Instrumental learning & deliberate practice: Is an early start a key to success?

Instrumental learning & deliberate practice: Is an early start a key to success? 

The small study by Jorgensen (2001) applied elements of deliberate practice and expertise theory (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993) to a group of conservatoire students. The study aimed at finding if starting age for instrumental lessons and learning is a predictor of future instrumental achievement.

Deliberate Practice and Expertise

The development of expertise requires deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993). Deliberate practice is an extended period of study dominated by effortful, goal-directed practice for at least ten years. Previous research demonstrates variability in starting ages, but it is common to find that elite level performers generally started at a young age (Manturzewska, 1990; Sloboda, et al., 1996; Sloboda & Howe, 1991), though it is not a sufficient predictor or expertise attainment or professional success as a musician.

In this research project, students were asked when they started formal lessons on their instrument and their final grade achieved for their undergraduate degree. The instruments were grouped according to degree type which was instrumental, music education, vocal or church music.

The results showed that the average age for starting lessons on their instrument was 11, with a range of 5-18 years. The type of instrument also affected starting age, with vocalists having a later starting age.

The final undergraduate achievement grades were analysed and the findings showed that those students with the highest final grade for their undergraduate performance were those who generally started the earliest on their instrument. Interestingly, in the instrumental program there was no difference in finale achievement and starting age. However, when the instrumental program was broken down into specific instrument groups, the data began to show differences in starting age and final achievement though these results were non-significant. This rules out the hypothesis that the effect of an early start will be most beneficial for instrumental students. Interestingly, there was a negative relationship found between early start and high grades among violin and cello, and positive relationships for pianists.

The analysis for the whole group demonstrated that the lower the starting age, the more beneficial it is to overall achievement. However, when broken down into specific instruments, differences were found. An early staring age was beneficial for some instruments, but for others starting age was an insignificant factor in overall achievement. In addition, individual differences were found between students, alluding to the fact that other variables come into play with starting age and overall achievement level.

In terms of other variables, Jorgensen suggests that there are three time variables to consider. That of starting age, amount of accumulated practice time, and amount of practice at a particular period of time. A combination of all three variables is required in research analysis to fully understand the effects of starting age and instrumental achievement. The analysis in this study involved only one variable which was years of lessons.

Expertise is said to require ten years of training. The results of the study confirm the ten-year rule with the highest achieving students having the required year-span for expertise attainment. Additionally, quality practice is required, although many of the students in this study stated that they received little instruction on how to practice from their teacher. Students often took to self-regulating their own practice via self-reflection. The ability to self-regulate practice has been shown to be a predictor of instrumental achievement (McPherson & Renwick, 2001). Therefore quality of practice may explain for variables in overall achievement level in this study, even when controlling for starting age.

Another variable is appropriate guidance from a teacher. Krampe & Ericsson (1995) state that long-term quality teaching is vital to reach expertise status. However, in this study there was no way to control for quality of previous instruction.

Other variables not covered in this study which Jorgensen suggests are also influential is intrinsic motivation, and transfer effect when changing from one instrument to another. Ultimately, Jorgensen’s research findings do show a positive relationship between starting age and later levels of achievement, however, this is not a necessary condition for achievement at the expert level.


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.

Manturzewska, M. (1990). A biographical study of the life-span development of professional musicians. Psychology of Music, 18(2), 112-139.

McPherson, G. E., & Renwick, J. M. (2001). A Longitudinal Study of Self-regulation in Children’s Musical Practice. Music Education Research, 3(2), 169-186.

Sloboda, J. A., Davidson, J. W., Howe, M. J. A., & Moore, D. G. (1996). The role of practice in the development of performing musicians. British Journal of Psychology, 83, 703-715.

Sloboda, J. A., & Howe, M. J. A. (1991). Biographical Precursors of Musical Excellence: An Interview Study. Psychology of Music, 19(1), 3-21.

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