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Deliberate Practice Strategies — Part 5: Feeback by Sean Millman

Jul 28, 2021, 09:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

The previous three installments of this series were focused on preparation steps before performance: motivational effects related to motor learning, creating mental representations of the ideal, and pre-performance routines for the last few moments before execution. This article is focused on post-performance: learning from past executions, whether they happen under the lights on stage, when the red light goes on, under the eye of a teacher, or in the practice room. 

After performance comes analysis. This concept is universally accepted in fields from sports and business to politics and combat. In my experience however, it is used and recognized far less among performing musicians. The only consistent implementation of feedback for musicians is in the form of private lessons, which are clearly an invaluable part of music training. However, the traditional lesson model often does not optimize its variables for the student’s improvement and leaves out multiple other crucial avenues for feedback informing growth. 

Meaningful feedback can be derived from three main sources: self, peer, and coach. Coach feedback is the private-lesson scenario discussed above; peer refers to a performer’s colleagues, student’s classmates, or player’s teammates; and self refers to the feedback gathered by the performers themselves. The ubiquity of smartphones in the modern day means nearly every musician — professional, student, and hobbyist — has a recording device available at a moment’s notice.

Psychology tells us that humans are not capable of simultaneously performing and analyzing while doing either task optimally; analysis becomes an element of interference detracting from potential, and it is ineffective anyway because of perception limitations during execution. Thus, self-recording is an indispensable tool for performers to be able to effectively analyze their performance and separate that analysis from the act of performing. This concept is widely known in the music field from Gallwey’s Inner Game books, with his discussion of Self 1 and Self 2 being essentially a mental state of performance and analysis respectively. As Gallwey aims to quiet Self 1 in the moment so that Self 2 can function optimally, self-recording allows players to outsource their self-criticism to the future and focus only on execution in the moment. 

Part of the benefit of the pre-performance routines examined in the previous article of this series was moving the performer into a mentally-quiet, hyper-focused performance state unhindered by analysis; this article is about the stage at which we turn off the performer and fully embrace the analyst.

Self-recording is a bedrock action to deliberate practice, because it offers immediate data available to be rewatched, slowed down, looped, zoomed, cut, or otherwise altered for analysis at zero cost once the necessary gear is acquired. A smartphone is enough in most cases. Simply pointing a smartphone at oneself and pressing record on the video function has countless benefits to musical training; I will lay out a few of the most helpful here. 

First is the ability to hear ourselves from outside our own head, without the burden of analyzing while executing as noted above. In addition to separating the responsibilities of listening and playing, this also allows for checking recordings for objectively measurable musical elements like pitch and time by simply using a tuner or metronome next to the audio. Common are tales of  musicians utterly convinced of their own correct timing, who are then confronted by the objective truth of their wobbly and wavering pulse upon hearing a recording. Consistently recording oneself as a normal part of the practice process not only exposes the flaws in our playing more clearly, but also acquaints us with the feeling of playing while being recorded. Performance anxiety can be greatly mitigated simply by being exposed to that feeling more often, and turning on the recorder adds a feeling of weight to a practice rep, even when we know the only audience is ourself in five minutes. Ancillary benefits include increased familiarity with recording equipment and a repository of content ready for posting in the age of digital media.

Peer feedback is gained primarily through mock auditions and practice runs for colleagues. Neither of these are novel ideas, but they are often not used with the consistency or rigor that they are in other domains, leading to a diminished return. Recording remains crucial, as the benefits of recording for later analysis from self-feedback remain relevant, as do those related to gaining experience performing under pressure. These mocks have two primary purposes: preparation for the feelings that will be experienced in eventual performances and as an additional source of data on the effectiveness of present execution. Performing for real people can pre-mitigate nerves and performance anxiety when the real thing comes, both through minimizing felt nerves at the time and by giving a player experience in successfully overcoming them, leading to confidence in the moment that they can be overcome again. This is an example of enhanced expectancies increasing performance, as discussed in the earlier article about motivation.

Mocks as a data source for evaluating execution offer a greater sample size of feedback than can be gained from lessons. Consider a month’s worth of preparation by a student in music school. This most likely consists of four lessons, an hour each, the vast majority of that time focused on information transfer and skill development rather than pure performance. Now, imagine the same player also sets up two mock performances each week, each of them with a panel of four student colleagues. Now the player has eight performances completed, and the feedback of 32 fellow musicians-in-training. The value for crafting effective interpretations that connect to an audience is self-apparent, especially if the players have been able to fill these mock panels with listeners who aren’t percussionists and are thus unencumbered by our predilections of focus. 

Consider how much more effective these players’ lessons will be. With experience performing their repertoire, informed interpretation feedback, and significant time reviewing those recordings and self-recordings in the practice room, the lesson teachers are free to focus on pushing the players to another level rather than diagnosing simple issues that are obvious and apparent to anyone — ones that do not require the teacher’s expertise. The players’ questions will be far more detailed, specific, and informed, leading to answers that are more useful and impactful. And by recording these lessons as well, the players arew free from taking notes and can be fully present at the time and review the recording at a later time to squeeze the information out of it. 

One final element of feedback that should be implemented is an archival system, to store these self-recordings, mock performances, and lessons for the players to review again in the future. As scientists have lab notebooks, athletes have game film, and soldiers have debriefings, many musicians are now using digital archives to track their progress over time. 

This topic is too large to cover completely in this article, but I will offer a few basic concepts. First, don’t let technology at hand dissuade you from starting. Again, a smartphone is enough for the vast majority of information needed. External microphones, dedicated video recorders, even entire studio-quality recording setups are useful, but involve a significant investment with diminishing returns of improved data on improvement. While professional-level recording gear will improve the look and sound of your recordings for online publishing or school/festival/gig applications, for the purpose of feedback, use what you have. In terms of organization, the most effective system is the one you will use consistently. Mine is nested folders within my local and cloud storage; I also know many players who have used iTunes to organize things. You don’t need an entire computer or program dedicated solely for this purpose, just digital storage space and a system for cataloging feedback from yourself, your peers, and your teachers. 

This process of systematizing feedback received is a way to minimize the mystery of artistic expression. If players have a specific interpretation idea they really like, but 95% of their mock listeners hate it, that is a valuable piece of information. That same players might be convinced their performance is in time, but then on listening back to self-recordings realize their perception during performance is not aligned with reality. Recorded lessons mitigate the potential for forgetting or mishearing an important piece of advice. And the archival system that is saving all of this data, in addition to all of these benefits during a process of improvement, offers players the ability to listen to lessons from months or years ago on coming back to a piece of music after a time off from it. 

Feedback doesn’t make you better; watching self-recordings and hearing peers and teachers tell you what to fix is no substitute for actual practice. But it can be the silver bullet for gaining a full understanding of what needs to improve. 

Next month’s article will address recognizing which targets are the most important for improvement and crafting plans to most effectively and efficiently hit those targets.

Sean MillmanSean Millman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Percussion Performance, ABD at NYU Steinhardt, and a freelance drummer/percussionist in New York City. Learn more at millmanpercussion.com.

This series examines and applies elements from the author's forthcoming dissertation, "A Deliberate Practice Loop for Music Performance.”

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