Generally, people do physical exercises, including practicing a musical instrument, knowing that their muscles and movements will improve, often to the point of being automatic in function. Less general, however, is the realization that patterns of thought can also be practiced until they become habits that kick in automatically.
Duhigg (2012) defines habits as "the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day" (p.xvii). Aristotle is credited with the quote (perhaps apocryphal), “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
To pave the way for suggesting habits of mind for effective practicing, we’ll first discuss the importance of having an empowering mindset for learning, and then we’ll explore some ideas about learning.
An essential prerequisite for cultivating useful habits of mind is to have supportive mindsets. For our purposes here, I would define mindsets as patterns of beliefs and presuppositions through which to view a given domain or situation.
Here are some examples from my experience.
Looking back at my own development as a violinist (we’ll assume for the sake of argument that there was development) I realize that there were stages characterized by different mindsets.
The first stage, primarily pre-teen, was when my main concern was whether or not I had sufficient talent. I practiced to improve, but under the implicit assumption that my improvement ultimately would be determined by how much talent I had (or didn’t have). My confidence was not very stable, fluctuating as it did according to the levels of my performances and the evaluations of “experts” about my talent. If I played well, and had it confirmed by respected professionals, I felt confident. But it was easily undermined by the inevitable lesser performance and the occasional critique of others.
The second stage was when I followed expert advice to join one of the world’s top violin classes and went to study with Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard school in New York. There, working hard and developing the right technique became paramount. At that stage I became convinced that it was not so much talent, but hard word that would be crucial: my overriding conviction was that whoever practiced the most would eventually be the most successful.
The third stage, developing over a much longer time span, was the realization that the management of my own learning was the key to optimal progress. That is based on the conviction that human learning capacity is virtually unlimited, and that learning to learn is fundamental to unlocking that capacity.
One of the key experiences initiating the third stage was my introduction by DeLay to the Inner Game approach by Timothy Gallwey, specifically the Inner Game of Tennis (more on that later). Also critical, seen in retrospect, was DeLay’s statement at one of my earliest lessons that her job was not to teach me to play the violin, but to teach me to teach myself.
Another key influence was my exposure to the world of NLP, some years later, which convinced me of the role of beliefs and language in releasing or hindering (shaping) our potential.
Each of these stages constitutes what is essentially a mindset: I set of ideas through which one’s development is viewed, and that has significant practical consequences.
Researcher Carol Dweck (2012) has shown how mindset can impact a person’s motivation and ability to learn and grow. She distinguishes between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. A fixed mindset is when you believe that your abilities are fixed and therefore not amenable to change by effort and experience; a growth mindset is when you believe that your abilities are shaped by the effort and learning you invest.
Those with a fixed mindset believe strongly in inborn talents and shy away from challenging situations that might put “talent” to the test, fearing that it might show deficiency; they also tend to regard a need for great effort as proof of insufficient inborn ability, and therefore ultimately useless. They therefore tend to have less grit, and explore less for solutions to difficulties.
So, I would suggest that the starting point for cultivating useful habits of mind for practicing your instrument, is to have a growth mindset. In case you need convincing, here are the facts:
- Your brain is a reflection of learning: the more your learn and practice, the richer the synaptic connections in your brain. It is known as the “plasticity” of the brain. (Growth Mindset). It’s like a scaffold. The more you learn, the more you can learn.
- “Talent”, like “intelligence”, are processes that can be developed (growth mindset), not things that we either have or don’t have (Fixed Mindset), even though we use nouns instead of verbs to refer to it. You’ve surely heard it said that “love is a verb, not a noun”. The same can be said of “talent”. It should be a verb, not a noun. It’s what we do, not what we have.
In an empowering, growth mindset, then, practicing is a process of learning. The questions then become, how do we learn most efficiently, and how can we manage the process?
Ideas about learning
Maps or models
When developing a skill, we are constructing an internal model, or map, of the actions required. This is essentially how all learning happens: we develop richer, more sophisticated representations, both sensory and conceptual, that constitute a model or map of the subject matter or skill in question, in order to make ever finer distinctions.
Such development of internal representations, or models, involves a dynamic interplay of information gathering, conceptualization and problem solving.
We enlarge our sensory perception by involving more senses and by making finer distinctions. Our conceptualizations improve when we discover principles, search for patterns, and develop strategies for solving problems.
Repetition is at the tail-end of the process, with the purpose of solidifying and automatizing the correct actions, arrived at through information gathering, conceptualizing and strategizing. Conceptual activity is primary and repetition secondary.
This is what many master performers mean when they maintain that “technique is in the head, not in the fingers”, and that mindless repetition is therefore largely a waste of time.
To put it simply, understanding comes first, followed by planning, and then we are ready to condition our bodies through practice, so that skills can become automatic.
The Inner Game
A useful way for music students (and we are all lifelong students) to conceptualize learning and performance is that two parts are involved. One does the actions (the body); the other one conceptualizes about it (the mind). Gallwey (2014), in The Inner Game, calls it Self 2 and Self 1.
Self 2 (the body) has been learning since before birth. It learned the most complicated skills that you’ll ever learn - how to crawl, walk and run, for example - without the assistance of its conceptualizing counterpart. It learns by copying examples in action. It soaks up lots of sensory information from good examples, and learns in practice through trial and error.
There is no verbal instruction, no judgment, no forays into the past or the future, no regrets or fears or anxieties - all of which distract or interfere with the body’s ability to learn.
The basic idea is that Self 1 (assigned the number one because it likes to take credit - to think it is nr 1) can either hinder or assist Self 2 in performing its natural task of learning. It hinders by giving lengthy verbal instructions, by criticising and judging, by dredging up the past and catastrophizing about the future, by worrying and by internal chatter.
Consider that our attention is limited. Therefore, whatever occupies our attention distracts from attention to something else. Conceptual activity distracts from sensory awareness, when attempted simultaneously.
The Inner Game approach is summed up in the equation, performance = potential - interference. The purpose of the Inner Game is to minimize self-interference, by learning to manage Self 1 in support of Self 2.
How can that be achieved? By assigning tasks to self 1 that actually support rather than hinder Self 2. Examples of such tasks are: setting goals, choosing where to focus sensory awareness, describing the results of actions non-judgmentally, playing awareness games that keep the mind in the present, etc.
When done properly, the process often results in a state of “flow”, famously described by Csikszentmihalyi (2009) - or what sports people call “being in the zone” - when everything seems to click into place, allowing “out of the mind” learning and performance akin to mystical experience.
Do yourself a favour by learning to play Gallwey’s Inner Game. It can be a tremendous resource for developing an empowering mindset for learning and performance. I would most highly recommend Gallwey first two books: The Inner Game of Tennis (1974, 2014) , and Inner Tennis: playing the game (1976). I agree with Dorothy DeLay and Itzhak Perlman, who both claimed that it tops their lists of best books about violin playing.
Dorothy DeLay used to say that studying to perform music is like looking through both a telescope and a microscope. It is studying the big picture - the overall architecture and the meaning of the music; and it is investigating and mastering the minutiae - the tiny details that add up to the difference between good and truly great performance.
Habits of mind need to be cultivated for optimal learning when gazing through our metaphorical telescopes and microscopes.
Once you are convinced of the utility of a growth mindset, and understand the necessity to develop richer internal models by continuously refining the distinctions we make, I would suggest developing the following habits of mind when practicing.
Habits of mind
The first habit to cultivate is to aim properly - to decide what we are going to focus on. As the saying goes, “if you don’t know where you are going, you might end up somewhere else”.
Having clear goals focuses the mind. It acts like a filter, separating what is relevant from what would only clutter and distract the mind and prevent full attention.
Goals have to be aligned: ultimate goals, intermediate goals and immediate goals. Given what you are aiming to achieve ultimately, what would be realistic, achievable intermediate goals (steps), and what do you need to focus on right now?
Instead of vaguely deciding to “do some practice” or “put in some hours” without clearly specified goals, decide exactly what you would like to achieve in your present practice session. Decide to learn these notes, or fix that passage, or do those exercises, or analyze the structure of a particular piece, or find a solution to a specific technical problem.
Be clear in your mind about your goal and a time-period for achieving it, and about the steps you’ll take, keeping in mind that it can all be adjusted if needed. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how it focuses your mind and mobilizes your resources.
One additional tip about goals: formulate them positively. Specify what you want, not what you want to avoid or eliminate. What you want to avoid or eliminate has to be replaced by something desirable instead. Focus on desirability instead of avoidance. By giving attention to what we don’t want, as a goal, we actual contribute to its staying power. It’s the “don’t think of a pink elephant” conundrum: it’s impossible to follow the instruction, since understanding the instruction in the first place requires representing a pink elephant in your mind. What you represent is what you engage with. Therefore, represent to yourself that which you want to achieve, not what you want to avoid.
It is a habit of mind worth cultivating.
The Quick Route
I would like to suggest an alternative habit of mind to what I regularly observe in students at lessons and rehearsals. Often, their reaction to a difficulty seems to be the following, which I’ll call the Long Route:
- “This must be difficult”
- “Therefore, it will require much effort”
- Therefore, it will take a long time to fix”
- Therefore, I cannot do it now, but only later when I have sufficient time”
This habit of mind can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The mind is primed in the direction of a time-consuming difficulty.
My suggestion is to try the opposite approach, which I observed in exceptionally quick learners in DeLay’s class. Let’s call it the Quick Route. Assume the following as a working hypothesis, and see what happens:
- “This is easy”
- “Therefore it is easy to fix”
- “Therefore it can be done quickly”
- “Therefore I can do it now”
You will be surprised at how often the results are positive. It is a habit of mind well worth cultivating. Assume that difficulties are small, easy and quick to solve, and then do it immediately. The results might significantly exceed your expectations.
Our expectations let us notice what confirms it or contributes to it, and ignore what doesn’t. In that way our expectations tend to fulfil themselves. They become a map for a particular outcome, making it more likely for that route to be followed.
One of the defining characteristics of true masters in any field is their ability to make extremely fine distinctions. They are aware of detail that others miss. Therefore a fundamental part of the process of learning is to develop the ability to make ever finer distinctions. It is an essential habit of mind to cultivate for effective practicing.
So how can we improve our ability make extraordinary distinctions - to detect the tiniest details?
One of the ways to fine-tune distinctions is suggested by die Weber Fechner law, which indicates an inverse relation between the intensity of a sensory stimulus and the fineness of the distinctions our nervous system can make. The more intense a sensory stimulus received by our nervous system, the greater the differences have to be for our senses to detect it; the weaker the stimulus, the finer the differences we are able to detect. Thus, by lowering a sensory stimulus - for example, pressing lighter with our fingers - the finer are the tactile sensations we can experience. Similarly, when we want to make finer auditory distinctions, it helps to play softer.
Also useful for focusing our perception and making finer distinctions, is to make comparisons, either to an imaginary scale, or to previous examples. For example, you can ask yourself, on a scale of “zero” to “ten” (0-10), how tense is your hand while playing that passage? Or with an intonation problem, let’s say, you can instruct yourself to play a problematic note several times (in context, of course) in succession, and each time notice whether is was higher or lower than the previous time.
As Timothy Gallwey of The Inner Game says, “awareness cures”. Simply, but profoundly, it means that improvements in actions depend on having the required sensory information about what actually transpires in reality. When we get distracted, when our awareness is hijacked by conceptual activity, we might miss vital sensory information that is critical for effective feedback. In order to make essential adjustments to movements, your nervous system requires accurate and extremely detailed sensory information about what is actually happening in the present moment.
Another procedure that can be used to enhance your ability to make fine distinctions, is to employ small movements. Just as our minds are enabled to construct three dimensional images by micro movements of our eyes, so our tactile and proprioceptive sensations are refined and enhanced by small movements, allowing nerve ends to detect minute differences.
Think of how one can only feel the texture of a fabric between our fingers, for example, by making small movements. Every tiny difference in pressure and location and angle provides information for feeling the texture. Feeling the texture is experiencing the tactile differences provided by tiny movements.
By making small movements, let’s say, with our fingers on the string, either vertically by pressing harder or softer, and horizontally by moving back and forth, we enhance our ability to make minute distinctions, providing our nervous system with essential information for developing greater control.
It is a habit of mind worth cultivating.
It is extraordinarily useful to frame playing difficulties as problems to solve, rather than as skill deficiencies. When encountering a stumbling block, say to yourself, “either my nervous system doesn’t have the required sensory information yet, or I need to develop an effective strategy. How can I gather the requisite information? How can I become more aware of what exactly is going on here? What can I experiment with? And what strategies can I develop to achieve my goal?”As David Elliott writes in his book Music Matters (1995), “Practicing is not mechanical duplication. As errors are detected and corrected and as problems are found and solved, difficulties diminish and parts are linked to larger wholes. All this requires attention, awareness, and memory. And all of this is not different in kind from what occurs in writing an essay or learning to do a scientific proof...A musician ‘researches’ the composition he is attempting to interpret and perform by studying and reflecting about the composition in all its dimensions. He generates and selects musical solutions in the actions of practicing by experimenting, adjusting, correcting, and refining various parts of his performance. He organizes his interpretation in terms of dynamics, articulations, and phrasing. He then edits or polishes his performance-interpretation. Finally, the performer asserts or expresses (or ‘makes public”) his understanding of the work as a whole. Preparing an interpretation of a composition for a performance through practicing is no less cognitive than preparing an essay for public reading or writing, even though many aspects of practicing and performing are nonverbal in essence.” (p. 289)
Thinking of difficulties as cognitive problems to solve is a habit of mind well worth cultivating.
The Law of Requisite Variety, also known as Ashby’s Law, states that variety is required to regulate, or cope with, variety (Dilts, 1998). In order for a part of a system, or a system within a larger system, to survive and thrive, the variety in the part needs to be proportional to the variety in the whole. For example, solving a problem requires the exploration of a sufficient variety of possible solutions. The more complex the problem, the greater the variety required. Or simply, the more flexible you are to explore different options, the more likely is an eventual solution.
Think of yourself as a learning system within the larger system of the field you are studying. The variety of learning strategies you employ needs to be proportional to the variety in the system you are studying.
Any particular way of doing something can be regarded as a set of information. If your repeat it with no variety - if you do something over and over in the same way - you are stuck with one set of information. If it doesn’t provide a solution to the problem you are trying to solve, it means that the variety of your attempts is not proportional to the requirements of the problem.
If instead your repetitions are varied, then each variation is a new set of information. In such a way many sets of information can be gathered for the same time spent. The added bonus is that variety in repetition not only contributes to solving a particular problem, but also provides information - raw material - for developing other skills. It drastically enriches your mental models for playing skills.
Not only is that much greater efficiency, it also provides the mind with the variety needed to detect the underlying commonalities or algorithms. That’s is how masters solve problems. They are willing to try a great variety of approaches, to the point were the underlying commonalities are grasped as operating principles.
As a student at the Aspen Music Festival many summers ago, I asked my classmate, Marc Peskanov, who had the most extraordinary skill of playing any imaginable kind of flying staccato on the violin, how he managed to achieve it. He told me that in desperation he locked himself in his practice room one night, vowing not to escape until he had mastered the skill. Several hours later, by early morning, he was successful. He experimented with countless different ways of doing it, including drastically varying his bow grip, arm position, and holding the bow in different places between the frog and the tip, even turning the bow around so that the frog served as the tip. Indeed, the end result of all that variety of practice is his astonishing flexibility of skill, from the orthodox to the highly unusual and entertaining.
An example of such requisite variety in another field is the great Thomas Edison. According to the Smithsonian museum (smithsonian.com), “the man also stumbled, sometimes tremendously. In response to a question about his missteps, Edison once said, ‘I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.’”
He practiced requisite variety, and reaped the rewards. He could have given up at any point, arguing that his failures were conclusive. But instead he relentlessly kept going, trying something different each time, thousands upon thousands of different attempts, until eventually he reached a critical threshold of variety - requisite variety - which engendered a solution.
Of course, the threshold is unique to every situation. The number of required information sets varies widely between situations. Therefore, avoid expectations about the variety required for solving a particular problem. Be open to whatever transpires while you relentlessly gather information by continuously trying new approaches.
Not only does variety contribute to solving particular problems and the general enrichment of our mental models, it also keeps the mind interested. It staves off monotony and boredom. For survival over millions of years mammalian nervous systems have evolved to be especially sensitive to news of difference, not to sameness. The value is clear. Sameness indicates lack of threat, while a sudden change could signal danger. In other words, our brains have evolved, for survival purposes, to be intrigued by the appearance of differences in our perceptual field.
Given the multifarious boons of practicing “requisite variety”, it is a habit of mind well worth cultivating.
Focus on results, rather than process
Research about various skills (golf, darts, swimming, etc) has shown that focusing on results of actions is considerably more effective for both learning at the beginning stages and for performance later on than focusing on the processes of executing those actions. (Wulf, 2016)
It seems clear that the information (feedback) needed for adjustments toward greater accuracy is contained in the results of actions, more so than in the process of execution. The richer the information about results the more effective it is for the nervous system to make adjustments. Since our attention is limited, whatever we spend it on prevents it from being used elsewhere. So whatever attention we pay to the process of execution is not available for attending to results, thereby diminishing the clarity of perception needed for high quality feedback.
We musicians are prone to get bogged down in process - in the details of technique. We worry about our execution, about getting the technique right: how to hold the bow, or move the arm, or any of a myriad details.
First of all, which technique is followed? There are several different schools of violin playing with quite divergent ideas about proper technique. But all of them have produced exemplar violinists. Clearly, there is more than one way to play the violin exceptionally well. So it seems overly pedantic to spend lots of energy, time and attention on getting the specifics of a particular technique perfectly “right”.
Secondly, playing a musical instrument is such a complex skill that it is virtually impossible to do all of it with conscious control. The neurological processing required in playing actions are so complex, and happen so fast that it is naive to think it can all be controlled by our relatively slow, linear thinking, verbalising, conscious minds.
DeLay used to say about technique, “ if it sounds right and it feels good, it’s right!”.
The solution - a habit of mind worth cultivating - is to focus on the results of our playing actions, and then trust that the vast nonverbal intelligence of our nervous system, our somatic intelligence, if you will, will use those results as high quality feedback to make the required adjustments. That seems to be another characteristic of master players. They trust the inherent intelligence of their bodies.
Aim for perfection in practice, as in performance
Watch James Ehnes talk about practicing: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6noasTa4eiY).
Strive for the highest possible quality in all aspects of playing while you are practicing, as you would on stage. Condition yourself to always do the best you can. Intonation, sound, phrasing - all should be as perfect as possible.
Don’t let your guard down. Don’t let yourself get away with anything at all. No excuses. None. No “it's OK because I’m tired”, or “it is only a small thing, I’ll fix it later”. None of that should be acceptable. As any performance, your practice time should be spent using the full resources of your mind and body. Do not waste a single moment. Condition yourself to require the very best of yourself as a player in all circumstances.
This habit of mind should include always playing with proper musical phrasing, and with character. Part of your habit of mind should be to always play as a musician with musical phrasing and feeling. Practice everything, including scales and exercises, as if you are in front of an audience engaged in delivering your absolute best musical, not mechanical, performance.
Music is nothing if not human, and so should be its components. It should never be merely mechanical and soulless. Often it is said of great performing artists that they can elevate even trite music with soulful playing.
It is a habit of mind worth cultivating.
Test for comfort, or minimize effort
Efficiency, or economy of means, is a high technical value in musical performance. It saves energy for use when extraordinary musical and technical challenges arise. Economy of means is also a contributing factor to what may be called elegance in performance. That is when execution and gesture is proportional to the character of the music.
Comfort, or perhaps one should rather say, relative comfort, is one indicator of efficient playing.
Since comfort is relative, and is often simply associated with whatever a performer has become accustomed to, it is useful to habitually test for the possibility of greater comfort in execution.
Mostly, whatever we have become used to serves as the baseline for judging our level of playing comfort. In fact, however, more often than not we could in fact be more comfortable. It is a question of testing for the possibility.
Ask yourself regularly with whatever you are working on whether or not you could do it more comfortably. Experiment to find the most comfortable playing position, or technical approach, or level of energy for maximum efficiency. Not only will you conserve energy, you will also be less prone to injury. And you might even come across as more elegant in your playing.
It is a habit of mind worth cultivating.
Extend the envelope
In engineering the “envelope” is the limits, graphically represented, within which an aircraft, for example, can safely operate.
In instrumental playing, the envelope can be regarded as the limits of your capability at the moment.
It should become a habit of mind that you continually strive to extend your envelope. Always challenge yourself to do better, whatever you are working on: better intonation, better sound, better phrasing, greater ease, less effort, more fluency or elegance - whatever aspect you can identify. The wonderful thing is, it always can be better. All you need is to nudge yourself to extend the envelope.
As psychologist Jordan Peterson (2018) has it as one of his rules for life, “compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today” . You are your own baseline for improving step by step.
Condition yourself to insist on incremental improvements in your playing every single day.
It is a habit of mind worth cultivating.
It is a truism for musical performers that there is always a loss between input and output. The result of what we do is almost always less than we think.
After more than half a century of playing I am still shocked each time I hear a recording of myself. The musical differences I made always turn out to be smaller than I thought while playing.
Scientifically, it is known as attenuation or signal loss. Unless boosted in some way, any signal weakens between input and destination.
So it is with playing music. The results are almost always less than our effort in playing would suggest. For example, the dynamic differences you make, are smaller than you think. Heard objectively, there is signal loss.
The solution is to exaggerate. When the differences you produce seem exaggerated to you, they are probably just about right.
Condition yourself to exaggerate the differences you desire, whether in dynamics, tempo, timbre or articulation. If you don’t, the results of signal loss will be disappointing.
It is a habit of mind worth cultivating.
Strive for beauty
Truth, beauty and goodness. Sometimes called transcendentals, sometimes “virtues”.
The fact is, beauty moves us. It elicits the best from us. It fills us with awe.
What exactly is beauty? Philosophers have contemplated and debated it for ages. What is certain, is that we know it when we experience it.
It is, or should be, what we artists aim for. It is what we spend a lifetime trying to glimpse and convey.
Beauty should not be something reserved for special occasions only. As artists it should be our constant aim and sustenance.
Condition yourself to always play beautifully, practicing included. Playing beautifully should become second nature. Both you and your audiences will be elevated.
It is a habit of mind worth cultivating.
Becoming a masterful musical performer is no mean task. It requires a great deal of hard work. Fundamental to that hard work is developing empowering habits of mind.
This article offered some ideas that might contribute to more effective practicing. By having a growth mindset and taking responsibility for your own learning, you can develop habits of mind that aid you in becoming your own best teacher.
Practicing then becomes a creative endeavour that delivers results far exceeding your own expectations.
These are habits of mind worth cultivating.
© 2018 Piet Koornhof
Csikszentmihalyi, M., 2009. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. HarperCollins.
Dilts, R. 1998. The Law Requisite Variety. Ben Lomond, CA : NLP University Press
Duhigg, C., 2012. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change. Random House.
Dweck, C., 2012. Mindset: Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential. Little, Brown Book Group.
Ehnes, J. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6noasTa4eiY
Elliott, D.J., 1995. Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education. Oxford University Press.
Gallwey, W.T., 1974. The Inner Game of Tennis. Jonathan Cape.
Gallwey, W.T., 1976. Inner tennis: playing the game. Random House.
Peterson, J.B., 2018. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Penguin UK.
Wulf, G., 2016. An external focus of attention is a conditio sine qua non for athletes: a response to Carson, Collins, and Toner (2015). Journal of Sports Sciences 34, 1293–1295. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2015.1136746
Weber-Fechner law, 2018. Simple English Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. https://simple.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Weber-Fechner_law&oldid=6090526