Deliberate practice for popular musicians

Music education and the development of classical musicians has received a great deal of attention in the research literature. I am interested in what motivates musicians to practice, learn, and become successful at what they choose. I am interested in how musicians learn. So are many others and researchers have spent decades trying to understand how musicians motivate and learn. Popular music does not receive such similar attention, which is interesting as popular music is very popular, for many reasons.

Expertise in Popular Musicians

How do popular musicians go about their deliberate practice and who supports them in this process? Is there a difference between beginner (young), intermediate (semi-pro), and professional popular musicians and how they learn? The answer to these questions would no doubt be quite useful and influential for teachers and students, particularly at the school music level where motivating and retaining good music students in a music programme can be challenging.

To be an expert musician requires many years to long-term, deliberate practice of domain-specific activities (Ericsson, 2006). Musicians go through developmental stages (Bloom, 1995) from novice to expert. An expert is a person who has progressively acquired a skill through intensive practice. Ericsson refers to this as “deliberate practice” (Ericsson, 2004). 

Expertise is acquired through practice and is generally considered a lifetime endeavour with a development style process. Novices tend to being at a young age. They progress to intermediate levels and through further deliberate practice achieve mastery and expertise on their chosen instrument. This may take many years and transgress informal and formal music training spheres.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is key to understanding how musicians acquire expertise. Deliberate practices is supported mainly be teachers, who set goals and provide a structured training plan, immediate feedback, the correction of mistakes, and extrinsic motivation (Ericsson, 2014).

Important here is the fact that deliberate practice is goal-direct, structured, and supported by appropriate networks and individuals as required.

Along the way, musicians receive support from mentors, teachers, parents, friends, at the appropriate stage of development. Typically, novices (younger students) receive much of their support form family and teachers. As musicians develop expertise and mature, their support networks begin to change as they connect with other teachers, mentors, and receive guidance from other experts.

Classical Musicians

In classical music, support tends to come from teachers and family (Creech, 2010). In popular music, support mostly comes from peers. The findings of research in classical music support networks does not generalise to popular musicians and their support networks. In a study by Längler et al (2020), their research investigated the support networks of popular musicians at various leaves of expertise.

Support and support networks are crucial to the ongoing motivation and development of musicians. Musical development can depend heavily on relationships with other people in terms of motivation to practice and acquire new skills.

Little is understood about the networks of popular musicians and their development of expertise. Expertise can be considered both an individual and a social phenomena. Expertise development requires different supporters (network actors) for each stage. 

Most research has focused on classical musicians (Lehman et al., 2006) which has strong tradition for formal teaching and learning. Popular musicians are less researched in this regard as the trainman is typically less formal. Greater understanding of how popular musicians develop expertise through deliberate practice will provide new insights.


Längler et al (2020) investigated the musical development of popular musicians ranging from intermediate through to expert. In particular, their research addressed the network of support actors who were most important to the musical develop of these popular musicians and how deliberate practice was supported during their musical development.

The research was undertaken in Germany and Austria in music schools and universities via survey and interview method.

The research of Längler et al (2020) found that both expert and intermediate-level musicians in childhood through to their professional careers received support from family, teachers, peers (other band members and classmates), and others. Instrumental teachers and band members were identified as the most important network supports during the phases of musical development. Teachers were important during childhood and apprenticeship (intermediate) phases. Band members were most important during all three phases of childhood, apprenticeship, and expert/professional.

There were differences in the way deliberate practice was supported between the two participant groups of intermediate and professional popular musicians. From childhood, experts had more teachers and played with a wider variety of musicians and genres than intermediate popular musicians. This allowed experts to expand their knowledge and expertise at a faster rate than intermediate-level musicians. 

This is very similar to the findings of Manturzewska’s (1990) seminal research on the lifespan development of expert classical musicians. Their professional development is found to hinge on the ability to change and adjust their support network as each phase of their career develops. This means new teachers, a wider array of peers and other professionals in support of the goal of expert performance. 


The results of the current study of Längler et al (2020) demonstrated that expert popular musicians rely on peers and other band members as much as teachers for the support of deliberate practice. Perhaps the concept of deliberate practice needs to be broadened to encompass other performance activities involving the group or band. The band member or groups did as much to support goal-directed and structured practice as did an individual teacher in support of deliberate practice.

These findings support the idea that exert popular musicians undertake a form of deliberate practice, though less formal in the sense of the training of classical musicians. The typical one-to-one tuition of a classical musician is less so with popular musicians. Band members and peers bridge this gap and form the structures and goals required to develop expertise via deliberate practice. It appears deliberate practice can be dyadic or ensemble-based.

© iteachpiano 2020


Bloom, B. S. (1995). Developing talent in young people. New York: Ballantine.

Creech, A. (2010). Learning a musical instrument: the case for parental support. Music Education Research, 12(1), 13-32.

Ericsson, A. (2006). The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. Cambridge: Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Ericsson, K. A. (2004). Deliberate practice and the acquisition and maintenance of expert performance in medicine and related domains. Academic Medicine, 79, S70-S81.

Ericsson, K. A. (2014). Why expert performance is special and cannot be extrapolated from studies of performance in the general population: A response to criticisms. Intelligence, 45, 81-103.

Längler, M., Nivala, M., Brouwer, J., & Gruber, H. (2020). Quality of network support for the deliberate practice of popular musicians. Musicae Scientiae.

Lehman, A. C., Gruber, H., & Kopiez, R. (2006). Expertise in music. In K. A. Ericsson , r. R. Hoffman, A. Kozbelt & A. M. Williams (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance (pp. 457-470). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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

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