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It's Deliberate–not dull–Practice!

deliberatepractice mindset practicetips Oct 15, 2022

Are you struggling to stay inspired in the practice room?

Well, you are in for a special treat! Welcome to part one of our deep dive series on deliberate (not dull!) practice.

We have to share… we loveeee talking about practice. And the way we practice… the way we think… is what differentiates experts from amateurs, yeah?

So when you work through this training, we suggest you go through it with a beginner’s mind. Maybe there are some adjustments in your practice that you want to make, and these ideas might help you think differently about them. You might also get some clarity on how to creatively incorporate deliberate practice into your practice sessions which will boost your skills with creative solutions!


It’s well-established that deliberate practice is the way to gain expertise in any field. Katy has spent the past 7 years studying it formally through her cognitive science concentration and beyond. Jeff has spent the past 77 years (okay, he’s not THAT old!!) living and breathing it in his preparation for hundreds of Canadian Brass concerts. And undoubtedly, you’ve been wrestling with it for a legitimate amount of time, even if it’s not a multiple of 7!

Why are we all so obsessed? Well, just like our ability to work through performance anxiety is not a trait, our technical abilities are not traits. They are states, and with hard work and an effective framework, you can refine them. How you are in the practice room is how you are in performance, so you can deliberately practice being the creative, generous, engaging performer you want to be daily.

Deliberate practice is purposeful, systematic, focused attention with the goal of improved performance. It is practice aimed toward accomplishing specific, well-defined goals.

When we envision what that looks like… well, does anybody else feel a little stressed?! We imagine a diligently maintained practice journal, a metronome, a tuner, a recording device, and doing very very hard work. But the reality is this: we simply need to be paying attention to our purpose, our system, and checking those against our performance. Or, what we’ve simplified it to: thought, action, result.

Deliberate practice is a way of mindful “listening” to what we’re doing and searching for the path that facilitates the learning process. It is intuitive, but involves two very concrete things: clear, immediate feedback and mental representations.

If you're mentally checking out on mental representations, stay with us here, because this is important!! :)

A mental representation is mental imagery or understanding of things that aren’t actually present to the senses. For example, you can imagine performing a scale whether your instrument is in front of you or not. However, when you first started out, you didn’t have a very clear mental understanding of how to do it at all. In fact, you probably needed an external fingering chart to reference. Eventually, you developed the ability to use the correct fingering without even thinking, and now at this stage in your development, you can imagine performing a scale or passage with a precise level of dexterity and detail. Your mental representation of fingering developed!

Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more.

Call it enhanced perception :)

So, if you wanna get good at your instrument, you don’t need to practice your instrument. The horn is already a horn. It already knows what to do. Instead, you have to practice your mental picture, which refines your input. In other words, you need to practice your thoughts.

Love Well

Shifting the focus from working to achieve a specific result to working to refine your thoughts means you don’t have to work all your life to try to reach your potential. Instead, your potential evolves as you do, constantly being refined by the work you put in. Inspiring!!!

Yet, the practice room can be a very demotivating and uninspired place. We come to our practice sessions carrying beliefs about what effective practice should be. They might come from what our first teachers taught us, what worked for us at one point, or we heard of what somebody else does or what we imagine them to do.

We can all love ourselves well by doing away with those shoulds. The “right” process for you is whatever allows you to sense more about music, your instrument, and performance. Whatever adds to your mental picture!

Deliberate practice is empirically substantiated as the thing to do in order to develop expertise in any area. And we want to pair that idea with this quote:

We’re enjoying an artform of communicating in a way that makes our audience feel something, not simply replicating a physical performance of athleticism. So our practice can reflect that. Just think of the possibilities!

Let Go

So today, we want to share with you part one of four ideas to let go of how you think deliberate practice SHOULD look. It can be difficult to do the life-changing work of consistent practice. These suggestions or explorations can get you practicing more, help you enjoy practice more, and help stretch you beyond what you know and think you can do now.

Practice 1: Practice along with some kind of external media
There are two main ways that we love to do this. Today, we’ll talk about practicing along to some sort of show or movie. Here’s how to do it…. deliberately :)

Through deliberate practice, we cycle through the three stages of thought, action, and result.

In the thought stage, your musical thought will be centered on exploring one specific idea:

🌟 quality of sound throughout the range
🌟 one specific note played in all sorts of styles and qualities
🌟 a type of articulation like an air release or crisp fronts
🌟 an interval like a M3 or M6
🌟 A couple measures from a solo or an excerpt you’re working on.

Choose one variable like the ones listed, and beeee specific! Imagine the exact sound you want to create in your head.

The idea is to do this exercise TO whatever show you’re watching. This is your action. Execute along to the emotion of the scene, as though you’re playing the soundtrack to it. You are meditating on this one variable.

While you are practicing in this way, consult sources of feedback: your sound against the soundtrack, a tuner, or a recorder to name a few. As you are watching and “meditating” on your musical thought, you’re habiting your actions, so don’t mindlessly watch your show. Be aware, what are your results?

How’s it goin’?! What is this approach to exploring sound, emotion, and your instrument revealing to you? What is informative? What are you sensing in your body? What are you thinking and imagining so you can replicate it on command?

Consult your feedback, then adjust your musical thought. For example, if you’re looking for syrupy slurs through perfect fifth intervals, maybe it helps to match this actor's super low, resonant voice, and think and feel it all much lower and broader. Pick your thought adjustment, and work through the cycle again!

Enjoy sneaking in a few more practice sessions with your favorite Halloween movies!

Jeff Nelsen

Dr. Katy Webb
Creative & Managing Director

*Special thanks to practice gurus Dr. Pete Miksza, Katy Woolley, and Jason Haaheim for being incredible influences on our developing study on practice! 

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