Building an Expert: The Deliberate Practice Debate in Music Performance

By Ryan WilcoxInterdisciplinary Studies, Cycle 9, 2018



This paper examines the debate concerning deliberate practice’s value in improving musical performance. Deliberate practice is defined by Ericsson as activities that ‘maximize improvement through development toward expert performance.’ While the debate is complicated and unresolved, this paper urges readers to take the lessons of deliberate practice into their own lives. This paper also cites mindfulness as an oft-overlooked factor in deliberate practice, and defends its usefulness in improving musical performance.


Western society has long been fascinated by the “expert”, one who is deemed exceptional in performance of a singular skill. Music is just one field where the average person has long marveled at the expert’s seemingly otherworldly creativity and skill. What remains up in the air, however, is what it is exactly that makes a master musician. Is it innate traits such as IQ, or working memory? Or is it the amount of work you put in, regardless of other factors? With the advent and rapid progress of performance psychology, this debate has only increased in intensity. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, for example, argues that a particular form of practice is solely responsible for success. Conversely, others like psychologist Brooke Macnamara posit that practice is necessary, but not sufficient for achieving this goal. Both sides have backed their claims using various analyses and meta-analyses – with widely varying results. The truth must be somewhere in the middle, but a definitive answer to this question is not yet possible for several key reasons. To understand these reasons, however, one must first understand the debate at hand.

Many point to K. Anders Ericsson’s 1993 article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in Expert Level Performance” as the catalyst in the modern nature versus nurture debate in performance psychology. The article details a study Ericsson and his colleagues conducted at the renowned Berlin Academy of Music, in which Ericsson divided the school’s violinists into three groups: those who were deemed “great” with world-class orchestral potential, those who were deemed merely “good”, and the remaining students who, though still accomplished musicians in their own right, would likely pursue careers as music teachers. They then asked these groups a simple question: in your entire life up to this point, how many hours have you practiced the violin? Unsurprisingly, the world-class group had tallied the most practice hours, followed by the “good” group and then the average group. What was remarkable was just how much more the world-class group practiced: they averaged a total of ten thousand hours of practice by the age of twenty, while the merely good players averaged eight thousand hours and the future music teachers only four thousand hours. In fact, the students who were considered great were on an almost exponential pace: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen, until by the age of twenty they were practicing more than thirty hours every week. Ericsson and his colleagues attributed the violinists’ differences in ability to time spent on “deliberate practice” (DP), which they define in the study as activities that “maximize improvement throughout development toward expert performance.” Since the phrase’s coinage, Ericsson has staunchly defended the merits of deliberate practice, arguing that DP alone is sufficient to explain who becomes an expert musician and who remains in the crowd.

Ericsson’s claims sparked a firestorm of sorts in the psychological community, with a flurry of studies conducted and articles published to assess the validity of deliberate practice theory. The results have been varied, to say the least. Most recently, and perhaps most decisively, Princeton psychologist Brooke Macnamara published a study titled “Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education and Professions: A Meta-Analysis” in 2014. After compiling data from eighty-eight studies involving over eleven thousand participants total, Macnamara and her colleagues found that only about 21% of the variation in music performance can be explained by deliberate practice. They claim, “There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important, from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective. It is just less important than has been argued” (Princeton University). This stance is in direct opposition to Ericsson’s view that deliberate practice is the sole factor in determining success. Macnamara and her colleagues speculate that cognitive abilities such as IQ and working memory may play an influential role in performance, as well as the age at which a person becomes involved in an activity. With this debate of nature versus nurture in mind, two questions arise. First, the obvious – who’s right (i.e., how much does deliberate practice factor into success)? Secondly and more importantly, when considering Ericsson and Macnamara’s work, how can there be so much disparity?

To answer, we must delve further into what it means to practice deliberately. In a direct response to Macnamara and her colleagues’ research, Ericsson pushes back on their inclusion of multiple studies that failed to even mention the phrase “deliberate practice,” claiming that most of the studies they addressed actually violated the criteria for deliberate practice (“Summing Up Hours” 351). So what does deliberate practice mean in Ericsson’s own words? He defines it as “practice with effective training tasks with clear performance goals directed to mastery in a domain” (“Challenges for the Estimation” 2). Ericsson makes a clear distinction between deliberate practice and “play,” in which a skill is rehearsed at a less rigorous level for the purposes of enjoyment. Also noted is the distinction between deliberate practice and “work,” where performance rewards (such as financial compensation) are typically external and improvement goals are less emphasized. He emphasizes that, while deliberate practice is repetitive in nature, it is not the same as “rote repetition,” with the implication being that deliberate practice requires deliberate attention and focus to maximize effectiveness. Ericsson’s rebuttal to Macnamara’s findings has only further complicated the question of how performance psychologists should go about their research. Will a scientific consensus on terms like “expert” ever be reached in the way it has been for the term “atom” in physics, for example? Although Ericsson and others have come up with concrete definitions of key words and phrases in performance psychology, these definitions are useless unless agreed upon, adopted, and correctly employed in studies in the different fields. This, as of now, does not seem to be the case for “deliberate practice.”

A second problematic complexity to keep in mind is the vast number of confounding factors that can decide success and failure. Surely no one would readily admit that success, especially in a field as fickle as music performance, depends solely on something like socioeconomic class, education level, IQ, or ethnic background – and yet, these factors all play a role – big or small – in separating the good from the great. The trouble with performance psychology is just how many of these factors there are, and how difficult it becomes to comb through the weeds of confounding factors to find meaningful trends. We’ve all heard the story of the starving artist turned millionaire, or the walk-on athlete turned all-time great, but how can these one-in-a-million success stories be accounted for in scientific, statistic-based studies?

This confusion led to science writer Scott Barry Kaufman’s 2014 article, “Talent vs. Practice: Why Are We Still Debating This?”. Kaufman cites both Ericsson and Macnamara’s work, discussing the complex interactions between nature and nurture that make up levels of success in a given field. Kaufman argues that both sides can be right, concluding:

“There are so many ways people differ from each other, and there are various stages on the road to excellence when these differences matter. While Ericsson is correct that individual differences at any single moment of time don’t necessarily constrain ultimate levels of performance (as he frequently points out in his articles), individual differences may still influence the development of expertise.”

In other words, there is no concrete evidence of deliberate practice alone leading to success, but there is also no evidence of which external factors decide success, whether they are innate (working memory, cognitive ability) or not (education level, economic class).

Kaufman also brings up an overlooked area of performance psychology in need of exploration: inspiration. He claims, “When people become inspired, they usually are inspired to realize some future image of themselves. It is the clarity of this vision, and the belief that the vision is attainable, that can propel a person from apathy to engagement, and sustain the energy to engage in deliberate practice over the long haul, despite obstacles and setbacks.” It is this crucial factor of motivation that so many successful people cite as the cause of their achievement. How can such a seemingly integral element of success go without analysis from the scientific community for so long? To me, the answer is obvious: there’s just no way to quantify motivation – just as there’s no way to quantify human emotions, breaking them down into a digestible scientific “formula” of sorts. To Kaufman’s point, if we agree that motivation is a key factor in determining success, and there is currently no way of scientifically measuring motivation, plus other external factors are still decidedly up in the air, then…what are we still arguing about?

The inconclusiveness of the deliberate practice debate has even been admitted by researchers themselves. In recent years, even Ericsson has admitted, “We can at most realize a significant correlation between our measures of training history and final adult performance” (“Training History” 534). This is a backhanded way of conceding the point that success cannot yet be 100% attributed to deliberate practice theory. Conversely, Macnamara and others do not discredit the merits of deliberate practice, but there is still much disagreement about which external factors most accurately predict success. Shifting away from the scientific conversation, I must now ask: given the multifaceted solutions to this complex “expert” question, and no clear winner at hand, can we as individuals, as humans who strive to improve and achieve, synthesize this information into a cohesive plan of action for attaining success?

The answer to this question lies not in the arguable details, but in what all sides agree on: the value of deliberate practice as opposed to other forms of working on a skill. Just as Ericsson pointed out Macnamara’s misinterpretation of the term deliberate practice, we must once again distinguish between deliberate practice, work, and play, and just what makes the former so much more valuable than the latter two. In my mind, there are three key differentiating qualities of deliberate practice: repetition, difficulty, and mindfulness. First and most obviously, when one hears the word “deliberate”, “enjoyable” or “relaxing” are not likely synonyms that spring to mind. Deliberate means meticulous, repetitive, boring. It’s important to keep this in mind when one develops a practice regimen of their own – repetition, repetition, repetition. When a prospective writer asked author Stephen King about his success, King attributed his ability simply to reading a lot and writing a lot.

Additionally, the practice at hand must be appropriate in difficulty. Simple repetition of a mundane nursery rhyme can lead to improvement, but gains will be marginalized – and eventually plateau. Constant challenge will lead to constant improvement – not in small increments, but in leaps and bounds. While this seems obvious, some shy away from challenge due to frustration or a fear of failure, instead relegating themselves to the stagnant confines of the “comfort zone.” Here, I could insert any number of inspirational quotes about perseverance in the face of failure, but this point has been well illustrated by others and needs no further exploration.

Finally, and most subtly, one must be mindful and attentive in practice for maximum results. While the more disciplined of us may find it easy to follow a practice routine full of repetition and challenge, those same people may find it all the more difficult to be fully aware of their practice from moment to moment. This element of attentiveness is often overlooked but remains a crucial element of practice and development. After all, practicing any skill is about the ability of the mind to assimilate information for later use. How is this possible if, during practice, one’s mind is on the day’s dinner plans instead of the task at hand? A famous Zen proverb tells us, “The perfect wall is built not by laying ten thousand bricks, but by laying one brick ten thousand times.” Mindfulness is the third and most-overlooked key to deliberate practice – and success.

The debate of nature versus nurture in music performance is complicated, with no clear solution in sight. With so many different perspectives, and no clear winner (even with the advent of modern performance psychology), we as individuals must learn to use what we can from the debate – that is, the points of the issue that are undisputed; most significantly, the effectiveness of deliberate practice. This practice has three elements – repetition, difficulty, and mindfulness – that allow for rapid growth and improvement in a skill like music performance. We all want to get better at something – why waste time squabbling over the details when we could be using the science at hand to keep improving?



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Ryan Wilcox

Ryan Wilcox is a sophomore journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. Ryan is interested in the intersection of sports and pop culture, and wants to write about sports or the arts professionally. You can find him at his blog at

Ryan Wilcox

Ryan Wilcox is a sophomore journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. Ryan is interested in the intersection of sports and pop culture, and wants to write about sports or the arts professionally. You can find him at his blog at