(This article previously appeared on Medium and a previous website in 2016)
I’m sitting in the Boyd Neel Room of University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music along with 25 other people waiting for an open rehearsal to begin. Five young men enter the room — two violinists, a violist, a cellist and a pianist — three Americans from Evanston, Chicago, and Seattle, a Canadian from British Columbia and a Russian. They are about to start their second rehearsal of a work new to all but one. Until a week ago, the five had probably never met let alone played together. They are participants in the Academy ReGeneration program, part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. The program matches emerging professionals aged 18 to 34 with more experienced mentors for coaching, rehearsals and performance of a high order.
Why am I here? A little more than a week ago I read a book review of Peak,How to Master Almost Anything — and ordered it. The book arrived a few days later and it was a quick and easy read. It describes and illustrates how deliberate practice actually works for a variety of professionals: memory competitors, chess players, athletes and musicians. So attending an open rehearsal was a way to understand and explore how deliberate practice works.
The ensemble, oblivious of the audience, sat down and got to work. They played a bit and then stopped when something fell apart. The first violin. Joel Link of the Dover String Quartet, was the professional mentor; he knew the work and led the rehearsing sensitively, frequently phrasing his remarks as questions starting with “I wonder if”. The others responded comfortably and presented various musical ideas. Joel demonstrated possible bowings to produce finely differentiated options. The musicians tried out some of them out and then stopped to evaluate. The played more. When things fell apart again, they smiled and went back. The second violinist helpfully jumped up now and then to turn the page of the pianist when his score had a break of a few bars, and the pianist had a demanding passage.
They spent time on fine points — repeating the same passage, correcting, trying options and mastering their intention. The audience started to share the ability to listen. The pianist, who had waited a while to join the conversation, though his smile and attentiveness revealed his continuing involvement, now made comments about the quality of the string sound. The mentor noted that the tempo was slowing and a phone app metronome checked that out — they played absolutely on the beat with little loss of expressiveness. They then moved on. The ensemble sound started to take shape. They continued until they hit another problematic passage. Again all the players suggested how to interpret and play and there was absolutely no tension or disagreement about the options. Time went quickly. The second movement of the work had a different mood and the early effort brought them together in a more playful and unified way.
The rehearsal lasted an hour and a half. After such intense focus, the players they knew it was time to take a break. At that moment, it was almost as though they woke up to see us as an audience, when we spontaneously applauded. They thanked us for coming but it was our privilege to be there and experience the creation of a performance in the making.
Brits and Canadians, unlike Americans, use two spellings of the same sounding word — practice when we are use a noun — practise when we use a verb. We say that a person becomes a partner in a law practice where the practitioners practise law. It’s a good distinction. In professions like law or medicine, you join a practice when you have reached a certain level of proficiency. But there is also the implication that you are going to do something with your expertise. It’s not just the knowledge that we ask for when we hire a surgeon or a specialist in family law — it’s the ability to use skills to deliver results. In our age where knowledge has grown exponentially, how will we use what we know to full advantage?
There is the old adage about how to get to Carnegie Hall — practise, practise, practise. The idea of the 10,000 hours formula has been around and popularized even more in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers. Some propose that creative genius just combines practice and the right genes. When you read the bios of the young musicians of the Academy you might think that time and talent do it all — and for good or ill, the rest of us are on the outside looking in. It’s true that these musicians have put in more than 10,000 hours already and they continue to do so right before our eyes. So have the young athletes heading off to the Rio Olympics. We can see their competence, talent and skill. So should we just settle in just as music listeners, knowing that we will never match their performance no matter how many hours we put in?
The authors of Peak spend time de-mythologizing the assumptions about great performance. Yes, time and practice are necessary. Artists and athletes practise for years before reaching high levels and they continue to do so. Yes there is evidence it is good to start as early as possible for competence is grow. Yes, some have the right body structure or perfect musical pitch, qualities making it easier to succeed from the beginning. But all three explanations have shortcomings in explaining great performance.
It’s not just the quantity of practice that matters, they say. The differentiation relates to quality. Much of success depends on the right teacher. A beginner in music can work with just about anybody — some figure out how to play a melody on a piano with one finger or accompany with three main chords on a ukulele — but real progress depends on what teacher knows — how to impart strategies for the right kind of practising. Playing the same piece over and over for an hour won’t cut it. Neither will swimming endless strokes in the same way.
Can we incorporate deliberate practice in our own work or life? Both words matter. We have to put in the time. We have to focus on incremental steps intentionally — and then receive feedback from others or ourselves. The right teacher may be an acknowledged expert available to most of us only through a book or a video. But it’s not about reading or watching, it’s about doing. Then we have to stop and ask, How am I doing? How could I do it better? What should I leave out? What is habitual that is neither needed nor wanted? What’s the right way to do it?
It’s not that practice makes perfect — it’s the right practice that counts. And for those who mentor and help others, it’s not “Practise what you preach”. It’s preach what you practise”. How can we share snippets of what we know in ways that help others incorporate and embody them?
Will it be fun? It’s tempting in watching the open rehearsal and the later performance to see the pure joy of the musicians as they bring demanding musical works to life. It looks so effortless. As for fun in solo practising — probably not. It will more likely be sometimes painful, discouraging, tiring and even boring. But like these talented musicians, when the rest of us push beyond our usual level of comfort we build capability we never knew we had. Maybe we won’t end up on the podium or stage. What matters is to explore our own potential and dwell in that possibility. The right kind of deliberate practice has a hand in that.