The best musical goals are moderate—challenging but realistic— but your commitment moderates this relationship. When commitment is high, highly-difficult goals are associated with the best results. Commitment doesn’t matter as much with easy goals. You don’t get high performance with easy goals, regardless of your commitment level. But commitment has an increasingly greater effect on performance as the task difficulty increases.
So, goal setting alone isn’t sufficient. Commitment influences the results, and this is because of our tendency to want to escape the unpleasant experiences that occur with goal difficulty. Commitment seems to buffer the discomfort, allowing us to feel uncomfortable and persevere anyway.
Only quality practice achieves excellence on the stage. For this reason, it is commitment to practice that I look for most in my students. But what are the factors that contribute to this commitment?
Enjoyment and participation in ensemble performance are strong predictors of increased commitment. The more fun you are having and the more benefits you perceive you’re getting, the more committed you are likely to be.
Having attractive alternatives to your activity significantly predicts less commitment. In other words, commitment is stronger when you have fewer options to choose from. For example, many children are involved in multiple sport, drama, dance and other after school activities each week. The chance of them becoming an expert in any one of these activities is significantly less than the child who specialises in one thing; learning a musical instrument for example.
Personal investments and perceived costs also significantly affect commitment. Personal investments are factors such as time, effort, and energy that you put into your practice that would be lost if you discontinued it. The more you invest, the more committed you are to continue. Perceived costs are the downsides of practice and performing, such as time constraints, injury, missing out on social activities, and the pressures of exams or auditions. Focusing on such problems may well undermine commitment.
In weighing up the personal investments and perceived costs in your own musical life, try not to over think it. Faith is important too. It is perhaps the most important thing of all. Believing wholeheartedly in your eventual success is an option always available to you.
Questions to Consider:
How does acceptance enhance commitment? You may wish to refer to my blog titled 'Acceptance.'
Can a musician be overly committed?
The 10,000-hour rule was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book 'Outliers.' In broad terms Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice to become an expert in any skill.
However, some tasks and accomplishments take more time, and others take less. And as a field develops more experts, you have to know or do more over time just to keep up. That means more hours of deliberate practice than your peers, so 10,000 hours may not be enough. It certainly isn’t a threshold to automatic musical expertise.
From a developmental perspective, the first step to becoming an expert is being introduced through play to the field of interest. Parents play a crucial role here, instructing their children as to the purpose of the items they are playing with, such as a piano, guitar or harmonica.
Add to this the family values of discipline, hard work, responsibility and achievement, which are instilled early. Parents also know that praise is powerful to increase motivation, and that the satisfaction of developing a skill can help keep a child going for more.
But once interest is developed, the next step is to get lessons from an expert teacher—but one who can maintain interest and motivation in the pupil while skills are being built.
Parents at this stage remain important to provide discipline and structure, such as helping the child establish practice routines and giving them praise, support, and encouragement to keep motivation high.
To strengthen commitment, parents will need to positively push their child to prioritize practice over other activities. But when is pushing helpful, and when is it too much? It’s difficult to define the line exactly, but ultimately the motivation must come from within the child, or else it won’t last. So, discovering and emphasizing the aspects of playing music that the child loves most—so that he or she owns his or her performance and is motivated from within—is best.
As students progress, challenges like exams and auditions are needed to take them to the next level, as is an increase in practice hours. At this point, those on track to become virtuosos will show a tremendous appetite for work. They start to identify themselves with their area of growing specialization—as a Flamenco, jazz or classical guitarist for example.
It is in this early or mid-teen period that future greats make a major commitment to becoming the best they can be, seeking the best teachers or schools for training, even if it means moving across the country. The student faces expectations that gradually increase until they are doing as much as humanly possible to improve. At this point, the motivation lies solely within the student to get out to the very edge of human ability and rank among the best.
So...10, 000 hours? Forget about it. That would be too easy. The path of virtuosity is walked by very few. The key factors are beginning young with total family support and expert tuition at every stage.
The key to excellence is practice, and you’re probably doing it wrong. Most people are. The fact is that talent, if it even exists, is highly overrated. This means that you can truly do anything with your music — but only if you have a good reason for what you do.
There is no gene or innate musical talent that will carry you to greatness. In all areas of performance, it comes down to how you practice.
Practice not only matters, but determines everything. There is one thing that distinguishes experts, truly the very best in any field, from everyone else. And it isn’t talent, strength, dexterity or some other innate quality. It is the amount of time they spend in deliberate, purposeful practice.
Talent, or an early demonstration of skills, can be nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophesy. If it is assumed that someone doesn’t have a musical 'gift' because he or she doesn’t excel right away, he or she is often encouraged to go in another direction. Children with musical skill early on earn more compliments, attention, and investment from parents, teachers and their peers. Without encouragement, a late bloomer never learns to play or sing.
We now know that the right kind of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. This means there is no such thing as predefined ability.
Purposeful practice has very specific, well-defined goals. You have to know exactly what you want to accomplish with every repetition — know what you want to do and exactly how you want to do it, ideally based on how experts do it.
Contrast this with ‘naïve practice’ (a term first used by sports psychologists), where students execute an exercise repeatedly, expecting that the repetition alone will improve performance.
Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Know exactly what you are doing - and why - when a guitar is in your hands.
Read more about purposeful practicing in my next blog: 'Purposeful Practice II.'
Purposeful practice is first defined by specific goals. Intense focus is the second quality. How often during so called ‘naïve practice’ are we going through the motions without being fully engaged, either because we lack a specific goal or we’re just not bringing our full attention to the moment?
Growth is difficult, and that brings us to the next quality of purposeful practice: leaving our comfort zone. And we don’t like that. We have a basic need to feel competent, and pushing ourselves to do things we don’t know how to do goes against our innate requirement to avoid pain.
We need to really concentrate, push into an uncomfortable place and adapt until it becomes comfortable, and then we push again, until that too becomes comfortable, and then we push again, over and over, in a calm and persistent way. This is how we learn and develop. This is the only way we improve, in anything.
Deliberate practice involves developing a more efficient mental approach to tempo, harmony, phrasing and every other area you wish to improve.
Deliberate practice means our ability to detect — and thus correct — mistakes is enhanced. We then notice a positive cycle of improvement, with refined and more challenging deliberate practice further developing mental representations that enrich future practice.
This is the process of improvement. The crucial variable is the amount of time you spend in deliberate, purposeful practice.
Is 10, 000 the golden number of practice hours? I will discuss that in a future blog to be entitled: '10, 000 Hours to Greatness?'
We want to always feel good about our playing, but that isn’t realistic. We need to learn to accept negative emotions and perform with them as part of the experience, without becoming overly attached to them, focused on them, or fighting with them. It is what it is.
An injury that restricts technique, for example, has to be met with steadfast acceptance. You don’t have to like it or think it’s fair. But accepting it does mean that you won’t fight with it and resist it either. Whatever peace your acceptance affords you might also help you create a solution or workaround.
Acceptance is very different than ‘dealing’ with the problem. It involves exactly where you put your attention and energy into at any given moment. This is critical for musical performance. To be our best, we have to be focused on the moment, immersed in our performance activity. We can’t be struggling to change what we think and feel. Acceptance is when we willingly feel painful emotions in service of our performance-related values.
Here is a language tip that will help facilitate acceptance. I often hear students say things like: “I want to perform X piece of music, but it’s hard.” “I want to audition for the band, but I’m afraid I’ll fail.” The “but” discounts what comes before it, placing an emphasis on what follows. It sets the two things up as if they can’t coexist. The latter becomes the barrier and reason why you can’t do the former.
However, observe what happens when we change the “but” to an “and”: “I want to perform X piece of music, and it’s hard.” “I want to audition for the band, and I’m afraid I’ll fail.” That simple word change opens up room for both the student’s values and their fears. This kind of even-handed acceptance helps all musicians take effective steps towards their goals.
With mindfulness and acceptance, you can adapt to the challenges of each situation, persisting and changing practice and performance routines as required, in pursuit of your highest musical values.
What MY Students Are Saying
"Damon's passion and enthusiasm [is] exactly what I need to take my playing to the next level and breathe life into my playing and love of music."