Serious Practise Leads To Serious Fun!

(With thanks to Katharine Mac Mághnuis, Úna ní Fhlannagáin and Kevin Brett of Athenry Music School, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool)

I stole that phrase, from the wonderful Katharine Mac Mághnuis, Director of Athenry Music School.

Both my children are currently learning to play musical instruments but we don’t just apply it to learning music, we use it in other aspects of learning where practise is needed. It has subsequently become one of the BIG PRINCIPLES in our edgeucation, fundamental and tightly interwoven and interconnected with the others.

It was another teacher at Athenry Music School, Úna ní Fhlannagáin, who urged me to read ‘Peak – How all of us can achieve extraordinary things’ by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (2017). As Úna won the Bonn Óir, in 2017 (Ireland’s very prestigious traditional music competition), I had to take her advice and I am very glad I did. The “Serious practise” that Katharine spoke about, now has a specific form for us at home.

Anders Ericsson has spent 30 years researching expert performers (people who are amongst the best in the world at what they do, in areas such as sport, music and chess among others) which led him to develop the concept of ‘deliberate practice’ which differs significantly from the way most people usually practise. He suggests that this difference, is a huge reason that they have come to be expert performers. Now, Úna was not suggesting that by following this book, my children would become world expert musicians; she was suggesting that ‘deliberate practice’ as described by Anders Ericsson would help them to build their musical potential.

Usual Practise generally follows the following pattern:

1. Start off with a general idea of what we want to do.

2. Get some instruction from a teacher/book/website.

3. Practise until we reach an acceptable level.

4. Let it become automatic.

Ericsson and Pool point out that many people then continue repeating what they have achieved so far at level 4, where they have actually stopped improving. It may be fine and acceptable, to reach a middle standard, in many circumstances, but often people believe they will continue to improve their skills where in fact their automated abilities are likely to deteriorate over longer periods of time with this type of repetition.

To keep improving, you need a different kind of purposeful, deliberate practise.

My children did not want to experiment with the harp or just strum the guitar, they told me they wanted to have lessons to learn to play well.

So what makes deliberate practise different from usual practise and how do we use it?

1. Firstly, Ericsson and Pool state deliberate practise works well in fields that are “reasonably well developed” where there is a recognised and accumulated knowledge on what is expert performance – for example; music, dance, individual sports.

Each practise session needs well defined, specific goals – small ones which add up to a bigger goal you are trying to achieve. My advice here (after some false starts) is to find a good teacher, one who can identify the bigger and smaller goals and explain how to go about achieving them between lessons. Just actively listening to and watching how my son’s guitar teacher (Kevin Brett) breaks down new pieces of music, feeds new techniques to focus on, and how he slips in increasingly complicated music theory, has been an education in teaching for me!

Ericsson and Pool’s book also has advice for times when you don’t have teacher, which I have found very useful too.

2. Next, you need specific feedback during the practise.

In their lessons, my children’s music teachers have been skilled at giving this feedback and suggestions to improve. For our music practise at home, I try to provide feedback, but as my children become older and more experienced, I am trying to encourage them to feedback on their specific goals and make changes they need, while I will slowly withdraw.

In fact, Ericsson states that this self-feedback and monitoring becomes essential.

3. Very importantly, deliberate practise involves trying to do something you could not do before, just beyond current abilities*, which means concentration and coming out of your comfort zone.

It also means practise is not necessarily always enjoyable! This was incredibly important for my children and I to acknowledge together; doing a bit of hard work is necessary, if you want to learn that slightly more difficult piece of music or technique, than the one before.

We also found out that doing this, even for a few minutes a day, can make you feel pretty tired and having a break afterwards is necessary and well earned. (I think being home educated may have an edge here, as the children can break up practise sessions into smaller pieces and we have the opportunity to take breaks more flexibly than if they went to school.)

4. When you hit barriers, you need to try different approaches to overcome them. Having a good teacher, who is very familiar with these and can help you find them, is incredibly important.

5. Finally, finding self-motivation to continue to improve becomes increasingly significant.

So far, the second part of Katharine Mac Maghnuis’ phrase (“….leads to serious fun!”) has been a great motivator for my children. When they feel they have practised a piece of music and know it well, and then play in a performance, they tell me about the fun they had doing so and it is often obvious from the excited glee in their actions afterwards. This motivates them to keep trying to improve. My youngest, in particular, has found great joy in playing with others, and this motivates him also.

There have been some criticisms of Ericsson and Pool’s book, particularly of their suggestion that innate ability or natural talent may only manifest through practise and effort, for example it may give you the advantage of being able to sustain focus for longer periods or contribute to enjoyment of that skill. I do not feel I have the expertise in this field to make a valid comment. There have also been some criticism that this approach would not be beneficial for creative fields (I hope to explore this further in a future post).

Using deliberate, purposeful practise is certainly helping my children learn to play the instruments they have chosen. I am trying to encourage it in other areas of learning too.

My hope is that alongside, they will be learning the skill of deliberate practise itself, so that they can draw on it, and use it to develop their mastery in other areas they choose in the future.


*There are parallels here with Lev Vygotsky’s idea of “Zone of Proximal Development” and “scaffolding” which I hope to post about at a later date.


Useful resources

Peak: How all of us can achieve extraordinary things’ by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (2017)

Also published as ‘Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise’ (2016) in the US.

Athenry Music School Website

Website for harpist Úna ní Fhlannagáin

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