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Practice 101

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

I began my formal voice practice when I was ten years old, encouraged by my knack for harmony (and lack of athletic ability). Studying music shaped my sense of self throughout my adolescence and became one in a handful of guiding stars. Among other things, music gave me an avenue to learn discipline, self-compassion, creative expression, and interpersonal communication.

Almost ten years later, I began practicing yoga, and once again my sense of self grew dramatically. I found that I was using the same practice essentials, like discipline and creativity, that I'd learned in music, but in yoga, I could do it through a somatic lens. Because my music practice had been so cerebral, yoga gave me an avenue to understanding things that I couldn't learn from music. In turn, my music practice was strengthened, because I had a new, somatic understanding of my voice.

Several smaller practices have found their way into my life-- reading, cooking, evening walks. They are all exquisitely interwoven, informing each other and creating a more colorful human experience. The backdrop to it all is a spiritual practice that has evolved many times, encompassing the knowledge from my various practices and connecting it all to the bigger picture. For me, practice is an intrinsic part of my experience, the lens through which I understand the world.

About a year ago, when my yoga practice became more rigorous, I started seeing the links between my various practices. I began to understand practice as a tool. When approached deliberately, it can enhance performance, help us understand ourselves and the world around us, and improve our overall sense of wellness. I set out on a research project to understand everything I could about deliberate practice. And boy, did I stumble upon a rabbit hole.

So, let's hop in!

Practice is everything.

Anthropology and sociology often use practice as the primary object of study. I like this publisher's note concerning practice theory in Philosophy of Anthropology and Sociology (Rouse, 2007) :

"Applications of the practice idiom extend from the most mundane aspects of everyday life to highly structured activities in institutional settings... Practices range from ephemeral doings to stable long-term patterns of activity... The theoretical uses of the concept of practice... are as diverse as the kinds of examples employed. The diversity of work in social science, social theory, and philosophy that employs the practice idiom suggest that the term “practice” has no theoretical coherence."

In other words, practice is everything. It is what we are doing, whatever that thing might be, however we might be doing it. Simply by being alive, you have been practicing every day, even without realizing it.

Knowing this, the first step in identifying a practice is to recognize the ways in which you're already doing it. No matter who you are or where you come from, your existence as a human being ensures that you have some form of social practice, physical practice, spiritual practice, and so on. You almost certainly have a regular music practice, even if it's as simple as tuning in to the local radio station on your way to work.

Start to recognize what your practice looks like. Start to recognize the multidisciplinary nature of your combined practices. In what ways do they feed into each other? In what ways are they different? Do these practices accurately reflect the life you want to live? The better you understand your practice, the better you'll be able to maneuver it in favor of your goals.

Improvement is a result of deliberate practice.

For our purposes, we'll narrow down this incredibly broad definition. Practice researchers Bosler and Greene offer this definition:

Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement.

I use this definition to refer to deliberate practice. Take note of this definition-- the goal separates it from our initial, sociological understanding of practice. With the goal of improvement, our actions turn from unthinking tasks to something with meaning. For this reason, I prefer to think of deliberate practice predominantly as an exercise in mindfulness.

To expand on that, practice researcher Anders Ericsson (a big name in practice research) gives us some more detailed information on what deliberate practice looks like:

"Effective learning occurs when activities are well defined, are pitched at an appropriate level of difficulty, when useful feedback is presented, and the opportunity for repetition, error detection, and correction is provided. When these conditions are met, the term 'deliberate' is used to characterize practice." (Skill Acquisition in Sport, 232)

Additionally, I believe that deliberate practice engages mindfulness, a full-body awareness, a sense of space, and a sense of rhythm. Like Ericsson, I think that useful feedback is critical, and as such, I believe deep listening skills, mentorship, and peer study are also critical.

These defining characteristics of deliberate practice act as the pillars of my research, and understanding each will deepen your understanding of your practice and the role it plays in your life.

Expertise is a result of professional practice.

While any grade of deliberate practice leads to improvement, professional practice has some additional qualifiers. When a student practices with the goal of expertise, they are working not only to accomplish tasks but to intentionally integrate those tasks into a given skill set which they can confidently replicate and/or expand upon. Those who engage in professional practice generally study with the intention of expansion. Their practice is, to borrow Bosler and Greene's phrase, "consistent, intensely focused, and targets content or weaknesses that lie at the end of one's current abilities." This is the element of rigor, and it sets professional practice apart.

It's especially important to note that professional practice takes on many forms. You don't have to be on the Met stage to have had a strong professional practice, and your practice isn't a failure if your audition didn't lead to the part you wanted. Expertise in and of itself is actually quite difficult to define. For our purposes, we'll maintain that expertise is not intrinsically related to performance, can be gained in the form of expansive knowledge or very specialized knowledge, and is only loosely correlated to the amount of time or years that one has practiced. Please don't forget-- Marketable practice is just one form of professional practice, and amateurs can certainly achieve phenomenal levels of expertise.

Practice is a tool to help you understand the body you live in.

In this phenomenal Ted-Ed lesson, Bosler and Greene give an awesome rundown of what happens to your body during practice:

For musicians, this might be a new take on things. Dancers and athletes are trained to think of their practice as predominantly physical, while musicians generally practice in cerebral terms. Music practice is enhanced when we talk about concepts like muscle memory, alignment, and sensory experience. We can do this by supplementing our practice with aids like the Alexander Technique, the writings of Patsy Rodenburg, and adjacent dance classes.

Physical practice is our body's best teacher. Through physical practice we learn more about our own anatomy, the parts of our body that we cannot see and rarely think about until pain appears, demanding our attention.

By giving that attention in advance, we avoid unnecessary tension. We learn about the many, many, muscles that we use to breathe, and how different breath is useful in different situations (think: breathing in opera, breathing in running, breathing swimming). We learn to identify our center of gravity and manipulate it (you can actually observe this in a classic acting exercise: take note of what part of the body individuals "lead" with when they walk. In contemporary characters, it is often their forehead). Somewhat inexplicably (but oddly self-explanatorily), regular physical practice creates endless avenues for understanding ourselves.

Practice is a tool to help you understand and communicate with the world around you.

Anyone who has trained in a restaurant will remember a process of decoding kitchen terms. When we first start a serving practice, we feel lost when a more experienced restaurant worker throws around terms like 86, all day, or on the fly as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But with time, these terms become familiar to us, even if they feel a bit unnatural coming out of our mouths, and eventually, we're shouting heard over our shoulder, just like all of our coworkers.

Collaborative practices all have their own terminology. Opera lovers know and refer casually to pants roles and coloratura. Cashiers know that a banana is 4011. If you grew up Mormon, you know why you would ask your dance partner what color their toothbrush is, even though this would seem odd to someone outside of this context. I'd love to give examples of practices outside my own experience, but practice terminology is so specific that usually, we have to be on the inside to really know the terms. While we may share a collective language, practice gives us a contextual vocabulary to relate to others.

Through practice, we develop a vocabulary to better understand and describe the task at hand. Many practices require some degree of interpersonal communication and collaboration, so honoring and participating in the collective vocabulary of a social practice allows us to connect and engage with those around us.

Practice vocabulary is valuable beyond its power to connect. For example, I understand the importance of balancing light sounds and dark sounds because of my vocal practice, but I've been able to expand this concept to my general understanding of light and dark in the world as well. Practice assists in creating metaphors that allow us to more deeply understand our human experience.

Your practice belongs to you.

In the early stages of practice (music practice especially), students are bombarded with different ideas and methods with about what to do, how to do it, where to do it, and in what order to do it. To navigate all this, the student works with a mentor, usually the one that their parent's picked out, the one most accessible to them, or, in some lucky cases, the one that best fits their aesthetic.

I've already mentioned that I believe mentorship is absolutely essential to deliberate practice, but it's important to recognize the ways in which mentors inadvertently program students to predominantly focus on "getting it right."

The programming works like this. I ask my six-year-old piano student to repeat the rhythm that I knock on the piano, and if she does it correctly, I give her a sticker. Get it right, get a reward.

A few years later she's playing clarinet in the school band. If her allotted practice time doesn't revolve around her assigned repertoire, she won't get it right. If she doesn't get it right, she won't get an A+, or she won't get first chair. She's worried that if she doesn't get it right, she'll have fewer opportunities to make music. Meanwhile, She's trying to get it right in math and science and German, get it right in her volunteer position, get it right for potential colleges, get it right for her parents, get it right on her Instagram, get it right with the cute person that sits behind her in English.

And then she's a college music major. She has class during the day, rehearsal at night, and somewhere in between is trying to find time to shower and sleep. Her diet is 90% taco bell and her daytime clothes and pajamas have merged into one sweat-pants-heavy ensemble. Like many college students, she is anxious and depressed. She cries when things don't go well in the practice rooms and gets nervous before lessons. She's forgotten why she even started her music practice in the first place.

So take a breath, college students, and say it with me: I cannot do it all.

There isn't anything wrong with getting things right, mastering styles, or working within the boundaries of an established aesthetic. But we cannot get everything right. In the age of information, there is simply too much to learn. So why waste time practicing music in ways that feel disingenuous to the sort of musician want to be? For the sake of a grade, a professor's opinion, a perfect career? Why let yourself down before letting others down?

There a trillion ways to be a musician, and none are any more or less correct than the other. When possible, work with a number of mentors to discover what works for you and what doesn't. This will help you develop your aesthetic, which will act as the roadmap to your personal practice.

Young musicians spend all of their energy trying to get on the "right path." Something remarkable happens when we realize that someone else's path will lead to someone else's destination. If we're on the right path, we're forging it ourselves.

This last bit is especially important. So important, in fact, that I have included this statement about creative practice in my studio mission statement:

Often, what’s getting in the way of wonderful singing has nothing to do with bad technique or student laziness. Often, it comes from trying to conform to another’s aesthetic (often a teacher) and not having the critical listening skills to know exactly what role music plays in your life. When we’re taught that music practice is one thing, that there’s a right way to do it, we learn that music is a right for the hyper-disciplined, and it just isn’t for everyone. But this isn’t true. We all have a voice. Music belongs to everyone.

You have a style to offer that nobody else can recreate. Deliberate practice will give you the tools to create your masterpiece, without compromising your wellness or your sense of self. Your practice has impact. Learn to make the most of it.


Bosler, A., & Greene, D. (n.d.). How to practice effectively...for just about anything - Annie Bosler and Don Greene (909986403 716340022 M. Meštrović & 909986404 716340022 M. Nacamulli, Eds.). Retrieved August 28, 2020, from

Gobet, F., Ph.D, & Ereku, M. (2016, February 23). What Is Expertise? Retrieved September 01, 2020, from

Rouse, J. (2007). Practice Theory. In S. P. Turner & M. W. Risjord (Authors), Philosophy of anthropology and sociology (pp. 639-681). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory and Practice. (2004). (n.p): Taylor & Francis.

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