Deliberate Practice: The Key to Improvement in Music and Teaching

I was born into a family of musicians. My father was drafted during the U.S. – Vietnam War but thankfully avoided combat by auditioning successfully for the Army Band. Later, my parents met while studying piano and organ studies together in graduate school. Starting at age four, each of my three siblings and I started singing in choirs and playing violin and piano.

Truthfully, I didn’t particularly enjoy music much growing up, even though much of my life revolved around it. I felt music was quite dorky, and would have much preferred to have been playing more sports. But quitting music was never a choice in my family, thankfully. I say thankfully because through music, I learned the secret to continuous improvement – the sacred art of practice.

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Deliberate Practice In Music

Practice is revered in the music world. No matter how talented the player, daily practice is required – it is the great equalizer. I grew up learning that skilled musicians are not born, but made through tremendous amounts of practice.

I had to practice every morning before I went to school. I would start each session with a warm-up of extremely rote scales, vibrato exercises, and previously-learned songs. Then I’d move on to the most intense part – working through a new piece.

I would never just play through a new song – I had to first isolate the most difficult section. After identifying those bars, I’d set my metronome at an almost unbearably slow speed and start playing until there were no mistakes. metronome_3188795

I would then gradually speed up the tempo so long as I could proceed without errors. Once I reached or exceeded the goal performance tempo, I would back up 4-6 bars and then practice transitioning into the difficult portion until it was seamless and automatic. The process was tedious and grueling, but improvement was always immediate and noticeable.

Through practice, I learned to treat musical pieces like a quilt to be woven together over time – never in one practice session. I honed my ability to notice mistakes, isolate problems, and then resolve through practice. Feedback came from my instructors, and with training, eventually from myself. Over time, I even realized that I could apply this process to my studies and sports.

This process of learning and practicing is not unique to music. I’ve since learned it has a name and has been studied with chess players, musicians, and in education. It is called Deliberate Practice. 

Craig Barton’s 5 Stages of Deliberate Practice

“For Ericsson et al (1993), the principle of Deliberate Practice involves breaking down a complex process, isolating an individual skill and working on it, receiving regular and specific feedback so you can improve your performance. It is how performance musicians prepare for a recital – not by practicing the piece from start to finish, but by concentrating on small sections of it at a time until they achieve mastery.”

Craig Barton’s How I Wish I Taught Math

In his book How I Wish I Taught Maths, Barton develops Ericsson’s principle of deliberate practice into a useful five-step model:

  1. Isolate the skill*
  2. Develop the skill
  3. Assess the skill
  4. Final performance
  5. Practice Retrieval

*I am not advocating for teaching reading comprehension as skills-based. 


Deliberate practice is a clear improvement from the adage practice makes perfect.  Deliberate practice is far more specific and precise, and also recognizes the importance of feedback and retrieval. Here are some other immediate benefits deliberate practice activated in my instruction:

  • I was forced to break complex knowledge into manageable chunks that could be practiced with immediate feedback and retrieved over time
  • I gave my students extensive practice with multiple sub-processes that over time can be layered and combined to solve more complex problems
  • I caught misconceptions and mistakes much sooner
  • I developed a more carefully-planned and thoughtfully-sequenced curriculum to  support the desired incremental learning and practice

Deliberate practice is also in clear opposition to many current, rampant classroom practices I witness frequently. For example, TPT or Pinterest-sourced curriculum designed the night before on a lesson-by-lesson basis with little connection or routine; or minimally-guided independent/group work with vague objectives, directions and teacher feedback.

Recognizing the power of deliberate practice has put a renewed focus, energy and urgency in my guided and independent practice. Every minute of my lessons have become more intentional and purpose-driven. My classroom has started to feel more like the music lessons of my childhood.

Using Deliberate Practice in Lessons

Using deliberate practice as an individual musician or athlete does not translate perfectly into a classroom with 20-30 students. What follows is a description of when and how I’ve found deliberate practice to be effective in my instruction.

When: Accessing New and Reviewed Content 

Anytime students are engaged with independent (or partner) work, I ask myself “how can I make this deliberate practice?” Since asking myself that question, I’ve built a small collection of routines that students use to access new content and retrieve previously-learned knowledge. A few examples follow of how I’ve used deliberate practice across many different subjects and tasks:

  • Example Problem Pairs: When teaching a new concept in math, I use an example problem pair with 4-6 independent practice problems placed directly after. Whereas I used to bulk-deliver all my modeling at the beginning of the lesson, I’ve found example problem pairs with bursts of deliberate practice are much more effective given students’ limited working memory. A nice rhythm to lessons also emerges with concise, well-planned models followed by sprints of purposeful and focused practice.
  • Low-Stakes Assessments: I include 2-3 low stakes assessments per week in all content areas that include one question from the day’s lesson, and the rest review of previously-learned concepts. Students have approximately 10 minutes to complete. As they finish, students raise their hands and I quickly put a check next to the correct answers and circle any errors. When the timer goes off I display my exemplar for students to compare their work with. These low-stakes assessments provide students with multiple opportunities to revisit and practice the more challenging parts of the curriculum – much like how I would isolate the most difficult parts of music.
  • Reading: When reading any textbook chapter together for the first time, control the game can be used to properly model and involve as many students as possible in reading aloud, interspersed with immediate coaching on prosody, pronunciation, vocabulary, and quick recall questions. I have also built in routines for students to  preview chapter headings, vocabulary, and visuals.
  • Writing: Hochman and Wexler’s (2017), The Writing Revolution is full of deliberate practice routines that “break the writing process down into manageable chunks and then has students practice the chunks they need, repeatedly, while also learning content.” These routines are perfect for retrieving and deepening previously-learned knowledge in any content area. My most-commonly used is the Because, But, So writing exercise to give students daily practice in comprehending and communicating complex cause-effect ideas through well-crafted sentences.img_3682

In short, deliberate practice is a versatile and useful lens for designing effective student work across all subject areas. The next and final section will show that how deliberate practice is planned, implemented, and checked in the classroom is crucial.

How: Identify Steps, Short Bursts, Feedback

“Merely repeating an activity is insufficient to get you better at it…for practice to improve skills, it has to have a specific and focused goal and must gradually link together a series of smaller goals to created linked skills…deliberate practice requires all-in focus, and that is maximized in a short and intense burst.”

Doug Lemov, Foreward to Hochman and Wexler’s (2017) The Writing Revolution

Before giving students independent practice, students must be taught and explicitly shown what is expected. My model will frequently include 2-3 steps that I can quickly refer students to when circulating and giving individual feedback “Check step 2.” 

After sufficient modeling, questioning and checking-for-understanding, students should be given concise directions with a clear “I will be looking for _______ as I walk around” statement. I set a timer for 4-5 minutes and students get to work. This amount of time works well for my 5th graders, but can certainly vary depending on the task. During this time I strategically circulate with my exemplar (checking students that finish fastest first) and star student work that will be shared.

When the timer goes off, efficient whole-group feedback starts. There are many different ways to do this, but my favorite is to either do a show call on the document camera with high-quality student work examples, or to display my own exemplar and strategically cold call students to explain the steps. Most important is that the correct answers are visible for all students to compare their work against.

I use between 2-3 cycles of this deliberate practice in each lesson to access new and retrieve previously-learned content. I find the bursts of deliberate student work creates a palpable sense of purpose and momentum always followed by consistent and clear feedback.


Since striving to make my lessons 85 percent review, I have fully embraced that nothing is taught in one lesson. Through bursts of deliberate practice, manageable chunks of new content can be accessed through routine exercises, and previously-learned content can be retrieved and consolidated in long-term memory. Practice is essential to mastery, and as teachers we should take every opportunity to incorporate effective deliberate practice in our lessons.

What does deliberate practice look like in your personal life or classroom?
















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