Deliberate Practice and Progress

Deliberate Practice and Progress

Does Your Child’s Practice Help Them Progress?

Not all practice is equal.  Simply sitting at the instrument for an allotted time each day doesn’t guarantee that your child will progress.

What does progress mean anyway? For me –

  • Progress can mean a new piece becomes easy.
  • Progress can mean a known piece becoming more beautiful, more like the recording.
  • Progress means increased confidence of the child at the instrument and increased desire to play and learn more.
  • Progress can mean increasing repertoire and increasing technical skills.

The research around achieving mastery over new skills emphasizes a concept known as “deliberate practice”.  Anders Ericsson, professor of Psychology at Florida State University, in his research, has found that “how” one practices determines the level of expertise achieved, more than just the number of times a skill is performed.

“An expert breaks down the skills that are required to be expert and focuses on improving those skill chunks during practice or day-to-day activities, often paired with immediate coaching feedback.  Another important feature of deliberate practice lies in continually practising a skill at more challenging levels with the intention of mastering it.”

Deliberate practice was then further studied by Duviver et al in its role in assisting medical students acquire clinical skills.  It requires strengths in four personal skills – planning, concentration, repetition/revision and ability to self reflect on learning.

So what does that mean for us as Parent-Teacher(-Coach) and our children’s practice plans?


Tip #1:  Be very clear on the weekly goal set by the teacher for each piece or technical item

My personal lesson here is really improving my note-taking, and asking the teacher to clarify what exactly needs to be improved for each item.  I also repeat the goal during the lesson for the child so that they also have heard the goal from the teacher and from me.


Tip #2:  Break down that goal into daily activities or sub-goals for your child to work on.

This is a large part of the work/effort for the parent-teacher-coach – breaking the weekly goal down into daily, manageable and achievable goals.  So for example if a new piece is to be started, work out how it is to be tackled and what needs to be thought about as you begin (particular techniques that may be new, fingering, musicality, etc).

Before they begin playing anything, talk to your child about what we need to think about with this piece or technical work (whether it be musicality, tricky parts, fingering etc).

I try and set phrases to be learnt in a practice rather than just number of bars, though number of bars works  as well.  Also specify syntax of learning – for piano, right hand, left hand or together.  For violin/viola – air fingering, pizzicato, bowing.  Here we are modelling what deliberate practice at this instrument for this piece looks like.  So that later, they will automatically as way of habit do that when they tackle something new.


Tip #3:  Assist your child concentrate on that goal as needed, during the practice

Be careful not to load too much onto the child in any one session in any one piece.  I make this mistake often with Thomas on the viola as he has SO much to improve on.  His teacher is much better than me at just focusing on one issue at a time.  So for example, if I ask him to watch his palm position in the left hand, and he improves, I then immediately ask him to relax his right shoulder for his bow arm.  Too much for one practice session – he gets so discouraged and doesn’t enjoy it.  I am impatient and need to take a chill pill.


Tip #4:  Provide immediate feedback or ask the child to give himself the feedback on what went well, what could be done better, what else could be done around that goal

Feedback is the big differentiator for deliberate practice.  That is why having a parent-teacher-coach a la Dr Suzuki’s methodology is so critical and valuable.  For sure my children could not improve on their instruments without some sort of supervision (or yelling from the kitchen after each repetition) in the form of feedback (“That was fabulous, you got the run much more clearly.  Play it again so you can feel the difference” or “Great concentration to the end of that piece.  How did you go with legato in the left hand?  Let’s practice that one bar again and see if you can make it even more legato”)


Tip #5:  Make changes to plan as necessary based on the feedback and continue repetitions

Sometimes the plan is too ambitious or not ambitious enough.  So adjust as you can.  I always am quick to cut down the goal if it is discouraging for the child.  I am loathe to add more on unless we are having a super, non-tired, well-adjusted kind-of day (not often).  But the next day I will certainly be more ambitious.  I try and be very communicative and clear when I am making changes to the plan.  So for example if a review piece needs extra work, I show the child what I am taking off the initial plan so that we can do more work on this piece.


Tip #6:  Discuss what needs to be practiced tomorrow with your child at the end of your practice.

This is so powerful in so many ways.  It sets an anticipation and expectation for tomorrow.  It rounds off and ends the current practice.  And always can end in a cuddle and fist pump.



The bigger picture we are teaching our children through deliberate practice at their instrument, is how to get better at something.  This environment of deliberate practice ensures their “grittiness” for their future endeavours – sticking through the hard bits, and finding their passion through the perseverence.

WIlliam lesson notes and practice journal

Here is a picture of the real thing for William (Book 1 Suzuki) on the piano.  In the really hard to read green writing are my practice notes.  My very shortened notes are each piece, include “Cuckoo – smooth” (referring to left hand legato), “London Bridge – lift off” (referring to lift hand off between phrases),  “FCS – gently, beautifully, tall hands” (referring to French Children’s Song musicality and technical tall hands).  William also got his first sight reading book and earned the right to start learning Lightly Row – left hand.

Below the green are two nights practice notes in blue pen.  The tick is the number of times we did the work on each piece.  For revision pieces we may do it once.  For the new piece (Lightly Row left hand) we do more repetitions.

Eddie practice journal

Here is the daily practice journal for Eddie (also Book 1 Suzuki piano).  F stands for Froggy which is TwinkleA.  TO or TG stands for hands together.  HB stands for Honey bee.  RH stands for Right hand, LH stands for Left hand, C stands for Cuckoo, LR stands for Lightly Row.  As we are just learning Cuckoo and Lightly Row, the tick boxes refers to the times we repeat the new phrases we are learning – we are not doing the full piece yet.  You will see I start with twinkles every night.  I also do this with William as well now.  It is what they play while I am sorting out the plan for the whole session and rereading my lesson notes.

Tom lesson notes

Here is an example of lesson notes for Thomas.  It just gives the one word for what needs to be worked on.  It is very short I know – but I do understand it!

I have actually typed up a much more formal and useful daily practice plan for you!  It provides space for all pieces and technical notes and goals, as well as check boxes to show repetitions done.  I am going to start using it especially for Thomas who certainly has more he needs to cover each day than the littlies.  Click the button below and I will email the pdf version to you so you can print and use at home!  Tell me what you think and how I should adjust it to make it more useful!

Click Here to Subscribe






6 Top Tips for Giving Feedback during Instrument Practice

6 Top Tips for Giving Feedback during Instrument Practice

Providing feedback is one of the most valuable aspects of the parent-teacher role for a child’s progress and enjoyment during instrument practice. Providing feedback is probably the MOST important role during the actual instrument practice session (once you are at the instrument and have planned the practice out).

Without a parent-teacher, many young children would simply not be aware of what they are doing right and what areas they need to work on. This would make progress slow and frustrating, and hence boring. This in turn would lead to the desire in the child to give up their instrument.

Asking a young child to practice their instrument on their own, is like asking a beginner reader to read their ‘reader’ alone and silently. The beginner reader needs feedback on what words they got right as well as to have their comprehension of the story checked. And almost importantly, a story shared is so much more ENJOYABLE!


Be specific in your positive feedback and be warm and loving. After every repetition find SOMETHING good that they did and comment on it!

Comment on technical correctness, musicality, rhythm, perseverance, attitude, posture, speed, having a go, getting through to the end, asking for help, not getting frustrated, or anything they did well at all!

General praise is not effective at all and has actually been shown to reduce intrinsic motivation.


Ask questions in your improvement feedback rather than being directly critical.  Ask questions that make the child think about the answer and either answer you in their playing or verbally. You may have to ask a few questions around the subject.

(For examples of these questions, please download my free, more detailed guide to giving feedback by clicking the button below.
Click Here For Your Copy

Direct instruction and direct improvement feedback is not as effective as empowering the child to work out the answer on her own.

Also – beware the loaded question which is really a direct negative feedback in disguise!  “Why did you play that with a straight thumb?”

The problem with giving improvement feedback in a questioning way is that it can feel ……inefficient.  However, it is not really inefficient in the long run! In fact, it is way more efficient as the child ‘owns’ her response and is much more likely to make the corrections required, and progress more quickly.

And most importantly, even from a very young age, children learn of their ability and their role in effecting improvements in their learning. You are teaching them now how they can be responsible for their progress and their achievement.


Don’t caveat praise – the research has shown it is actually better to not praise a child at all if you do it.


Adlerian psychology talks about children having two buckets that need filling – an attention bucket and a power bucket. If either of these two buckets are not filled, a child will ‘act out’ to fill them up. I am of a controlling nature (*understatement*) so whilst I am very good at filling my children’s attention bucket, I can sometimes neglect the power bucket. And this results in power struggles. Especially if I am too controlling with instrument practice.

I have learnt to fill the child’s power bucket wherever possible and be less controlling. I may set the practice plans, but they can choose which pieces they play when during the practice.  Using the questioning method of providing critical feedback is also a less controlling method of instruction, and just changes the whole dynamic of the practice.


Research has shown that the more intrinsically motivated the teacher/instructor, the more intrinsically motivated the student, and the better outcomes. There are many implications for this research in the education field generally, but for parent-teachers it is also very relevant.

Set your practice plans and your regular practice sessions up so that they are enjoyable for you!  Even if your kids could do a big session, if you can’t (tired, just over it, etc) – then make it easy on yourself and do an easy/short session.

Also, I remind myself that while I am doing instrument practice, my husband has the unenviable task of cleaning the kitchen and putting the other kids to bed. Instrument practice looks more appealing so I am more motivated to be there!


The research has shown time and time again, that the expectations of parents are highly correlated with the success of children, even more so than the child’s own expectations. This also applies to teachers’ expectations of students.

So no matter what the child’s abilities now – set your expectations high and hold them loosely. The high expectations you have will help with the process of building self-esteem, grit, determination, perseverance IRRESPECTIVE of the actual musical level achieved.

How does the adage go? “Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.”

Would you like to more detail on this post?  In this free download, I provide heaps of examples of specific praise you can give for piano and string instruments instruction.  Click the button below to request your free copy.

Click Here For Your Copy