Talent is important for success as an artist, yet difficult to define. We think that someone like Mozart was touched by God and more talented than most everyone and, although that may very well be true, we must remember how hard he worked at it, how hard he practiced and honed his gifts. Mozart wrote his first masterpiece at 21. That’s pretty young. But people often forget to mention that he had spent the previous 18 years of his life studying music under the tutelage of his father. Mozart had been paying his dues since he was three years old. The master golfer, Tiger Woods, has been swinging clubs and diligently practicing since he was big enough to pick up a golf club. What sets these masters apart from the rest of us mortals is their relationship to practicing. Tiger would beg his father to practice with him, not the other way around. Great artists and athletes create a passionate need to become better. They don’t feel practice is boring or drudgery – They love it.
To practice properly, it’s important to address our relationship to practice. If I’m dreading practicing my craft, whether consciously or unconsciously, I must find out why. What is keeping me from practicing properly? Why am I avoiding practice?
It’s not how much you practice but whether you’re quick to fix the errors that lead to mastery. Power practice must be deliberate practice. This is not a minor change in how we practice. It’s an overhaul. The difference between effective and ineffective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you don’t practice deliberately, you might as well not practice at all. What do I mean by deliberate practice? Deliberate practice means to constantly focus on one’s weaknesses rather than repeating and focusing on one’s strengths.
Studies show that practice that is focused on remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of mastery and expertise than raw number of hours. Playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not necessarily the same as efficiently reaching a new level. This way of thinking and practical application is not inherently enjoyable and requires a great deal of effort. This means a relentless pursuit of rooting out your weaknesses and inventing new ways to overcome them. Your results must be carefully monitored with the help of a coach or teacher and be ready, willing and eager for each step of ruthless self-evaluation. Master craftsmen determine and address their shortcomings and weaknesses immediately. They identify the precise location and source for each error and then rehearse that part again and again until the problem is corrected. Then, and only then, should you continue on to the next problematic issue.
Master performers don’t make fewer mistakes when beginning practice than other performers. They are just more deft and focused on correcting them in ways that preclude their reoccurrence. Without deliberate practice, even the most talented performers will reach a certain plateau and stay there. Masters must develop a healthy relationship with the parts of their performance that need improvement, rather than resting on their laurels. This is a conscious decision to be brutally honest about my weaknesses and areas where I need improvement and the willingness to deliberately and diligently practice until correcting them.
Deliberate or mindful practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, which is, for lack of a better word, scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of experimentation with clear goals and hypotheses. Violinist, Paul Kantor, once said that the practice room should be like a laboratory, where one can freely tinker with different ideas, both musical and technical, to see what combination of ingredients produces the result you are looking for.
Deliberate practice is often slow, and involves repetition of small and very specific sections of your repertoire instead of just playing through (e.g. working on just the opening moments of your scene or monologue to make sure that it’s exactly the way you want, instead of playing the entire opening sequence).
Deliberate practice involves monitoring one’s performance (in real-time, but also via recordings), continually looking for new ways to improve. This means really listening to what happens, so that you can tell yourself exactly what went wrong. For instance, was the scene objective as effective as it can be or were my doings as precise and authentic as I would like it?
Musically, it’s like saying that the note was too sharp and too long with not enough of an attack to begin the note. Well, how sharp was it? A little? A lot? How much longer was the note than you wanted it to be? How much more of an attack did you want? Ok, the note was a little sharp, just a hair too long, and required a much clearer attack in order to be consistent with the marked articulation and dynamics. So, why was the note sharp? What did you do? What do you need to do to make sure the note is perfectly in tune every time? How do you ensure that the length is just as you want it to be, and how do you get a consistently clean and clear attack to begin the note so it begins in the right character?
Now, let’s imagine you recorded all of this and could listen to how this last attempt sounded. Does that combination of ingredients give you the desired result? Does that combination of ingredients convey the mood or character you want to communicate to the listener as effectively as you thought it would?
Few actors take the time to stop, analyze what went wrong, why it happened, and how they can correct the error permanently.
How Many Hours a Day Should I Practice?
You will find that deliberate practice is very draining, given the tremendous amount of energy required to keep one’s full attention and resources on the task at hand. Practicing more than one hour at a time is likely to be unproductive and in all honesty, probably not even mentally or emotionally possible. Even the most dedicated individuals will find it difficult to practice more than four hours a day.
Studies have varied the length of daily practice from 1 hour to 8 hours, and the results suggest that there is often little benefit from practicing more than 4 hours per day, and that gains actually begin to decline after 2-hours. The key is to keep tabs on the level of concentration you are able to sustain.
5 Keys For More Effective Practice
Keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes for younger students, and as long as 45-60 minutes for older individuals.
Keep track of times during the day when you tend to have the most energy. This may be first thing in the morning, or right before lunch, etc. Try to do your practicing during these naturally productive periods, as these are the times at which you will be able to focus and think most clearly.
Try using a practice notebook. Keep track of your practice goals and what you discover during your practice sessions. The key to getting into the ‘zone’ when practicing is to be constantly striving to have clarity of intention. To have a clear idea of the performance you want to produce, or particular phrasing you’d like to try, or specific articulation, intonation, etc. that you’d like to be able to execute consistently. When you figure something out, write it down. As I practiced more mindfully, I began learning so much during practice sessions that if I didn’t write everything down, I’d forget.
4. Smarter, not harder
Sometimes if a particular scene or passage is not working the way we want it to, it just means we need to practice more. There are also times, however, when we don’t need to practice harder, but need an altogether different strategy or technique.
Instead of stubbornly keeping at a strategy or technique that wasn’t working for me, I forced myself to stop practicing this section altogether. I did some serious brainstorming for a day or so, and wrote down what was coming in. When I felt that I came up with some promising solutions, I started experimenting.
5. Problem-solving model
Consider this 6-step general problem-solving model summarized below (adapted from various problem solving processes online).
- Define the problem (Example: What do I want in the scene or what do I want my acting partner to feel like or do this moment?)
- Analyze the problem (Example: What does the playwright want in this moment or what is causing the moment to feel this way and what can I do to make it more effective?)
- Identify potential solutions (Example: My scene objective is to be respected or worshiped or what would be a couple of effective moments before?)
- Test the potential solutions to select the most effective one (what tweaks seem to work best? Do you feel it in your gut and soul? Is it a choice that is as effective as you can possibly feel for the character?)
- Implement the best solution (commit whole-heartedly to the choice)
- Monitor implementation (do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for? Finding balance is always energetically active and not static)
Or simpler yet, check out this model from Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code.
- Pick a target
- Reach for it
- Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
- Return to step one
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about perfecting technique, or experimenting with different theatrical ideas. Any model which encourages more heart-felt, smarter, authentic, systematic, thoughtful, and clearly articulated goals will help cut down on wasted, ineffective practice time.
After all, who wants to spend all day in the practice room? Get in, get stuff done, and get out!
“Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent”
Performance psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama states, “When it comes to understanding expertise and expert performance, psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson is perhaps the world’s leading authority. His research is the basis for the ‘ten-year rule’ and ‘10,000-hour rule’, which suggest that it requires at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain… Note that the real key here is not the amount of practice required (as the exact number of hours is debatable) but the type of practice required to attain an expert level of performance. Just practicing any old way doesn’t cut it.
The majority of folks practice rather mindlessly, either engaging in mere repetition or practicing on autopilot. There are three major problems with the mindless method of practicing.
1. It is a waste of time
Why? For one, very little productive learning takes place when we practice this way. This is how we can practice a piece for hours, days, or weeks, and still not feel that we’ve improved all that much. Even worse, you are actually digging yourself a hole by practicing this way, because what this model of practicing does do is strengthen undesirable habits and errors, literally making it more likely that you will screw up more consistently in the future. This makes it more difficult to correct these habits in the future and so you are actually adding to the amount of future practice time you will need in order to eliminate these bad habits and tendencies.
2. It makes you less confident
In addition, practicing this way actually hurts your confidence, as there is a part of you that realizes you don’t really know how to consistently produce the results you are looking for. Even if you establish a fairly high success rate via mindless practice, your confidence won’t grow much from this. Real on-stage confidence comes from (a) being able to nail it 10 out of 10 tries, (b) knowing that this isn’t a coincidence, but that you can do it the masterfully on demand, because most importantly (c) you know precisely why you nail it or miss it and i.e. you know exactly what you need to do from a technique standpoint in order to play it masterfully every time.
You may not be able to play it expertly every time at first, but this is what repetition is for and to reinforce the correct habits until they are stronger than the bad habits. It’s a little like trying to grow a nice looking lawn. Instead of fighting a never-ending battle against the weeds, your time is better spent trying to cultivate the grass so that over time the grass crowds out the weeds.
And here’s the biggie. We tend to practice unconsciously, and then end up trying to perform consciously and not a great formula for success. You have a tendency to shift over into hyper-analytical left-brain mode when you walk out on stage. Well, if you have done most of your practicing unconsciously, you really don’t know how to play your piece masterfully on demand. When your brain suddenly goes into full-conscious mode, you end up freaking out, because you don’t know what instructions to give your brain.
3. It is tedious and boring
Practicing mindlessly is a chore. After all, it doesn’t really matter how much time we spend practicing something and only that we know how to produce the results we want, and can do so consistently, on demand.
Grantland Rice, the great sportswriter and poet, beautifully understood this fundamental characteristic of achievement. He described it in his poem “How To Be a Champion.”
“You wonder how they do it, you look to see the knack. You watch the foot in action, Or the shoulder of the back. But when you spot the answer, Where the higher glamours lurk, You’ll find in moving higher, Up the laurel-covered spire, That most of it is practice, And the rest of it is work.”