How many times were you told as a child or teenager during your piano lessons that “practice makes perfect”? It’s a well-worn cliché and like most clichés it contains more than a grain of truth.

Not only does regular practice make our musical more secure, deliberate, focussed practice makes the music permanent. So “practice makes permanent” might be a better mantra.

By “permanent”, I mean not only note accuracy (and the ability to reproduce that accuracy on numerous occasions), but also a secure knowledge of the music as a whole and its individual components, an understanding and interpretation of markings in the score, and myriad other details of the music as well as the context of its creation.

This security gives the musician another advantage beyond the ability to play the music accurately, technically and artistically; it also fosters creativity. The act of practicing in a very disciplined manner transforms ability into skill, and that skill can then be applied to create. Thus, musicians who have persisted on this path are able to bring greater expression and artistry to their playing, and are able to create exciting and enthralling performances, not once but time and time again. These skills are the result of many hours of hard graft combined with a real passion for the task in hand, the cultivation of which is called “grit”, a term coined by psychologist Angela Duckworth, who received a MacArthur Genius Grant for her research into the subject.

“Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance……Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it”.

– Angela Duckworth

Grit is connected to mastery – the willingness to set to a task with a passion, acknowledging both triumphs and setbacks along the path as opportunities to learn and grow. It is also about accepting that a task – be it learning a musical instrument or sports training – is a long-term project, a marathon not a sprint.

Grit is also allied to the “growth mindset” (an idea developed by Dr Carol Dweck), which is the acceptance that one’s ability to learn and improve is not fixed, that the brain grows and changes in response to a challenge, and that setbacks and failure can in fact be the spur to greater endeavour and perseverance. People with a growth mindset appreciate that failure is not a permanent condition, but rather an opportunity to learn.

Both of these definitions apply perfectly to the study of music, and most professional musicians – and quite a few serious amateurs too – would understand and practice the concept of grit, even if they don’t know or use that word to describe their activities. For many amateur musicians in particular, it is “the journey not the destination” which is what makes learning and studying their chosen instrument so compelling. They willingly submit to the task with a genuine passion and actively relish the commitment required to improve their capabilities.

Talent doesn’t make one “gritty” – and natural talent can in fact be a hindrance to one’s development as there is a tendency to become complacent. Talented people may not follow through on their commitments, while their more gritty counterparts are willing to persist in the task.

Grit enables musicians who are serious about the craft and art of music making to continue on the path to mastery with passion and commitment.

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I’ve been watching some of the Winter Olympics coverage with interest, in particular the snowboarding and skiing. It’s easy to spot the winners – people like Chloe Kim and Redmond Gerard (both from the US team): they display effortless grace and flow in their gestures, and those who totally “own” the course seem to create a through-narrative of seamless movement from start to finish, which reminds me of watching someone like the British pianist Stephen Hough in concert. In short, they make it look easy.


As is often the way when I watch sport, I am struck by the similarities between sportspeople and musicians: that same effortless grace of the snowboarders and skiers is something we admire in highly-skilled musicians, and these are attributes, along with expression and communication, which make their performances thrilling and memorable.

Often when watching top sportspeople or musicians in action, we marvel at their “natural talent”. that ineffable, indescribable je ne sais quoi which places these people apart from the rest of us.

Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we….revere – fastest, strongest – and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way…..

Plus they’re beautiful: Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they’re inspiring…. Great athletes are profundity in motion

– David Foster Wallace

Like the rest of us, the BBC commentators for the Winter Olympics are clearly fascinated and impressed by these extraordinary human beings, and there is much talk of “natural talent” and a sense of hero-worship and awe in the language used to describe them and their exploits. As a society, we are obsessed with the “myth” of talent and we have a long-held a fascination with people we perceive to be “naturally talented”. From child prodigies to highly gifted performers and sports superstars, we view them as wonders of nature, imbued with enviable, raw natural talent.

Stephen Hough in concert

What is the secret of these people’s talent? What is it that makes them so special, so different from the rest of us?

Unfortunately, for those obsessed with the myth of talent, the reality is altogether less exciting: notice how the BBC commentators rarely discuss these athletes’ training regimes. Why? Because talking about training is boring. To discuss something as pedestrian as training and practising removes the mystique surrounding these extraordinary individuals, and we would never want our sporting or musical heroes and heroines to appear “ordinary”. Would you rather watch Stephen Hough practising 70 repetitions of the same passage of Liszt at home in his studio or appearing in concert at Carnegie Hall?


Most of us are familiar with the “10,000 hours rule”, and while this theory has largely been debunked by more recent research, it serves to remind us that “putting the hours in” is a key factor in becoming extraordinarily proficient in a specific skill or field of study, be it playing chess, sport or musical performance. But it is not just about quantity of training; quality plays a more crucial role, for focused, intelligent and deliberate training or practise is what breeds results.

But what sparks the will to train in the first place?

Interest and the “rage to master”

If you haven’t got the interest, you won’t stick to the training regime. Sounds obvious, yet those who achieve what we call “expert status”, snowboarders and concert pianists alike, have an almost obsessive will to focus intensely on a specific subject, and will voraciously consume new information and acquire skills. Psychologists call this the “rage to master” and many top athletes and musicians can cite a specific moment, often in childhood, when the rage to master took hold, driving them to focus intently and intensely on their chosen activity.

Practice and training

To achieve a very high level of technical and artistic ability and success, regular, conscientious, and deliberate practice/training is crucial. This is not simply playing through your chosen repertoire or doing a few runs on the piste: doodling at the piano or pottering around at the snowdome does not bring success. Deliberate practice involves a hefty degree of  goal-setting (daily, weekly, monthly and yearly, plus regular reviewing and adjustment of those goals), self-evaluation, criticial feedback, reflection, analysis of minute details (such as body position, gesture, fingering schemes etc, often using video or audio recordings), in addition to support and feedback from mentors, teachers, peers, colleagues and others. We know that repetitive practice is important to train the “muscle memory” or procedural memory, which allows Redmond Garard or Stephen Hough to perfectly execute the slopestyle trick or complex passage of music, not just once but over and over again. These are not mindless repetitions, however, but repetition with reflection, evaluation and adjustment, so that each subsequent repetition improves on the previous one. In addition to all of the above, the ability to see the “bigger picture” of the slope or piece of music and the attendant ability to make decisions, large and small, about technique, gesture, expression etc


Deliberate practice/training leads to noticeable progress and improvement which motivates one to keep practising, with enhanced satisfaction, reward and fulfilment. This creates a virtuous circle of positive feelings towards training and practising, which further motivates one to keep at the task.

Grit and determination

Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. And I want to emphasize the stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long term and then working very hard at it.

– Angela Duckworth

Some of us may start a training or practising regime with the very best of intentions, but soon fall by the wayside due to lack of focus, motivation, procrastination, and a whole host of other reasons (excuses!). Those at the top of their field have the determination to stick to the task, day in day out.

Mastery and the constant pursuit

Mastery is about embracing the role of the life-long student and dedicating oneself to the pursuit of excellence. Read more about mastery here

Other factors

Nurture – the encouragement and support of family, teachers and mentors, coaches, colleagues and friends are important in fostering focus and determination in training.


When we consider all these factors, we truly appreciate how and why Olympic athletes and top-flight musicians are where they are professionally. We too can train and practise in the same way, using the same tools and focused mindset. We may not touch these exceptional individuals nor come close to their greatness, but we can still strive for excellence in what we do.

Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work

Chuck Close

Further reading

‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’ from Consider the Lobster And Other Essays – David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown & Company, 2008

Grit and the Secret of Success

The routine of creativity