In his book Peak, Karl Anders Ericsson talks about the principle of deliberate practice.
"Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance."
The greatest challenge of deliberate practice is to remain focused. In the beginning, showing up and putting in the hours is the most important thing. But after a while we begin to carelessly overlook small errors and miss daily opportunities for improvement.
This is because the natural tendency of the human brain is to transform repeated behaviors into automatic habits. For example, when you first learned to tie your shoes you had to think carefully about each step of the process. Today, after many repetitions, your brain can perform this sequence automatically. The more we repeat a task the more mindless it becomes.
Mindless activity is the enemy of deliberate practice. The danger of practicing the same thing again and again is that progress becomes assumed. Too often, we assume we are getting better simply because we are gaining experience. In reality, we are merely reinforcing our current habits—not improving them. (James Clear, 2018)
So, with that in mind, how can we apply this method of deliberate practice to our piano schedule?
Many great musicians recommend repeating the most challenging sections of a song until you master them. Virtuoso violinist Nathan Milstein says, “Practice as much as you feel you can accomplish with concentration. Once when I became concerned because others around me practiced all day long, I asked [my professor] how many hours I should practice, and he said, ‘It really doesn’t matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.’"
Start with a clear goal
Know exactly what it is that you want to accomplish. This has to be a specific, measurable goal. As mentioned above “getting better at playing the piano” is way too broad. Something like "I want to learn the moonlight sonata until december 21st."
Split that specific goal into various sub-skills
When you know exactly what it is you want to achieve, think about the most important sub-skills inherent in that overarching skill that you should master first. For example: you want to get better at improvising but you're not secure enough in picking the right tones. Try spending some time studying the different scales and modes. Or maybe you want to play faster licks and your fingers aren't fast enough. Try practicing playing octaves up and down with both hands using a metronome and slowly increase the tempo over time. You could even combine the two exercises.
Keep track of your progress
If you’re a musician, record yourself playing each week. You should also create a list of all the sub-skills that you need to master to accomplish your goal, along with a self-imposed deadline. Use a list to track how close you are to mastering each of these sub-skills. Seeing your progress will help to keep your motivation strong.
After you’ve finished your period of practice, it’s time for some self-care. Avoid straining yourself mentally for a few hours. Reward yourself. Play a computer game, watch a film, go for a walk. Do something that doesn’t require too much mental focus.
So if you’re looking to improve your skill level in a particular subject, area or field, deliberate practice might just be the way to go. It’s certainly not easy (what is?) but there’s no denying that it produces results. Results that’re usually better than blind repetition. (Rob Nightingale, 2014)
Committing yourself to practice and giving it your all, pushing your boundaries, and extending your comfort zone, is what will dramatically help you to get where you want to be.