A way to think about practice

As a youngster, no one really taught me how to practice. I was admonished to practice but never showed how to practice. With the pressure of time, concert preparations, and general busyness, I’ve come to develop my own techniques. Last summer, for example, I gave a performance of one of the Beethoven piano trios; and I went so far as cataloguing all of the tricky spots that needed special attention and developing a spreadsheet of those spots and the current tempo markings. This was enormously helpful because while I had a lot of practice time, it was still bounded by the demands of family life. ViolinGirl’s teacher always marks spots that need work and gives her instructions on how many times she should work on those spots before playing the piece through. This is a great way to set the stage for organized practice once she becomes more independent.

Recently, I ran across a post entitled “How to get smarter”1,2 on the excellent blog Barking up the Wrong Tree. The article centers around a talk given by Tim Ferriss3 in which he talks about a series of steps that accelerate learning of a new skill. I think it has implications for designing effective practice habits. These are his steps, not mine.


The first step in his method is to deconstruct an enormous task into understandable parts that one can easily handle. This can be done at any level. Want to play the violin? With Suzuki, there’s a built-in deconstruction by book - Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, etc. But the same method can be focused on a particular piece of music. With music, deconstruction can take the form of analyzing the overall structure, the key, the time signature, and so forth. It can also mean looking closely at the question “what stands between me as I play now and me having mastered the piece?”


Ferriss uses the Pareto principle4 to decide what components are worth spending more time on. You should structure your practice so that 80% of the work is devoted to the learning the hardest parts of the piece and focusing on them.


The proper sequencing of practice is what I got completely wrong as a kid. The only sequence I knew was “start at the top, play it to the end, repeat.” This is one of the least efficient ways to practice. (Not practicing at all, I suppose, is the least efficient!) The way to learn faster and more effectively is to go immediately to the spots that you’ve selected as the most difficult or most important.


Finally, if you are practicing on your own you need some incentive to keep going. After all, the accomplishment of a difficult task like learning a piece can still be weeks or months away even if you are practicing effectively. The gratification of a process well done is delayed. One way is increase the stakes of not practicing. You can commit to giving money to a cause you wouldn’t otherwise support because you have an ethical objection to it. Or you can make your goals known to family and friends so that there is a social commitment to completion. For kids, there is a built-in external pressure with parents in the practice room.

I hope this is a useful way to think about practice.

  1. “How to get smarter” (Barking up the Wrong Tree),, accessed 2015-05-20 Link [return]
  2. I’m always cautious about advice on becoming smarter because they are almost always tinged with implications about the instrumental qualities of intelligence. The implied advice is often “become smarter so that you can…” In music, I don’t care about what follows. I want ViolinGirl to be an excellent player because music is its own reward. But in this case, I thought the advice was interesting and sound; so here you are. [return]
  3. Ferriss is the author of “The 4-Hour Workweek”, a book about rethinking work and retirement. He is also apparently good at learning new skills such as picking up foreign languages. [return]
  4. The Pareto principle is widely known as the 80-20 rule. He noted that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. Similar effects are found elsewhere in the world. It’s also used to think about efficiency. [return]
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Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.