How do young music students acquire high levels of expertise in instrumental music?

How do young music students acquire high levels of expertise in instrumental music?

The expertise and deliberate practice paradigm (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993) proposes that the amount of deliberate practice one has completed will determine the level of success and quality of performance. The research of Ericsson and colleagues is supported, although explanations for the motivation to complete the 10,000 hours practice required to reach expert level, is not explained very well.

Deliberate Practice and Expertise

For instrumental expertise, 10,000 hours of deliberate practice may be required. What motivates an individual to do that much practice, particularly when practice can be a lonesome and perhaps unexciting aspect of learning to play a musical instrument, is an area which is under explored in the expertise paradigm. Hallam (2013) suggests in this research that the expertise paradigm only partly explains the progress to levels of expertise. Consideration of other motivational variables may uncover additional information regarding attainment of levels of expertise in young instrumental students.

Hallam (2013) conducted a study investigating the relationships between level of expertise obtained, quality of expertise, and future aspirations related to music. These research questions aimed to uncover how much practice was done to achieve expertise and if the amount and quality of practice was related to level of expertise. Further, the value of music to the individual, according to an expectancy-value framework, suggests that the individuals who did the most quality practice and attained an expert level of performance, did so because they had a high subjective task value of learning to play a musical instrument. Additionally, the high task value was either due to intrinsic or utility value perceptions. Utility value reflects the usefulness of a task to future objectives, such as career choice.

Young instrumental students and their teachers were surveyed for this study. The questionnaires were designed to assess students perceived beliefs, attitudes and practices regarding their instrumental tuition and practice regime.

Study Results

The length of time spent learning was found to be the strongest predictor of the level of expertise obtained. Weekly practice made an important contribution to this overall finding. Attitude and value were found to have a negative weighting with expertise level, graded examinations and future career prospects. This finding increased with age. However, value and attitude enjoyed positive though non-significant results when assessed against factors of related to enjoyment.

Overall, enjoyment of musical activities rated highly, though it was non-significant when measured against age. Hallam suggests that there are different attitudes formed for playing an instrument in comparison to the enjoyment of other music-related activities. From an expectancy-value framework, there is a change in the perceived value of music between these two contexts. Music for exams and wanting to become musicians, suggests a high utility value which led to different practice strategies to those of music for subjective interest values (low utility value but high subjective task value).

Enjoyment was found to be a strong aspect in music related activities. Hallam explains this in relation to prior research which suggests that family support is part of the drive to expertise attainment. Hallam’s idea is that it is the learner’s interest and enjoyment of the activity which spurs families into providing support and encouragement. In this case, interest in music reinforces motivation and is a research area to be explored further in motivation for instrumental music learners.

Many children begin learning a musical instrument but do not sustain their commitment which indicates there are some individual differences concerning motivation. The results in this study suggest interest may be one of them. Overall, the study revealed that instrumental music learners are often haphazard in their learning strategies. This means they are less strategic, focused, or deliberate in their practice time. There is a place for teachers to develop these practice strategies to provide learners with the skills to make their practice time more effective.


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

Hallam, S. (2013). What predicts level of expertise attained, quality of performance, and future musical aspirations in young instrumental players? Psychology of Music, 41(3), 267-291.

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