Revisiting Deliberate Practice

Last Tuesday I wrote a post on some recent research about the value of deliberate practice. Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to read a little more on the recent study. Come to find out, this recent bit of research (Macnamara & Maitra) was an attempt to replicate the a study about deliberate practice conducted in Germany in 1993 (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer). I mention this because some of the posts I made about deliberate practice in the past was based on Ericsson, et. al research.

Macnamara & Maitra were unable to replicate all the results of Ericsson study, finding that deliberate practice only accounted for a 26% variance in the difference in ability between violinists versus the 48% difference reported in 1993. They say:

26% of performance variance is not an inconsequential amount. However, this amount does not support the claim that performance levels can ‘largely be accounted for by differential amounts of past and current levels of practice’

The most recent research attributes this to bias built into the design of the 1993 research as well as inconsistent definitions of deliberate practice. As a result, in their conclusion they say deliberate practice alone can’t account for the differences of expertise between elite performers .

However, they do suggest that the training regimen of violinists today might also be a factor in the smaller variance. In the 1993 group, many had never entered a competition. The best violinists had entered about 3 competitions; good ones about 1; and less accomplished around 0.

Compare to those in the most recent study where the best entered about 13; good around 8-9; and least accomplished about 3.  The worst in the most current study might be evaluated higher than some of those in the 1993 study.

As I was looking through my blog feed over the weekend, it just so happened that Marginal Revolution linked to a post on Cal Newport’s blog where he reprints a letter from a pianist responding to an earlier post Newport made about deliberate practice.

One of the things the pianist discusses is the value of variety in pursuit of mastery:

Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
“Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”

In the post the pianist was responding to, Newport wrote:

To summarize these results:

  • The average players are working just as many hours as the elite players (around 50 hours a week spent on music),
  • but they’re not dedicating these hours to the right type of work (spending almost 3 times less hours than the elites on crucial deliberate practice),
  • and furthermore, they spread this work haphazardly throughout the day. So even though they’re not doing more work than the elite players, they end up sleeping less and feeling more stressed. Not to mention that they remain worse at the violin.

Both these posts were made in 2011 and Newport was citing the 1993 Ericsson, et. al study. However, the most recent study by Macnamara & Maitra found something very similar.

…we found no statistically significant differences in accumulated practice alone to age 18 between the best and good violinists. In fact, the majority of the best violinists had accumulated less practice alone than the average amount of the good violinists.

I should note that the research tracks practice from age 4 to 20 so the subjects are all students whose level of proficiency is determined around 18-20 years old. My read of Macnamara & Maitra is that they see this as evidence of inherent talent making up for less practice rather than the quality of that lesser amount of practice was much higher.

If you are thinking that perhaps those evaluated as having more skill had better teachers, the most recent research found:

Simply put, there is no evidence to suggest that teacher-designed practice activities are more relevant to improving performance than practice activities designed by the performer.

Granted, this doesn’t diminish the value of a better teacher. Presumably any self-designed routine of an 18 year old is going to be heavily informed by their teacher even if they are aren’t strictly following a dictated practice regimen. You may chalk it up to talent, either on the part of the performer or teacher, being able to identify and implement what is needed to obtain greater proficiency makes the difference between quantity and quality.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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