The Productive Pianist (Deliberate Practice)


Becoming exceptional or even outstanding in any field requires a consistent and relentless pursuit of developing and refining your skills.  Becoming an exceptional pianist is no different.  In my “glory days” of college, working towards a degree in Piano Performance, I would frequently spend 6 hours a day or more in the practice room preparing for recitals and concerts.  Now I feel like a rock star if I’ve gotten half of that time in (confession – it doesn’t happen every day!)  What I’ve realized, and what a growing body of research points to, is that it’s not necessarily about how much time we put in, it’s more about what we put into the time that generates high level performance.   Studies from Anders Ericsson, Tony Schwartz and others reveal that we are most productive when we move between periods of high focus and intermittent rest.

“Anyone can become good at anything with the right kind of deliberate practice” – Tony Schwartz

Therein lies a secret:  deliberate practice!

What does deliberate practice look like for me now?

  • free from distractions (cell phone off or on airplane mode, no interruptions from family unless an emergency, etc)
  • complete attention / deep concentration on task at hand with observation of what I’m doing, what is working, what isn’t, and why.
  • set and limited amount of time (no more than 90 minutes per practice session – and up to 3 of these a day)*

After about 90 minutes of concentrated practice I take a break, do something to re-energize myself like talk a walk, run, or simply sit and have a cup of coffee.

“Human beings are designed to pulse or oscillate between spending energy and renewing energy.”  – Schwarz

Whether your practice time is 20 minutes or 5 hours a day, the key is focus and consistency.  When you practice – devote your full attention to it.  Rather than setting a new, massive amount of practice time per day, work on being consistent with a small amount of time each day.  To help you do this, and to make your progress visual, I’ve created a “Weekly Piano Practice Register”.  Numerous studies have shown that when we observe or track an activity, we are more likely to be successful at accomplishing our goals.

Happy Practicing!

*Ericsson, Schwartz and others cite that the total daily practice time of elite performers rarely exceeds five hours a day — and this only if naps are taken and the individual sleeps longer (a study of elite violinists revealed that they slept an average of 8.6 hours out of every 24.  The average person in the US sleeps 6 to 6.5 hours a day)

For the super-achiever, here are some books that I highly recommend:
The Power of Full Engagement, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz
The Compound Effect, by Darren Hardy
The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, by Tony Schwartz


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