Goal directed practice and mental representations.

Goal directed practice and mental representations.

I asked student today what he would need to do in order to fix some technical issues in one of his exam pieces. He replied ‘more practice’. That is what he knows in terms of how to fix issues in repertoire, more practice. I suggested that he should practice with a specific goal in mind as ‘more practice is quite vague. This students was missing a key  strategy of goal directed practice and mental representations in his performance preparation.

Goal directed practice and mental representations
Improve instrumental music practice through deliberate practice strategies

This is the crux of some issues with students practising their repertoire. Students tend to think more practice is the answer when in fact ‘goal-directed’ practice, not necessarily ‘more practice’ is a better solution. Following on from my previous post “Try harder or try differently”, Ericsson and Pool (Ericsson  et al., 2016) suggest purposeful goal-direct practice is a significant determinant for expertise.

Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way. With clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Lastly, figure out a way to maintain your motivation.

The thing which set experts apart from the general population in any field is their reservoir of mental representations. Mental representations are the ability to sift through enormous amounts of information related to a particular task to respond more quickly and efficiently to a problem. Experts have extensive mental representations. These mental representations differ in quality and quantity when compared to novices. Mental representations help us to understand, organise, analyse, and evaluate information to improve performance.

Ericsson and Pool (Ericsson  et al., 2016) found in relation to music students, those with well-developed mental representations were the students who progressed more quickly in their instrumental lessons. They could identify and correct mistakes better than those students with poor quality mental representations. The mental representations were used to spot mistakes and correct them with the most appropriate practice technique.

This was the issue with my student today. He had little knowledge of how to correct his technical issues. Although he could identify them (wrong notes) he did not understand what was causing the issue and therefore how to develop a practice strategy of goal to improve. In addition to the idea of 10,000 hours practice to reach expert performance, instrumentalists need to develop high level mental representations. This forms part of the basis of deliberate practice.


Ericsson , K. A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: How all of us can achieve extraordinary things: Vintage Digital.

© iteachpiano 2017

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