A Technique Used by Expert Musicians Can Help You Master New Skills

Here are four ways to use it to your advantage.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

When I was 13, I met an 80-year-old man who was good at everything.

Hal McKusick was most famous as a legendary jazz saxophonist, but he also lived in a small house off of Main Street in Sag Harbor, New York, where I spent hundreds of hours. His “feathery” saxophone sound once wowed Charlie Parker, which you can enjoy here. Hal was by all rights a musical genius who once composed a piece for four horns in 20 minutes with his dog Scooter wrapped around his ankles. Hal made shaker furniture that was written about in the New York Times. He flew airplanes, and, in his younger years, would rollerblade to stay fit.

Hal died in 2012, but I think he would say this himself if he were still around: The reason he was so prolific wasn’t because he spent hours slaving away at these skills; it was because of the way he practiced. To practice landing a plane in high winds, Hal used to say he would practice landing on one wheel. To practice a hard saxophone phrase, he would write it out in a notebook and play it endlessly.

He attacked his weaknesses in a thorough, methodical way that he once called “going to the woodshed.” But behavioral scientists who have studied how people master new skills call it “deliberate practice.”

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There’s a huge body of research suggesting that learning to practice deliberately (like Hal did) can help you learn new skills efficiently. You don’t need to slave away for 10,000 hours to get good at something; you need to learn how to use your time in the most effective way possible.

What Is (and Isn’t) Deliberate Practice?

Karl Anders Ericsson, Ph.D., is a psychologist at Florida State who has been publishing work on deliberate practice since the 1990s. In 1993, he described it in a study of music students at the Music Academy in West Berlin, but he’s since written about it in the Harvard Business Review. He’s seen surgeons, chess players, musicians, and athletes all use this technique to improve performance.

Famously, Ericsson’s study is also what spawned Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule,” which took off with the publication of his book Outliers in 2008.

There was a time it was endlessly reblogged as a defining feature of expertise. But if you Google “the 10,000 hour rule” now, you’ll find a mixture of headlines that bust Gladwell’s argument and his own salty response to the criticism. Ericsson, for one, says there was a misunderstanding.

“What we’re talking about when we measured the training music students did is that they were working on things they couldn’t do. They were constantly trying to stretch themselves to a higher level,” says Ericsson.

“So this idea that if you’re driving for 10,000 hours — or you’re a teacher who did 10,000 hours of teaching — the act of just doing it, there’s compelling evidence it doesn’t improve your performance.”

The key isn’t time spent practicing; it’s how these music students practiced that set the best apart.

Deliberate practice is not without critics. One study, released this year, showed that it may not explain why some people go on to be prodigies and others don’t. Instead, the lead study author Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, told me that “practice explains change within a person very well, but it does not explain differences in skill across people as well.”

To practice deliberately, you’ve really got to go at your own pace, and not expect to master things overnight. Here a few things to keep in mind to make sure you’re practicing deliberately.

1. Don’t Spin Your Wheels

Ten-thousand hours of deliberate practice would push us far beyond our limits, anyway.

Ericsson’s music students had been practicing deliberately since childhood, so he explains that they could put in a good three to four hours of deliberate practice. By the end, he says, they were exhausted. (They would take naps afterwards.)

Beginners should aim for around 15-20 minutes of good, solid practice time, and then build upwards from there. Eventually, he says, it’ll become a habit, like brushing your teeth.

“We know from sports and music, when individuals try to practice for more than 15-20 minutes a day, it seems to be wasted time, and it’s just frustrating,” says Ericsson. “Anybody who can do 20 to half an hour a day, that’s perfect. They’ll see with time they can easily increase that and still be able to have that concentration that I think is necessary.”

2. Think Out Loud

If you don’t have a coach or teacher who can help spot your weaknesses, write down what things are giving you grief and why you’re finding them so hard.

“What I find interesting when I talk to people who are learning to interpret X-rays, is that they kind of build up their own little library. They keep track of mistakes they made, and they write down some thoughts that they had when they encountered the X-ray.”

“Then, when they get the correct feedback, they can go back to their notes and thereby have a better understanding of why they made a mistake,” he adds.

Even if learning to read X-rays isn’t your thing, keeping a log can help you work through your own reasoning, see why mistakes happened, and work through them.

3. Set a Deadline

When we’re trying to learn skills for our own enjoyment or for our own betterment, it can be easy to sideline them for more pressing concerns. To address that, you could try setting a hard deadline.

Ericsson explains that his students tended to ramp up their practicing right before major recitals or performances. So adding a little bit of public pressure on that end could help sharpen your routine.

4. Don’t Forget to Play a Bit

Finally, these deliberate practicers are undoubtedly hardos. It’s an intentionally exhausting form of practice. But every so often, Ericsson says he would see his musicians just messing around, to keep things fresh.

“This isn’t deliberate practice, but if you sit down at the piano and just play things that you enjoy listening to, you can play around and make modifications and learn new things. That kind of activity seems to be critical to support your willingness to put in time when you’re pushing yourself to get better.”

In other words, don’t forget why you’ve committed to this routine. At the end of the day, there should be some joy in there somewhere.

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