An Artist’s Guide: How to Practise for Improvement

I was a lucky kid. I lived a middle class life and had the privilege of doing lots of after school classes. We were one of those families that lived in our minivan after school going from lesson to lesson, eating quick dinners in the car in between. Piano lessons, ballet, violin and art classes were in my roladex of evolving skill sets, and I quickly learned that meeting expectations in any of those things required nothing but hard work and commitment.

My parents had high expectations. I was lucky enough to have some natural talent in art and music, so expectations from my teachers was also demanding. When you grow up as a ‘talent’ in any area, you are spoilt being the best. In my primary and secondary school years, I regularly graced the pages of the newspaper for various accomplishments. I was performing on stage regularly in large professional ballet productions. I quickly learned that I had to live up to high standards, and the only way to be great at everything? Learning how to practise.

Why do some people seem to achieve a great level at something, and others improve marginally but never truly master what they do? I believe it’s the right combination of qualities, the right approach, and talent that enables a person to exceed expectations. And deliberate practise is a big piece of that puzzle.

K. Anders Ericsson has spent 30 years studying people who are exceptional at what they do, trying to figure out how they got to be so good. His conclusion: in most cases, talent doesn’t matter—practice does. Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State and author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, believes that anyone can get good at anything if they engage in “deliberate practice,” a very specific kind of training that involves well-defined, specific goals and targeted areas of expertise.

Although reading this blog post won’t give you the talent you wish you were born with, the hope is that you will uncover a new approach that allows you to improve the quality of your work more efficiently. No-one is born with an innate ability to do anything at an expert level, in any discipline. All exceptional artists, regardless of field, have had to push themselves through a very intense practice regime to get to where they are. They have learned how to be brilliant.

Now there are lots of recipes and definitions for deliberate practise out there, and I am not necessarily a believer that there is a one-size-fits-all definition. It’s about finding what things you need to improve on, and working on them in a way that benefits you most greatly is dependent on your strengths, weaknesses and personality.

IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF DELIBERATE PRACTISE

OBSERVATION

One of the most important things you can do as a student of your craft is observe others who do it well. And I don’t mean go to the gallery and stare at their work or cruise instagram for inspiration. I mean actually take a workshop with someone who’s work you admire. Look at videos of how they work on YouTube. You need to see them in action! Seeing how they got the result you want step-by-step is immeasurably valuable as an artist. Put those visual skills to work!

FLEXIBILITY

It’s so easy to get stuck in repetition. But repeating the same thing over and over again without making any changes is like hitting your head against a wall. Be willing to try new or different methods. It is essential for growth, and one of the ways that you can push yourself out of your comfort zone (an important part of deliberate practise!).

REST

Getting stuck into a strict practise regime is good in theory: establishing good routines will keep your eye on the ball. But what do you do when you hit a point of frustration? It’s time for a break.

Taking a break (even a few days at a time) is excellent for letting your brain work through what you’ve been working on. Often, I find when I go back to my desk after a day or two off, I see an improvement! But only after walking away for a bit. Pounding on something over and over again, even if you’re making small changes to your approach, is not always the best method. Be flexible and let yourself take a day, particularly if you have been unhappy with your work.

SELF-ASSESSMENT

So often, people complete a practise session unhappy with the result of their efforts. They feel frustrated and don’t understand why they’re not getting the result they want. This is where your approach is important. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

During practise, each and every action should be well thought out. If something has worked well in previous sessions, continue to use that method. But before repeating something that wasn’t working, STOP, THINK and TRY something different.

DRIVE

Having passion as an artist is one of the greatest motivators. Artists certainly don’t do it to put money in their pockets, but because it’s a form of self-expression and how they prefer to communicate with the world.

Deliberate practise requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Having the motivation to go directly to the part that’s challenging to you and work toward improvement takes drive. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move.

FEEDBACK

Anyone who has mastered the art of deliberate practise has developed methods for receiving continual feedback on their performance. One form of feedback is using measurement for self-assessment. The other is coaching. Workshops are a great space to not only learn, but to get small tips for improvement, assistance tracking your progress and accountability to deliver your best efforts.

THE VALUE OF DELIBERATE PRACTISE

The science of expertise is not the effect of logging thousands of hours, but how to embrace the importance and challenge of effective practice. This is one of those essential skills that can be applied to everything in life; a gift that keeps on giving. You cannot just rely on talent to become extraordinary in your craft. If you can maintain your focus and commitment during practise sessions, then deliberate practise will make the most of what you’ve got.

Betsy Weir