Performing musicians have long thought about the mental side of our art and sought out methods of improving their understanding and implementations of it. For decades, teachers from K–12 institutions to elite conservatories have given advice on these issues based on their own experiences, the wisdom of athletes and actors, and books from such authors as Gallwey, Gladwell, Duhigg, Tolle, and the late Anders Ericsson. The result is a music community that is acquainted with issues of performance psychology, but that does not have a full grasp of its depth or breadth. This causes professionals and students alike to focus often on only a single part of the whole, leaving much of what human performance science can offer us to sit unused and potentially misused.
Some of the benefits to well-crafted and consistently used routines are consistency in performance, reduced performance anxiety, and resilience to changing environments and circumstances.
Deliberate practice is a relatively recent term, traced to a 1993 study of conservatory violinists in Berlin led by Ericsson. The short version of the results is that the violinists who had practiced more over the course of their lives were better. While this is (hopefully) not an Earth-shaking claim, it was and is controversial because of a single term: talent. Ericsson suggested that talent was either nonexistent or not relevant. His position was that the single most important variable for determining a person’s level of expertise is the amount of quality practice they have accrued over their lifetime within the relevant domain. Practice in other fields is largely irrelevant. Of course, there are caveats. Despite mischaracterizations from his scientific critics, Ericsson was upfront about the effects that environment, family, resources, time, personality, disability, and (in some domains) body type have on this formula. These critics primarily hold that deliberate practice is not the entire answer, or even the primary one, to the question of “what separates experts from non-experts?” But what is not in dispute is that quality and quantity of deliberate practice are by far the most controllable aspect. Family, location, access to teachers, socioeconomic status, and privilege are largely outside a person’s control. Once a certain baseline of requirements is met (access to an instrument, a time and place to practice, and instruction), deliberate practice becomes near-entirely controllable by the individual.
This article is the first installment of a series examining a deliberate practice loop I have created to represent this science for musicians. The loop itself is broadly applicable to performing musicians of any stripe and style — even performers outside of music — but this series will target examples and applications for the percussion community. What follows in the rest of this article is an overview of the ways that research findings in performance psychology, motor-skill acquisition, and expert performance can be meaningfully applied for the performing musician and the presentation of a repeatable process for implementation. Each of the following five installments will examine one of the loop’s elements in greater detail, with the final article focused on repetition and cross-applications between elements.
Disciplines within this field offer varying approaches to similar issues and often present overlapping findings. The expert performance discourse largely focuses on career-length issues of improvement and optimizing lifestyles for achievement. Motor-skill acquisition, also known as motor learning, is ostensibly the study of how humans acquire what is commonly called muscle memory. Sport and performance psychology generally aims to help athletes or performers achieve their potential at the moment of performance. Gallwey suggests in his seminal Inner Game series that potential minus interference equals performance. Sports psychology aims to minimize or eliminate interference, while the other two disciplines seek to increase potential. When taken together, they offer a compelling way to improve performance in any domain. Athletes, coaches, pilots, soldiers, and countless other professions have long had professional conversations about these issues in their totality. I suggest that musicians would benefit greatly from a unified and research-backed approach to their implementation.
A performance loop for musicians is derived from the combination of peer-reviewed research findings and anecdotes of elite performers across various performative domains, particularly sports. It is inspired by the OODA loop concept of U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd, which was developed as an aid for tactical decision making in air-to-air combat, with subsequent broader appeal across myriad applications, military and civilian alike. Boyd’s loop was Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act; put another way, these steps are to acquire information, recognize one’s position relevant to that scenario, choose a course of action, and execute. The idea of a loop as opposed to a singular, one-way decision flow derives from the reality that after an action is taken, there is a new set of circumstances constituting a new scenario. This new fact set must again be observed, the user’s relationship to it must be newly understood, options must be recognized and chosen from, and then executed again, continually creating new fact sets and requiring additional trips through the loop for decision making until the event is over, whether it is a dogfight, game, sales pitch, or, in our case, a performance.
John Boyd’s OODA Loop
The deliberate practice loop is a similar idea: a process that continually ends in a new state, setting up the next iteration of itself. The loop is presented below in its simplest form; the subtext under each element represents its key factors. The elements do not follow any prescribed progression between the three research disciplines, but are instead a unified process using findings from each whenever valuable. Each element’s meaning, the research on which it is based, how to implement it, and the loop’s means of feeding back into itself will be examined briefly below, and in greater detail in subsequent installments of this series.
The Deliberate Practice Loop
The Deliberate Practice Loop; from author's dissertation pg. 34
Boyd’s work has an additional slide that is significantly more complicated and visually represents that loop’s interrelationships. The final installment of this series will include that version of Boyd’s work and a similar slide for this deliberate practice loop.
The motivation element here includes more than simply “this will help me meet my goals; therefore, I want to do it.” That type of obviously crucial motivation is an element that continuously restarts deliberate practice. But motivation within this process also includes certain biochemical and neurological factors that enhance (or diminish) the human body’s ability to learn a motor skill, encoding what we commonly call muscle memory.
Mental representations are an internal multisensory combination of memory and imagination that render an ideal performance, as it can currently be conceived. They combine past understanding — knowledge about technique, style, and sound concepts — with a visualized ideal. If players imagine their own perfect performance, which we all know we can’t actually achieve, that creates a target to aim for, against which actual performance can be measured. The term is associated with Ericsson’s work, but the sports psychology and motor learning sciences have a great deal to add to our understanding of these representations and our ability to leverage them to improve.
The element that most obviously draws from practices used in sports is the pre-performance routine. Athletes and coaches are well-known to favor routine in both macro and micro perspectives, whether that be hitters before each pitch, golfers before shots, basketball players before foul shots, etc. Sports coaches have known for decades that these things work, and there is quantitative evidence backing them up. Some of the benefits to well-crafted and consistently used routines are consistency in performance, reduced performance anxiety, and resilience to changing environments and circumstances.
Feedback may be the element we percussionists are most used to using, but its use has depth and breadth that is often not fully leveraged. The feedback source most of us are most used to is in lessons. Show up, play the music, get feedback on what went well and what didn’t, and get prescriptions to improve. This is useful to be sure, and time-tested, but not the whole story. Feedback can come from three sources: self, peer, and coach. While lessons with a teacher are clearly coach feedback (masterclasses fall here as well), the other two are equally important, perhaps more so because of easier access to them. Peer feedback looks like mock auditions or performances, or the ever-popular “Hey, come listen to this.” Self-feedback is primarily about self-recording, with some other techniques to maximize its use.
Prioritization takes feedback gleaned and determines what to do about it. This is the most domain-specific element of the loop, as it is highly technical and prescriptive and looks toward very trackable and tangible improvements at a specific thing. Thus, prioritization is harder than any other element to talk about in a vacuum; the sixth installment in this series will lean heavily on examples to demonstrate how this phase works.
The key to this entire process, unsurprisingly, is repetition. Methods of practicing deliberately do not replace practicing a great deal; they simply guide that practice for maximum efficiency. Thus, this loop must be repeated as practice continues. Once priorities for a cycle of practice are discovered, the biological effects of motivation function as efficiency boosters. The mental representation is clarified with additional understanding of the music being improved. A routine can be better targeted for what is required. All this combines with intelligently designed practice to improve performance, leading to the feedback stage discovering new, smaller things to improve. These new opportunities require prioritization for efficient practice, starting the cycle anew.
Sean 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 Training" to be completed this year.