Deliberate Play v. Deliberate Practice

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Deliberate Practice

I’ve talked at length in previous posts about the importance of “Deliberate Practice”, a phrase made popular in Geoff Colvin’s brilliant book, “Talent is Overrated”, in making your limited practice time more effective. But can you actually do too much practice?

We’ve all heard that “too much of anything is a bad thing” but I’ve only recently related this to my music practice. I started work on my Diploma program last December and by July I had really burnt-out through too much practice and my Beethoven Sonata was particularly frustrating. I just couldn’t get it how I wanted it to sound – faster, more even, fewer mistakes – despite practising deliberately and incessantly. I felt defeated and frustrated. To make matters worse, I was planning to sit my exam in October, so pulling back on the practice wasn’t an option.

Thankfully, for a number of reasons, my exam date changed to May next year. The best part: I could leave Beethoven alone for a while and instead play the pieces that I have always wanted to work on, for the fun of them. What a revelation! Now six months on, I can look back on that time as being absolutely crucial to my continued enjoyment of piano playing. I’m not exaggerating! The importance of deliberate play and not just practice, should not be forgotten – particularly for students.

Deliberate Practice versus Practice for Pleasure

Professor Gary McPherson alluded to this at this year’s VMTA Clifford Lecture, stating, “If you only play for improvement, you’ll burn out. You must play for pleasure as well as improvement”. This was exactly what was happening with my Beethoven (and most of my program, in fact); I was so focussed on practice, that I’d not given myself anytime for play!

During my practice hiatus, I played Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, some Polonaises, Nocturnes and bits of his Scherzi – pieces I’d always wanted to explore. I looked at new Bach Preludes and Fugues, some different Carl Vine works, the Busoni-Bach Chaconne and had a few attempts at various Chopin Etudes that I’d always wanted to try. All for the fun of it!

When I finally came back to Beethoven after leaving it for around two months, I was amazed that not only had my playing not deteriorated, it had actually improved! Was this due to the work that I had done on all the other pieces, the fun I’d had mucking around with them or just because I was more generally relaxed? Probably all the above, but I now understand that playing pieces for the fun of them is vital, especially when you’re spending most of your playing time on more “deliberate practice” for forthcoming exams, recitals or competitions.

Teachers note: if your students aren’t supported in their deliberate play as much as their deliberate practice, don’t be surprised if you lose them to burn-out. I always encourage my students to bring in music that they want to play regardless of how hard it might be. Music from films, video games and stuff they’ve seen on YouTube are all great “play” pieces. Many of my students bring in music books they were given or found at home or suddenly want to learn a famous classical piece out of the blue.

I believe students learn just as much from this type of “playing” as their more formal repertoire and, best of all, they’ll stay motivated and be very grateful that you’ve spent time helping them learn something that they want to play. You might find that these pieces are too hard at first, so you can use this as an opportunity to learn about playing with chords instead of reading music. Transcriptions are often rhythmically tricky, so use this as a way to introduce a deeper understanding of rhythms.

Go for it! Don’t miss any opportunities for piano play this week – both for yourself and your students.

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Tim Topham

Lead blogger and coffee snob
Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.
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  • http://crosseyedpianist.wordpress.com Cross Eyed Pianist

    Another great post, Tim. And I couldn’t agree more. It’s so important to ENJOY your music, and to take a break from pieces from time to time. You come back to them feeling refreshed and full of new ideas, and, as a result, you play better.

    Out of interest, what exam are you working for? I am expecting to sit my Performance Diploma in December and have been working on the repertoire for it for over a year now. I generally find it easy to remain focussed, but fearing that the pieces may become stale thro over work, I’ve been looking at new repertoire – Chopin Nocturne Op 62/2 and the Praeludium from Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis.

  • Alice Siah

    Hi Tim, one of my students brings me fun songs that constantly too hard for him. And he practices on and off. Usually we go over a couple measures, but then he loses interest to keep going more than a page. What advice would you give me other than finding an easier version or simplify the songs?

  • http://gravatar.com/timtopham timtopham

    Hi Alice. Thanks for your question. I have exactly the same issue with a number of my students – they love bringing in transcriptions of video game and film music that is either really badly transcribed or just incredibly difficult to play, but they just love practising it! More often than not, they’ve already started learning it and I’m constantly amazed at the amount of time they’ll spend on it, no matter how long it takes. Wouldn’t it be great if they did this for all their pieces?!

    If the student is working really hard on it, enjoying it and learning something from it, my best advice is to keep helping them with the piece, even if it is beyond their level, and even if it’s only a couple of bars a week. I often simplify aspects of these transcriptions, as you suggest, without effecting how it sounds to the student.

    On the other hand, if he’s not really enjoying it because it’s too hard, I’d encouarge him to look at some simpler but similar pianistic repertoire – you can see my other posts about good repertoire choices for boys by searching on the LHS of this page. It’s really about working out the types of sounds your student likes playing and finding repertoire to match. Some students like the really arpeggiated accompaniments and simple melody lines of “film-type” scores, others like chordal pieces, still others like melody lines with alberti-style bass and for some it’s all about cool rhythms.

    If you can find what makes your student click, you can continue to inspire him without the tricky transcriptions from the net. Let me know if I can help with any specific repertoire suggestions!