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Deliberate Practice Strategies — Part 7: Repetition and Conclusion by Sean Millman

Sep 29, 2021, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

This final installment of the series examines how the deliberate practice loop turns over and starts again, and the advantages of this systematic process of feeding past improvement into future improvement. For reference, I present the loop once more. For additional information on any of its component parts, feel free to review the previous installments of this series.

Millman Loops Part 7

After one round through each element, the loop restarts and sends the performer back to the motivation element. At this point, the player’s autonomy is enhanced through having greater control over the outcome of a given performance of a skill by having greater understanding of what creates a successful repetition. The player’s confidence is increased through having seen improvement from multiple feedback sources, otherwise known as enhanced expectancies, the term Wulf and Lewthwaite use for this in their OPTIMAL (Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning) theory of motor learning. It is also likely that this improvement will increase the performer’s enjoyment of the task, leading to increased intrinsic motivation as well. 

Players’ mental representation of their best possible performance is improved through feedback, enhanced perception, and a more focused and detailed mental picture of a pristine version of the music. As the players’ feedback sources — self-recording, mock performances, and lessons — offer ever-more-detailed points of interest on which to improve, players incorporate these into their full-spectrum PETTLEP (Physical, Environment, Task, Timing, Learning, Emotion, Perspective) visualization of the performance. 

The most obvious example is self-recording. Since players now have quite a database of video and audio of their own ability and can track their improvement over time, their mental representation is updated to match the new, higher-level performance ability. This representation is then fed into the pre-performance routine, both for mental reinforcement of the ideal right before execution, and for any task-relevant physical motions needed in preparation. A cue word may be improved or changed to focus one more directly on the statement of the ideal most useful in generating an ideal performance and mitigating interference. 

Feedback can be gathered more effectively, since the player now has a greater knowledge of what to look, listen, and ask for. Self-recording becomes even more valuable as the player can use more informed camera angles or microphone placements to gain information relevant to specific excerpts or problems. For example, a timpanist noticing uneven sound quality in the thirty-second-note passage at letter S of the movement 1 Coda excerpt from Beethoven 9th may place a video camera at an angle ideal to check stroke height and stick angles on the 26- and 29-inch drums. A heavy metal drummer hearing uneven sound quality between right and left feet in a double bass section might use that information to recognize the need for a foot camera to diagnose weaknesses in pedal technique. A student auditioning for a drum corps snare line might use a teacher’s feedback about a left-hand slice to use camera angles that show the weakness more clearly. Or a marimba soloist who hears his or her mallet choice as perfect over the instrument, but continually hears feedback in mock performances that the sound is either lacking clarity or is abrasive may begin to use mic placements further away in larger rooms to get a clearer picture of what the performance sounds like to the audience rather than over the instrument. All of these examples involve players using feedback from a previous round through the deliberate practice loop, to improve the quality of the feedback they will get through the next round of the loop.

As the players watch and listen to these recordings, play additional mocks, and take additional lessons, they get another round of more detailed feedback. This detail allows even more effective targeting of practice time and creation of more specialized exercises and practice purposes for even faster improvement. In this way, the second trip through the elements of this loop has an even greater acceleration effect on the players’ improvement trajectory than the first. This process continues infinitely, limited only by the limits of human perception, human physical control, or the players’ available time, resources, and motivation to continue the process. 

I have mentioned Timothy Gallwey’s Self 1/Self 2 concept, from his famous Inner Game books. This is the idea that when performers are angry or dissatisfied with their play and give a command to themselves (“Come on, stop missing that note!”), one part of that performer is speaking and one part is being spoken to. This concept has been useful to musicians and performers of many other domains for decades, and for good reason. Within my model, I find it helpful to re-contextualize this idea into a performance state and an analysis state, effectively one self operating in different functions. 

The performance state is ideally operating in mental quiet, focused only on execution to the exclusion of all other concerns. Grading, categorization, value judgments, and other thinking processes are excluded so the player can be entirely present in the moment. The analysis state is an entirely opposite perspective, not remotely focused on execution so that the player can fully understand what needs to be improved. 

Within my deliberate practice loop, the feedback and targeting elements exist entirely in the analysis state. The pre-performance routine is a designated process for systematically and consistently moving the player into the performance state on command. The mental representation exists in both states; the player’s PETTLEP model is built on information gained from the analysis state, but it is created, imagined, and experienced in both states simultaneously. The complicating factor is that since a mental representation exists only inside the player’s mind — these representations are a combination of memory and imagination — it cannot be analyzed without being mentally performed. 

Mental quiet and focus of the performance state are crucial in order to allow that focus to carry over to real-world execution of the skill, but since there is no way to record a mental representation, the analysis state must be functioning during that activity in order to form it optimally. This is the only point in the loop during which both states are functioning simultaneously. The motivation element exists outside of either state, as the non-performer self (the person, not the player) is continually drawn to the activity, recognizing their improvements completed alongside improvements still needed with ever-greater levels of control over the outcome of their performances. 

There is no substitute for intrinsic motivation and the player’s drive to succeed through hard work and sacrifice, building a lifestyle optimized for improvement. Deliberate practice is not an excuse to practice less than necessary, nor is it a reason to practice beyond the limits of effectiveness. This combination of research-backed techniques into deliberate practice is a tool to gain greater improvement more efficiently. Repetitive practice is still required; it is simply made more effective because of the greater focus on the ever-smaller problematic elements of the performance.

In this way, the deliberate practice loop allows the player to continually drill down further and further toward the bedrock of perfection that every human performer in any domain knows is unreachable. The player’s trajectory continues to improve because each round of deliberate practice not only includes improvement, but also makes the next round more effective by being based in a greater foundation of highly specialized knowledge. Players become experts in not just the piece of music itself, but also in their particular realization of it and their own common shortcomings in execution.

This loop model does not contain revolutionary information or steps on their own. The value of this model is in the combination of existing elements for a single, unified process that guides the performer through leveraging these findings for improvement. Issues like visualization, self-recording, and well-designed practice hours are ubiquitous in the music community, as is the consistent refrain of students and professionals alike of, “I know it works, I just don’t do it.” My work does not offer a solution to the problem of convincing or deciding to use these elements; I merely offer this construct as a way to simplify their use for those who have the motivation to harness this science. 

This loop also does not replace many hours of dedicated, repeated executions of the skill in practice any more than film study replaces weight training and team practice for athletes. This process is merely an aid in efficiency and a guide toward more effective use of practice time. Nothing can ensure success; anyone who promises “Take my course and you’ll win a job” or “Study with me and I guarantee an audition win” is either stunningly arrogant, exaggerating, or flat-out lying to you. And even with the entire toolbox of deliberate practice, improvement is still nonlinear. Sometimes we stagnate, sometimes we have breakthroughs, and sometimes, for whatever reason, we take a frustrating step back. The line doesn’t go straight up, it bounces up and down in unpredictable ways depending on many factors, some out of our control. But if we create an effective process — and what I’ve tried to do in this series is give you the blueprints for making one — and then trust it, support it with the resources and sacrifices required, refine it along the way, and put in the work, when you zoom out far enough you will see improvement. 

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

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

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