Since the early 1920s, psychologists have been studying how and why people become experts in their chosen field. In parallel, neuroscientists have been working to understand exactly what happens to the human brain when people learn. One of the things they have found is that, when we learn a new motor skill - and then repeatedly practice it - our brain can actively improve the quality and efficiency of the part of the nervous system that we use to execute that particular skill.
In this blog, we review the 2015 article: 'How Brain Research Can Inform Music Teaching' by Donald and Jennifer Walter. We’ll see how deliberate practice, grounded in psychology and neuroscience, can significantly improve musical skills and development. We'll also highlight actionable techniques that music students and musicians can incorporate into their practice routines to accelerate their learning and progress.
The Power of Deliberate Practice
Deliberate practice is a targeted approach to skill improvement that goes beyond simply spending hours practising a specific skill. Instead, it focuses on the specific activities that produce tangible changes in the brain. The key elements of deliberate practice include:
- Setting well-defined, specific practice tasks.
- Repeated practice.
- Ensuring that tasks are at an appropriate level of difficulty.
- Including practice activities in lessons, with formative feedback.
- Providing opportunities for repetition and correction.
The Neuroscience Behind Deliberate Practice
When a specific action, skill or activity is repeated over and over again, the connections in the human brain become stronger, faster and more efficient. This is due to the build-up of a natural substance called myelin in our central nervous system. Myelin is a white, fatty insulating tissue that wraps around our nerve cells (or neurons) and stops electrical nerve impulses from ‘leaking’ away. This then speeds up the transmission of those nerve impulses throughout our central nervous system.
In their article, Walter and Walter use the analogy of a hot water pipe. If a hot water pipe is poorly insulated, more heat from the water will escape through the pipe. But if the pipe is well insulated, less heat will escape.
In the same way, less electric charge will leak from a neuron that is well insulated with myelin. So the brain can send a smaller electric charge along that neuron, to transmit the same amount of information, which means the nervous system uses less energy, and so becomes more efficient.
Nerve impulses also travel much faster along myelinated neurons. Nerve cells that have insufficient layers of myelin typically carry electric impulses at around 2 miles an hour. But nerve impulses transmitted along neurons that are well insulated with myelin move much more quickly: at speeds of up to 200 miles an hour.
Implementing Deliberate Practice Techniques
Neurologists have found a direct correlation between prolonged, deliberate musical practice and the production of myelin. To pick one example, this helps explain why chord shapes become easier to play after extensive repetition.
So, to encourage deliberate instrumental practice, and boost neural activity and skill development at the same time, think about the following when you are planning and practicing:
- Set specific practice activities: design practice tasks that are targeted and focused, ensuring that you know exactly what you need to achieve from each task or session, and why.
- Emphasise repetition: repeat tasks multiple times to strengthen neural connections and improve your memory, and the speed and accuracy of your playing.
- Adjust difficulty levels: tailor practice activities to challenge - but not overstretch - yourself; you need to strike a balance between pushing your limits and making sure that your practice sessions are constructive and positive.
- Incorporate practice activities into lessons: if you are a music teacher, include deliberate practice tasks in your lessons, and then give feedback to help students identify any areas for improvement.
- Allow opportunities for correction: remember that the human brain also forms habits for incorrect techniques, as well as for successful ones, so allow yourself plenty of time to correct mistakes and consistently refine your skills.
The Role of Teachers and Students
Music teachers and students can benefit directly from these insights by incorporating deliberate practice methods into their teaching and practice routines:
- Focus: set specific goals and activities to help students practice with real purpose and intent.
- Repetition: encourage students to repeat tasks frequently to establish strong neural connections and build myelin layers for faster, more accurate performance.
- Attainability: ensure that practice activities are challenging but achievable, allowing students to experience success and constructively build on their skills.
- Feedback: offer feedback during lessons, helping students identify areas for improvement and further refining their practice techniques.
Deliberate practice, grounded in psychological and neuroscientific research, offers musicians, music students and teachers an effective way to improve their musicianship. There is a proven link between sustained, deliberate musical practice - in particular, the repetition of defined motor skills - and the production of myelin, which can turbo charge your nervous system and therefore your musical performance.
By using the techniques described in this blog, you can start to optimize your practice routines and unlock your full potential as a musician.