10 Books to Improve Practice
Part I: Why Practice Works
By NAfME Member Kyle Oberhauser with contributions by Lori Schwartz Reichl
We have all heard the phrase “practice makes perfect,” and throughout my career as a musician and music educator I’ve heard many variations including “ . . . perfect practice makes perfect” (Vince Lombardi); “Practice puts brains in your muscles” (Sam Snead); “You don’t have to practice everyday . . . only on the days you eat” (Shinichi Suzuki); and “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice” (Vladimir Horowitz). These variations, and many others, have been developed because there is more to practice than simple repetition to improve performance.
This article will serve as the first of a two-part series on ways to improve practice. In this article, I look at the science behind practice, why it works, why so many variations on the “practice makes perfect” phrase exist, and why this information should be communicated to students. Understanding this process can increase our students’ motivation for practice. In addition, it can build the confidence needed to improve performance in any skill pursued.
In the book, How the Brain Learns, David A. Sousa dives into brain anatomy and how the brain processes incoming information. When it comes to improving the speed and efficiency of musical tasks, like reading and improvising over chord changes, the neuron should be examined. Neurons are located in the brain and spinal cord and gather incoming electrical impulses from various areas of the brain when a task is at hand (Sousa, 2017). Guided by the task, the neurons then try to make connections and recruit more neurons to improve efficiency through their dendrites. Dendrites reach out from the nucleus of the neuron, like branches to communicate with other neurons. Once a signal is gathered by a neuron, it is transmitted through the axon, a long fibrous tail that searches for a new connection with another neuron. It is the axon that attention should be focused on because depending on the amount of myelin that surrounds the axon, the electrical signals can either be carried slowly and inefficiently, or lightning fast with minimal signal loss.
An electrical impulse travels from the neuron, down the axon, to then find new connections. The axon on the left has no myelin sheath allowing the impulse to travel slowly, and incompletely. The axon on the right has built up a thick myelin sheath over years of firing this specific impulse. This impulse travels fast and efficiently.
Many books that focus on improving practice mention myelin and the myelin sheath. This is an important piece to the skill building puzzle. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle describes it as a neural insulator which is wrapped around the long axon fiber mentioned above (Coyle, 2009). Coyle makes a great comparison of myelin to the rubber insulation of a copper wire, preventing the electrical signal from leaking out while maintaining the speed and power throughout the transmission. The more myelin that is built up and wrapped around the axon over time, the higher the accuracy, quality, and speed of the electrical connection becomes when moving to the next neuron. Building thicker layers of myelin will increase performance, so the knowledge of how to recruit more of this substance is needed.
Neurons react to struggle just like a muscle that becomes strained during exercise, repaired during a recovery period, and built back stronger to prepare for future use (Sousa, 2017). For smaller motor movements that utilize more brain power than physical strength, this process is the same. When many neural connections are fired specific to a task that challenges the neural connection’s maximum performance, either through unfamiliarity, speed, or repetition, myelin is recruited. For example, the task of practicing barre chord shapes on guitar through a new chord progression, and working up to a goal tempo using a metronome demonstrates maximum neural performance in a beginner. This requires many small motor movements in the fingers and hands, use of the correct shapes on the fretboard, and a steady beat maintained. There are many connections that need to take place when practicing this task, and myelin must be built to achieve that goal. With the correct amount of time, and quality of deliberate practice, myelin is wrapped and thickened around the specific connections used in the task, which improves performance over time.
In Talent is Overrated, Geoffry Colvin (2019) discusses the fine line between not enough struggle in practice and too much struggle. If a practice goal is set too high, not only will one be discouraged from practicing, but more importantly, there will not be enough success involved to create the new powerful connections needed to build myelin. Too low of a practice goal that doesn’t require many tedious, slow repetitions or intense focus to achieve, won’t challenge the brain enough to seek out more efficient connections.
All 10 books read for this article series describe the difficulty of useful, deliberate practice to improve performance. Practice takes intense focus, is not inherently enjoyable, and for advanced performers can only be sustained for four to five hours per day with breaks included. How one’s structure of practice builds myelin in the most efficient way will be discussed thoroughly in part two.
The brain and body are very good at becoming more efficient at difficult tasks and reacting to incoming stimuli in a very specific way. This is good and bad because with enough practice, performance will improve. This is what the successful figures mentioned at the beginning of this article are referring to, and also the reason they’re offering an update to the saying. Neural connections are made, and myelin is recruited as soon as one begins struggling with something new. Practice should be approached carefully, or failure may occur. In Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner (1996), negative practice is described as a situation where bad practice habits slowly become ingrained over time. Practice should be structured so that proper neural connections are made early on, or the performance of mistakes will improve. In the next article, insights from the books The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman and Practicing with Purpose by David Kish will be discussed. These authors reveal the most important ways to approach practicing something new, and how to avoid making unwanted connections.
As educators, how can this information be shared with students to make practicing the most efficient and effective? Consider sharing with students how to properly plan practice sessions with small, specific, measurable goals. Practice can easily become overwhelming with so many different techniques to master, so choosing a very specific goal can increase motivation for practice and make the goal feel more attainable. Connect this to a short lesson about the anatomy and science behind learning so students can be sure not to participate in negative practice, or become stagnant and experience a practice plateau. Model examples of experiencing too much struggle in practice versus not enough. Refer back to these facts when beginning to tackle a difficult section of music or a new technique. Students should be able to find evidence of this lesson in a hobby they excel at in their own lives. Hopefully, they will realize their own skill level in that hobby, reflect on the amount of time and effort they have put in, and gain confidence in using deliberate practice to improve in other areas. In turn, successful practice habits may improve for students!
All ten books referenced in the “Improve My Practice” article series are listed below. They can be used as a tool to improve both students’ and instructors’ practice habits. In the summer of 2021 I set a goal for myself to read these ten books to improve my own, as well as my students’ practice habits. During that summer, I also took Lori Schwartz Reichl’s summer graduate studies course through The University of the Arts titled, “Making Key Changes: Refresh Your Music Program.” I was motivated to collect my thoughts and write this article for anyone interested in the topic.
Colvin, G. (2019). Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everyone Else. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Coyle, D. (2009). The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown. Random House Business.
Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2016). Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. MIT Press.
Gladwell, M. (2010). Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company.
Hall, R. L. (2020). Purpose in Practice: 26 Rules for the Practicing Musician. CrossRhythm Press.
Kaufman, J. (2014). The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast. Portfolio/Penguin.
Kish, D. (2017). Practicing with Purpose: An Indispensable Resource to Increase Musical Proficiency. Meredith Music Publications.
Lemov, D., Yezzi, K., & Woolway, E. (2012). Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better. Jossey-Bass.
Sousa, D. A. (2017). How the Brain Learns. CORWIN a Sage Publishing Company.
Werner, K. (1996). Effortless Mastery. Jamey Aebersold Jazz.
About the author and contributor:
NAfME member Kyle Oberhauser is an instrumental music educator in New Jersey where he teaches string orchestra, concert band, and jazz band at beginning, elementary, and middle school levels. Kyle also directs a music club where students explore singing and songwriting techniques on ukulele and guitar. As a multi-instrumentalist, Kyle has performed professionally on woodwinds, brass, strings, keys, guitar, bass, percussion, and drums. He instills his passion for practice and holds high standards for proper practice techniques in all of his students. Kyle attended The University of the Arts in Philadelphia where he received his Bachelor’s Degree in Jazz Studies with a focus on drumset performance, as well as a Master of Arts Degree in Music Education. He continues to develop his music education in all areas from brass, woodwind, and string studies, to music technology, instrument repair, and songwriting.
Lori Schwartz Reichl is an author and educator. Learn more about her at MakingKeyChanges.com.
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November 9, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)