Cognitive psychologists have found that one process in human learning is automatizing: complex tasks, when practiced or rehearsed enough, become automatic, so they can be performed using little or none of a very scarce resource: conscious attention. Anyone who drives a car is familiar with discovering one has been daydreaming and not consciously paying attention, yet drove for some time without mishap. (The “Stroop effect” is an early and well-tested example of automatizing, from Stroop, John Ridley (1935). “Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions“. Journal of Experimental Psychology 18: 643-662.
Another interesting finding from cognitive psychology, and of great relevance to musical performers, is that expertise seems to be largely acquired rather than innate, and is the result of “deliberate practice” (in large part due to the research of K. Anders Ericsson). One generalization is that achieving expertise requires “10,000 hours”. The main difference between experts and novices, it is claimed, is the amount of good (deliberate) practice.
David Brooks just wrote a New York Times column based on two recent books on these topics, and he draws out the following significant connection between deliberate practice and automatizing:
By practicing in this way, performers delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.
This strikes me as a valuable characterization that helps make the notion of “deliberate practice” more useful. It is not, for example, lots of unthinking repetitions. Those are specifically helping to automatize.
The books on which Brooks relies are recent summaries of the underlying research, written for a general, popular audience: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle; and Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.
[Added the next day] In August 2006 Scientific American published an article that summarizes research on developing human expertise. They offered another characterization of Ericsson’s findings on deliberate practice:
Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but “effortful study,” which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. Philip E. Ross, “The Expert Mind”, Scientific American, August 2006, available from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-expert-mind.
It is not just 10,000 hours of practice to become expert, but 10,000 meaningful hours.