How to Become an Expert Musician

freeimage-8865999-webI’ve devoted many years to helping people learn music faster and more reliably, and play music like experts. But what if it turns out that most of the advice I’m giving in this blog doesn’t really work? What if there isn’t really a faster way to become a top performer?

Some studies have suggested that the only way to become an expert is to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, preferably before the age of 20. (Ericsson et al. 1993, Sloboda et al. 1996, Gladwell 2008) But there’s good news: According to Chi, Glaser & Rees (1982), experts in any field aren’t just more experienced, they display qualitative differences in the way that they organize their experiences and knowledge.

This means that if we can learn how experts practice, and what mental frameworks top performers use to process information better and learn faster, then we can speed past the rest of the musicians who are just putting in their 10,000 practice-room hours.

Domain-Specific Memory Skills

According to Ericsson & Kintsch (1995), the average performer uses everyday concepts to encode their learning, making the information retrieval slow and unreliable. But the top performers develop domain-specific memory skills that they can use to pull information quickly and reliably from long-term memory.

Let me translate that into plain English. Experts in music have ways of quickly memorizing information that only works for music, but works really well at organizing this information for easy retrieval. The best musicians can quickly call up a detailed memory of any of the pieces of music that they know really well, and can use that information to help them learn new music, or make on-the-fly interpretations or adaptations of the music that they’re playing in a way that makes sense. Ericsson reports that with all of this information readily accessible during performance, a top performer can make better decisions, adapt quickly to changing conditions, and even anticipate future developments.

The same research has suggested that experts’ advanced schemata for rapid memory retrieval allows them to do real-time monitoring and assessment of their own performances (Ericsson 1996, Glaser 1996) and creative development of new rehearsal techniques to increase their knowledge.

Better Learning Techniques Are Equivalent to Musical Expertise

What can we conclude from this? First, the reality is that the more music you’ve learned, the more information you have from which to draw in performance. But more importantly, we can develop strategies for learning music more quickly, deeply, and reliably. Using these strategies can obliterate the 10,000 hours barrier. Why not try a more sophisticated approach to learning?

My e-book Performance-Ready Fast will help you develop a more sophisticated knowledge of the music that you are working on. Only PrF Newsletter subscribers will get early access to the book. Subscribe now so that you don’t miss this opportunity.

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Much of this psychological research on expert performance comes from Lehmann, A. C., & Ericsson K. A. (1999). “Research on expert performance and deliberate practice: Some implications for the education of amateur musicians and music students.” Psychomusicology, 16, 40-58.

See also Zach Hambrick’s 2014 article in the Psychology Today Blog:

Other sources referenced here:

Chi, M. T. H., R. Glaser, and E. Rees, 1982, “Expertise in problem solving.” In Advances in the Psychology of Human Intelligence, R. S. Sternberg, ed. Hillsdale , NJ Erlbaum, Vol. 1, pp. 1-75.

Ericsson, K. A., 1996, “The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues.” In The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games, K. A. Ericsson, ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 1-50.

Ericsson, K. A., and W. Kintsch, 1995, “Long-term working memory.” Psychological Review, 102: 211-245.

Ericsson, K. A., R. Th. Krampe, and C. Tesch-Römer, 1993, “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.” Psychological Review, 100: 363-406.

Gladwell, Malcolm, 2008. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Glaser, R., 1996, “Changing the agency for learning: Acquiring expert performance.” In The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games, K. A. Ericsson, ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 303-311.

Sloboda, J. A., J. W. Davidson, M. J. A. Howe, and D. G. Moore, 1996, “The role of practice in the development of performing musicians.” British Journal of Psychology, 87: 287-309.

Robert Kelley

About Robert Kelley

Robert Kelley is a music theorist, composer, pianist, harpsichordist, and Associate Professor of Music at Lander University, in Greenwood, South Carolina.
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