This final article addressing events of practice outside of the practice room will focus on strategies for tracking how you practice, how you learn, and securing feedback in the process. Making a commitment to plan your learning provides confidence, authority, and empowerment to take control of your learning. Here are some tips.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport describes a focused uninterrupted, and productive work that mobilizes as much of your mental energy as possible while reducing distractions to a murmur and enabling progress to compound. Broadly similar to Deliberate Practice — the scientific method applied to skill development posited by Ericsson — and flow, that thrillingly elusive balance between challenge and skill, Newport posits Deep Work as a way to help tune out the distractions of contemporary life while training your brain to focus more effectively and powerfully.
Think about when your brain is most receptive to new information, and schedule your most important mental work accordingly. Perhaps it’s early morning. Or you might need a week-long retreat to really focus. Articulating when you do your best thinking will allow you to schedule your most mind-intensive practice for those times, shifting muscular work to periods when your brain might be tired.
LEARN HOW YOU LEARN
Part of your work inside and outside the practice room should be actively trying to ascertain how long learning something might take. I use the Pomodoro technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo to facilitate planning, tracking, recording, processing and visualizing. Here’s how it works:
Make a to-do list for your practice session. Set an intention for a single chunk of time. Set a timer for 25 minutes, and estimate how much of your first task — warming up, learning notes, etc. — you might accomplish during that time. After 25 minutes, take a short break (5 minutes), during which you can review the work you completed, think on upcoming tasks, or reflect more broadly. If the task is not complete, try another 25 minutes. If you have extra time, move on to the next challenge.
The Pomodoro technique leverages the principles of Design Thinking: prototyping experiences and failing fast. After a few sessions, one learns how long a task will take, allowing you to more effectively plot future practice sessions. Think of each session as a mini-experiment where you explore a specific problem and track your effort and results. The frequent breaks give you time to journal your results, and they provide a mental break between sessions of challenging work. Changing what you work on each 25 minutes also creates some “contextual interference,” the motor learning phenomenon where frequently changing the context of a motor skill rather than maximizing repetition can facilitate learning.
By minimizing distraction and foregrounding a single task, the technique has allowed me to increase the amount of time I spent in flow, that wondrous state eliding ease and accomplishment. (Be sure to have a notepad nearby, as many of us have great inspirations while in flow.) At the same time, this technique has increased my focus, as each Pomodoro is in essence an exercise in concentration.
I like to use charts to keep track of what I have to learn, so I always have a sense of how my repertoire is developing. In the rows I put the pieces, and in the column, I track my progress learning notes and refining the music. That way, when I enter the practice room, I have a sense of what I want to accomplish, and know that I am effectively doing it.
WORK ON MORE THAN ONE THING
It can be physically and mentally exhausting to have a singular goal for your practice time. Instead, experiment with developing multiple pieces at different speeds, occupying multiple spaces simultaneously: note learning, incubation, and refinement. That way, you can swap between pieces, depending on your level of focus and your time constraints.
CREATE PRACTICE THEMES
Articulate larger issues in your playing that you’d like to address. Then, develop a practice routine that addresses those issues incrementally. While most of us are great at setting short-term goals, taking on a “big problem” helps give each practice session a purpose as part of a larger goal, and allows you to see your progress more effectively. It also provides a neat shorthand for practice goals within each session.
Your theme could be tone production, timing, maintaining expressivity in high-pressure situations, or even your posture. For example, if you work diligently to hear your sound in a more nuanced manner, you’ll get better at hearing your sound, which will improve over time the quality of your mental representation about your sound. The secret skill of experts is that their diligent work makes them better at working diligently, so get in the habit of keeping track of your habits.
LEAVE SPACE TO REFLECT
When learning something new, reflecting on your experiences is just as important as doing. Making time to reflect on your work — either through journaling, listening to your practice recordings, or by discussing with friends or peers — allows you to see where you can target your efforts and gives you an opportunity to celebrate your wins.
Don’t let the recording of your recital be the first time you hear yourself. Feedback from coaches and teachers is important, but make sure to maximize the opportunity to give yourself some feedback. Record yourself while practicing, listen back, and use your assessment to make targeted changes. I like to spend 10 minutes on a passage: recording myself, listening critically, and making an effective and durable change.
Self-diagnosis is a creative learning practice, combining active and objective listening with comparison against some notion of how something should be — a mental representation. It requires thoughtful and responsive ears, a deft touch with adjectives (try to come up with five specific words to describe your playing after hearing a recording), and the ability to determine a specific course of action based on what has just been heard. Working on that muscle will help your practicing, interpreting, and listening.
Great playing takes time to develop, and works need to incubate. This process can be accelerated by targeted technical practice and powerful pre-practice habits, but habits and ideas take time to grow. Be patient with yourself and be encouraged by the growth you see along the way!
Michael Compitello is dedicated to exploring the expressive possibilities of percussion through collaboration and community-building. His project Unsnared Drum, released 2021 on New Focus Recordings, seeks to reinvent the snare drum with “superb performances” (Classical Voice of North Carolina) of new works by composers Nina C. Young, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Tonia Ko. With cellist Hannah Collins as the New Morse Code, Michael has created a singular, personal, and impactful repertoire through collaboration with some of America’s most esteemed young composers. His current project is a book about musical learning. Michael is Associate Professor of Percussion at Arizona State University. He holds degrees from The Yale School of Music and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. For more information, visit michaelcompitello.com.