about a fascinating field. I'm a pianist, but not much of a violinist. So, I've had to immerse myself in all things related to the violin. Who are the great violinists, past and present? What is the history of the instrument? What have different pedagogues written about this or that technique? I'll never approach our teacher's level of experience and understanding; but that's not the goal. I'm only attempting to build my understanding so that I can, in turn, be a better aid to my child in practice. What does this have to do with deliberate practice? In short, when I have a clearer set of mental representations about the instrument, I can help my child build her own set of these mental frameworks about it. We have a common language and understanding to build on.

Learning more about deliberate practice

If this is a subject that piques your interest, then I'd recommend Ericsson and Poole's excellent book "Peak".

Listen well, and practice well! See you next week for an in-depth exploration of mental representations, the cornerstone of deliberate practice. I'm really excited about this series and about the potential for deliberate practice.

  1. But I also want to be clear that these goals aren't at all incompatible either. [return]
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The Suzuki Experienece is a weblog focused on helping parents practice more effectively and joyfully with their children. It traces the progress of our experience from beginner to budding young artist.