Does practice make perfect? On music and mental health

Apr 27, 2018

This is terrible. The fiddle bow hits my shoulder, and the fiddle player next to me shoots me a critical glance. My flute is out of tune again. As I continue to play, I’m now out of sync with him, and he looks angry. I’m behind the beat – or am I? How is it that I hear him play a note first, and then I play the same note after? Is there a pause there or are we hitting the notes at the same time? I can’t even tell anymore. My thoughts are swirling. He must think I’m crap. Why is this so hard? Everyone must be able to tell that I’m the weak player here. I’m wrecking the music. My fingers on the flute feel like lead.  When will this get easier? I’ll never be as good as everyone else

Welcome to the headspace of a musician (well, me). It’s really hard to enter this space of self-doubt and uncertainty, over and over – on purpose – in order to get better at something. And yet, that’s exactly what some researchers believe is necessary to become an expert. You need to practice and pay purposeful attention to how it’s going – noticing all the wrong notes, the finger fumbling, the way others react to the music. But how much time should you spend practicing, in this dark little room in your head? Ten thousand hours, according to some. Yikes.

Here’s the thing: I love music –playing it, hearing it, sharing it with friends. I love that it is something fleeting and beautiful in which I can participate; I love that it connects me with people who I love. I love that it connects me to a history that I have with friends, within this body of music. The music is almost never perfect. However, quite often, when we are lucky, those little pockets of imperfection and rough edges are filled with spirit, and joy, and groove. These are the anchors that hold me in the practice of music, even when my mind is having a field day about my imperfections as a musician.

Some social scientists believe that becoming an “expert” at something is dependent on whether you have a trait for innate talent in a particular domain (Sternberg, 1996). A trait is a calcified pattern of behavior that endures across time, people, and situations, and is very difficult to change. It’s also what we in the field call a construct, or a made-up thing that we can’t ever really measure, only point at. 

Is describing someone’s behavior as a trait useful? In my mind, it’s more helpful to think of behavior as an action or set of actions that one takes, in a given context. If I thought being a good musician was contingent on having talent, I’d probably never play another note. So I choose to believe that if I work hard at it, over time, I’ll get better. 
 

But what if we approached psychological well-being as something that we can work towards, one small act at a time, over a period of time, across different situations, with different people? What if we practiced well-being?

Sometimes we think of psychological difficulties like anxiety, or depression, or anger, more like traits, or something inside us – and that living well means getting rid of this flawed broken piece of us. But what if we approached psychological well-being as something that we can work towards, one small act at a time, over a period of time, across different situations, with different people? What if we practiced well-being?

Psychological Well-Being as Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice describes an action, or rather, a quality of action: repetition of an act until it works the way you intend it to. It involves willingness to fail – over and over again – until one day you succeed. It involves persistence and the capacity to wait and see if your work will come to fruition. It involves patience and gentleness with yourself, even when there are harsh critics about. 

Deliberately practicing music has taught me a great deal about mental health. For example, we might try an exercise or technique our therapists teach us once or twice, then come back and note, it doesn’t work. But, like learning music, like becoming skilled in anything, it takes time. It requires, as Tara Brach has said, learning to stay. What she meant was learning to stay in the present moment – taking that moment in, whether or not it is easy, or it feels good, or it feels bad. It means paying attention to what is happening right now, in this moment, and taking the feedback the world is giving you. It means, as Mary Oliver so beautifully said at age 80, listening to the world, and letting in whatever the world offers up.

Deliberate practice teaches us that paying mindful attention is important. Listen to the difference between a beginner musician and an “expert” – it’s not just technical ability, but it’s something my friend, musician and teacher Mary MacNamara calls flow – it’s an effortlessness, a connectedness with the music, and with other musicians. I believe that flow comes from the deliberate, long-term practice of learning to stay in difficult moments. We can reach this kind of flow in our psychological well-being as well.

Stepping Back from the Critical Voice

We’re so hard on ourselves when we don’t meet our own expectations, let alone the expectations of others. I was working with a young perfectionist some time ago and asked her if she really needed the critical voice in her head in order to succeed. Yes, she nodded vehemently. But I’m not sure we do. I think that’s a story we tell ourselves to avoid falling short. If we step back and pay purposeful attention to our thoughts, we separate ourselves from those thoughts. 

Instead of identifying ourselves with our thoughts, we become instead the thinker – the one who is doing the thinking and therefore more than the sum total of our thoughts. This is not unlike the way a piece of music, played with passion, and connection, and flow, is so much more than simply the notes on the page. Practicing that act of stepping back from our critic, practicing kindness while we stay in difficult moments, letting go of our perceived control and simply letting the moment – or the music – wash over us – this is how we learn to listen to the world. One imperfect moment at a time, on purpose.

 

REFERENCES
Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

MacNamara, B. N., Hambrick, D. Z., & Oswald, F. L. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: a meta-analysis, Psychological Science, 25(8), 1608-1618.

Sternberg, R. J. (1996). The costs of expertise. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The road to excellence: The acquisition of expert performance in the arts and sciences, sports, and games. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 347–354.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa W. Coyne, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, a Research Associate Professor at Suffolk University, and a clinical psychologist who researches, delivers, and trains acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and other evidence-based mindfulness interventions with young people struggling with OCD. She is the founder of the McLean OCD Institute for Children and Adolescents (OCDI Jr.).