Building effective practice habits

You’ve read all about deliberate practice, interleaved practice, and spaced repetition. You look at the notes you took at your last lesson about how and what to practice, and you sit down to play. Thirty minutes later, you realize that you forgot to take all this advice!

Or maybe you’re learning without a teacher, and there’s no one to give you regular feedback at all. You feel like you’re improving, but it’s hard to hear yourself objectively. (Record yourself sometime—you’ll be shocked.) You’re never quite sure what to practice or what to change in your playing in order to get the sound you want.

Or perhaps you can’t find the time to practice, and when you do have time, you find yourself unmotivated.

These are the problems of self-regulated learning. When you have daily classes and homework, you can sometimes get by without solving them—if you attend class and do what’s required of you, you’ll probably learn something. But when it comes to practicing a musical instrument, you need to become an active participant in the learning process. And sooner or later you’ll need the skill of directing that process yourself.

(This skill isn’t limited to the domain of musical practice, either! Once you get the hang of it, it’ll be useful any time you want to independently master a new skill or subject. If you just want the advice, scroll to the bottom.)

The components of self-regulated learning

From “A review of research on practicing: summary and synthesis of the extant research with implications for a new theoretical orientation” by Peter Miksza (2011):

How Is Self-Regulated Learning Relevant to Practicing?

Research regarding self-regulation theory has recently become prominent in the practice literature. McPherson and Zimmerman (2002) have described how self-regulation, with its roots in Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, is relevant to understanding how musicians develop as effective practicers. They describe the salient dimensions of self-regulated practicing as

(a) motive (e.g., work through distractions, parental influence, self-motivation),

(b) method (e.g., task-oriented strategies, mental strategies, self-instruction),

(c) time management (e.g., planning, management, concentrate focus on tasks),

(d) behavior (e.g., metacognition, self-evaluation/monitoring),

(e) environment (e.g., physical structure),

and (f) social factors (e.g., parental involvement, siblings, peers, help-seeking).

Part of mastering your instrument is mastering these components of self-regulation, and many studies have detailed how novice players and experts differ along these axes:

The aforementioned longitudinal study reported by McPherson and colleagues has indicated that beginner instrumentalists are not likely to be self-regulated in their practice. Results suggest… that even after 3 years of study beginners will tend to play straight through materials while leaving errors uncorrected (McPherson & Renwick, 2001) or altogether avoid material that may require applying self-regulated behavior to improve (Renwick & McPherson, 2002), that students may spend much time practicing while distracted (e.g., shuffling papers, talking, fiddling) (McPherson & Renwick, 2001), and that even if highly motivated students can demonstrate self-awareness they still may not have strategies available or be able to draw upon strategies that help them improve (Pitts et al., 2001a, 2001b). In contrast, Austin and Berg (2006) found intermediate instrumentalists’ reports of “what others would see” if they looked in on their practice and how they would practice a difficult piece of music included self-regulatory-like dispositions such as help seeking, strategic repetition, and slowing.

Relationships have been detected between musicians’ abilities to self-regulate their practice and several variables pertinent to music learning. For example, relationships between practice strategy use and performance achievement suggest that as students gain competence, they also become more able to self-regulate their practice (e.g., organize sessions, scan music for problems, use mental strategies) (McPherson, 2005). Similar results were reported by McPherson and McCormick (2000) who found self-reported self-regulation to be a significant predictor of performance achievement. When comparing the practicing of professionals and novices, Hallam (2001a) found that professionals were more likely to report metacognitive thinking, analysis of musical problems, sophisticated strategy use, organization of practice, and an ability to concentrate.

Several studies have explored links between self-regulatory practicing and self-efficacy or self-evaluations of practicing. McCormick and McPherson (2003) and McPherson and McCormick (2006) found that reports of self-regulation were positively related to cognitive strategy use and self-efficacy. A study by Nielsen (2004) with collegiate musicians found that participants with higher self-efficacy beliefs were more likely to report using cognitive, metacognitive, and resource strategies when practicing. Finally, Miksza (2006b) found positive relationships between participants’ self-evaluations of practice efficiency and reports of concentration and metacognitive-reflective strategies.

These are all important components, but for now I’ll focus on “(d) behavior (e.g., metacognition, self-evaluation/monitoring).” Think of it this way. You’ve figured out your method—(b)—with the help of your teacher’s instructions and my articles on effective practice. But how do you make sure you actually put that into practice? How do you know how you’re doing? You need to monitor and evaluate your own practice and make adjustments accordingly.

This is harder than it sounds—many people think they’re implementing a practice strategy when they’re not. Consider “Perceived Versus Actual Practice Strategy Usage by Older Adult Novice Piano Students”, which reports that the more often the study’s subjects believed they used the strategy of repeating difficult passages, the less they actually did that! (Of course, take this with a grain of salt—while this is consistent with other studies, there were only 8 participants in this one.)

So most people aren’t automatically aware of how they’re practicing, let alone in control of it, but it’s a learnable skill. Eventually it will become mostly automatic if you practice it deliberately. So how do you improve your metacognition?

Learning metacognition

For this part, I’ll draw on How Learning Works, a book about learning that I’ve mentioned elsewhere:

In How Learning Works (2010) the educators and researchers Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman summarize the state of scientific knowledge on teaching and learning. This isn’t a book about “cutting-edge” experimental results yet to be truly put to work in classrooms—the authors talk about some of the most robust results in psychology, time-tested and persistent across domains.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the authors devote a chapter to asking and answering the question “how do students become self-directed learners?” Quoting from a summary:


  • One model represents metacognition as a continuously looping cycle of task assessment, evaluation of strengths and weaknesses, planning, execution and simultaneous monitoring, and reflection; all of these five steps are informed by a student’s beliefs about intelligence and learning.
  • Assessing the task is not always natural or obvious to students (essay prompts are often ignored; learning goals are not always clear).
  • People are poor judges of their own knowledge and skills, tending to overestimate their abilities more the weaker they are.
  • Novices spend little time in the planning phase of the cycle relative to experts in physics, math, and writing. Novice plans are often poorly matched to the task.
  • Students who naturally and continuously monitor their performance and understanding learn better.
  • Students can be taught to self-monitor, and this also improves learning.
  • Monitoring alone is not sufficient; novice problem solvers will continue to use a strategy after it has failed (and certainly after it has proven modestly successful and familiar but not optimal).
  • Students who believe their intelligence is malleable rather than fixed are more likely to learn and perform well.
  • Moreover, the “malleable” perspective can be promoted by external influences, still leading to better performance.


  • Promote task assessment:
    • Be more explicit about assignments than you think is necessary
    • Tell students what you do not want
    • Check students’ understanding of the task in their own words
    • Provide a rubric
  • Promote self-evaluation:
    • Give timely feedback
    • Provide opportunities for self-assessment.
  • Promote planning:
    • Have students implement a plan you provide
    • Have students implement their own plan
    • Make planning the central goal of the assignment.
  • Promote self-monitoring:
    • Provide simple heuristic questions for self-evaluation
    • Have students do guided self-assessments
    • Require students to reflect on and annotate their own work
    • Use peer review
  • Promote reflection and adjustment:
    • Prompt students to reflect on their performance
    • Prompt students to analyze effectiveness of study skills
    • Present multiple strategies
    • Create assignments that focus on strategizing
  • Promote useful beliefs about intelligence and learning:
    • Address these beliefs directly
    • Broaden students’ understanding of learning
    • Help students set realistic expectations
  • Promote metacognition:
    • Model your metacognitive process for your students
    • Scaffold students in their metacognitive processes

Most of this is addressed to teachers, but a self-learner can take advantage of these strategies as well. Still, there’s a lot to think about here. What are a few concrete things you can do right now, on your own, to start building these skills?

1. Set explicit, specific goals. If you don’t know what you’re trying to do, how can you know when you’ve done it? Set aside time at least once a week, and maybe even throughout your practice session, to decide what you want to accomplish for exercises, pieces, passages, and especially for practice methods themselves. Write these goals down. With just ten minutes a week you can greatly magnify your effectiveness.

2. Evaluate yourself against those goals regularly. While practicing, listen to yourself. Take your hands off the piano and think about what you just heard. How does it compare to your goals, or to your ideal interpretation? When possible, get feedback from an audience. (In fact, you can email me a recording, and I’ll give you my honest opinion: Similarly, grade yourself on your practice methods themselves.

3. Scaffold your metacognitive processes. Use tools and systems that guide you into thinking about your own practice. That’s one reason it’s helpful to write down your goals: you can use that as a checklist. This is also one aspect of what the Piano Practice Assistant app is designed to do: every few minutes, you’re forced to evaluate your improvement on a passage (relative to your goal) before you move on to the next passage.

4. Scaffold your practice habits. Have a helper point out when you’re just coasting through a piece, or encourage you to deliberately focus on difficult parts. More simply, use a short, repeating timer (or an app!) that helps you do that while interleaving your practice. This not only makes it easier to engage in effective practice itself, but also forces you to consciously reflect on your practice methods, building the more general habit of self-monitoring.

I’m excited to hear how these ideas work for you!