Learning How To Practice

Alex Feinman
12 min readAug 8, 2020
No, I don’t know why someone labeled the keys like this, I just found it that way. (photo courtesy of the author)

Practicing is a skill. Learning to learn can really pay off. But it’s hard work, and rarely rewarded.

Background: I trained as a musician for the first thirty years of my life. Music is a fascinating field where there are many orders of magnitude of skill, and you can easily be tremendously better at it than someone else, and yet have many people who are tremendously better than you. (I’m in that middle area, a “talented amateur.”) I only know of a few other areas like this — chess, for example; many sports, due to their competitive nature; some arts; and some mental endeavors like programming may or may not be one, I haven’t decided.

To get better at music, you need the trinity of aptitude, experience, and focus. It’s pretty indisputable that there is some sort of inherent aptitude — some of which may be formed early in infancy, when we’re learning sound and language. Focus is a topic for another day. Experience is training your body and mind to do what you think you can imagine; and the intersection of focus and experience is practice.

Today’s subject is practice how to teach your body and mind to do the thing. I’m going to contrast this with performance, which is when you seek to achieve the main goal of what you’re practicing.

Performance is when you’re graded; it’s where you score real points, earn promotions, face real opposition. Practicing gets you to performance. It’s important to understand that practicing is NOT “performance, but a lot”.

Step one: What Needs Achieving?

It’s tempting to practice “everything”. “I’m going to practice piano”, you say to yourself. But in practice (sorry), it’s important to know what you’re trying to achieve. “I’d like to get Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to the point where I can perform it” is slightly better; “I’d like to get measures 72–144 (i.e. the fast part) up to a tempo of 96 bpm with no missed notes” is a much more concrete, measurable goal.

(Side note: this itself is a step along the goal of getting to “performable”: I don’t mean to imply that getting all the notes right is sufficient for a ‘good’ performance, but it’s generally necessary.)

Athletes practice this way. Boxers don’t train for “boxing”, they might train for “punching for a…

Alex Feinman

Obligate infovore. All posts made with 100% recycled electrons, sustainably crafted by artisanal artisans. He/him/his.