Deliberate Practic

Deliberate Practice: How To Grow Faster as a Producer

Electronic music production is still a new creative field in the history of the world.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn things from other creative fields and apply it.

One of those concepts is deliberate practice. And if you wield it right, it can double, triple or quadruple your growth.

Ready to learn more? Let’s go.

Note: this blog post is an excerpt from my book, The Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity. You can download the full PDF below:

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ARE YOU REALLY PRACTICING?

“The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice.”

— Vladimir Horowitz

In the electronic music production community, we don’t talk about practice enough.

When seeing a violin player, we see practice. We see a dedicated individual spending hours every day making mistakes and correcting them; playing certain sections of the piece slowly until perfect, and then speeding them up.

When we see a football/soccer player, we see practice. We see a dedicated individual spending hours every day on the field. Not repeating the shots they’re good at, but instead failing repeatedly at the difficult shots, improving slightly each time.

But when we see a music producer, the image of practice isn’t the same. We see someone making a song—someone dedicated—but we often don’t see them the same way as a violin player or football player.

There are reasons for this. One of them being that music production is a complex creative field that can’t really be practised the same way an instrument can (Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code states that it’s incredibly hard to become an elite self-taught violin player, but there are many professional self- taught writers, which shows there’s an obvious difference).

But I also think it’s something to do with the culture. Perhaps the idea of “practice” has been lost in the modern world of electronic music production.

The illusion of practice

“To benefit from practice and reach your potential, you have to constantly challenge yourself. This doesn’t mean repeatedly doing what you already know how to do. This means understanding your weaknesses and inventing specific tasks in your practice to address those deficiencies.”

— Corbett Barr

As a creative person, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “spinning the wheel.”

You fall into this trap after you’ve put a lot of effort into your creative journey: you’ve built up a few skills, you’re good at writing melodies, designing sounds, etc.

Basically, you’re at the stage where you can create a decent song with the skills you already have.

So you keep spinning the wheel. You keep churning out songs. They’re decent. Not spectacular, but they do the job. You’re comfortable, everybody’s comfortable, but you’re not getting better.

You think you’re practising. You think that with every song, you’re improving, and you’re probably right. But by how much are you improving?

Deliberate practice

As a beginner, you progress exponentially with every song you finish because there’s so much to learn. You don’t have a clue what you’re doing, and you’re learning constantly. But as you get better, you need to take a more directed approach to practice, otherwise, you risk not being able to see through the illusion of practice.

What you need is deliberate practice—something I touched on in chapter 5. The common trait of all high-achievers, both in creative fields and in sports, is that they know how to practice deliberately.

“Deliberate practice: working on technique, seeking out constant critical feedback, and focus- ing ruthlessly on shoring up weaknesses.”

— Daniel Coyle

You practice deliberately when you’re at the edge of your ability.

It’s spending an hour a day designing complex sounds when you’re not good at sound design. It’s writing 10 melodies in one sitting when you suck at writing melodies. It’s finishing tracks quickly and rapidly when you’re not good at finishing tracks. It’s doing the hard things that can be enjoyable but aren’t always enjoyable.

Why is deliberate practice important?

Why is it so important? What’s wrong with being able to churn out good tracks? Why should I challenge myself if I’m already proficient?

As I said, it’s easy to avoid doing things that are difficult and still end up with a good track. There have been plenty of instances where I’ve avoided going down a certain route with a track because I knew it was difficult and would require a lot of time and effort. It’s not like I needed to go down that route, so I didn’t.

Of course, whenever you find yourself in such a situation, where a path has opened up but you don’t take it because it’s difficult, you’re not being creative. You’re limiting yourself, aren’t you?

Deliberate practice helps you develop the skills which open up those pathways and make them easier to go down. When writing music, you’ll see more options and possibilities because you’ll see the connection between things. For instance, if you haven’t practiced sound design, you won’t see the link between sound design and composition, or sound design and mixing.

If you practice deliberately over the long term, you’ll become a better artist. You’ll put out music that is great.

On top of that, deliberate practice is simply satisfying. Perhaps it’s just because it’s hard; you feel satisfied after deliberate practice the same way you feel satisfied after chopping wood for 6 hours. But it doesn’t matter why it’s satisfying, it just is.

When you’re stuck in the cycle of churning out tracks without challenging yourself, you begin to feel a bit bored. You get complacent, and eventually, your music starts to suffer.

CREATING A PRACTICE PLAN

If you think that creating a practice plan is pedantic, you’re right.

It sounds like one of those things that your piano teacher gave you when you were young. You looked at it, sighed, and didn’t actually follow it.

But creating routines and plans for your creative work is crucial if you want to develop your skills as quickly as possible.

A practice plan does not need to be complicated. In fact, making it unnecessarily complicated will ensure its failure.

Why develop a practice plan? This quote says it all (emphasis mine):

“Resist the temptation to be nice to yourself. You become your own worst critic; you see your work as if through the eyes of others. You recognize your weaknesses, precisely the elements you are not good at. Those are the aspects you give precedence to in your practice. You find a kind of perverse pleasure in moving past the pain this might bring. Second, you resist the lure of easing up on your focus. You train yourself to concentrate in practice with double the intensity, as if it were the real thing times two. In devising your own routines, you become as creative as possible. You invent exercises that work upon your weaknesses. You give yourself arbitrary deadlines to meet certain standards, constantly pushing yourself past perceived limits. In this way you develop your own standards for excellence, generally higher than those of others.”

— Robert Greene

Step 1: Figure out how much time you have

One key reason producers become stagnant and get stuck is that they don’t have any sort of schedule for music production.

When someone tells them that having a schedule or routine is important, they tend to over-commit. They decide to be better than their friend who producers music for one hour per day… “I’m going to make music after work for six hours a day after work! How about that?!”

Of course, if you’ve never had a set schedule or routine for creative work/practice before, then committing to six hours a day is impossible.

Because of this, the first step in developing a rock-solid practice plan is to figure out not only how many hours you have to spare, but how many hours you think you can commit to without failing. It’s better to under-commit and build up your hours over time than over-commit and burn out or quit.

Between running EDMProd, eating food, exercising, and everything else, I probably have a good three hours per day spare. I could make music for those three hours, but I know that it would be incredibly difficult on most days where I also write for a few hours (or do any other sort of creative work).

So, I’d commit to half of that: ninety minutes, six days a week.

That totals nine hours per week, which may not seem like a lot, but when you’re doing it consistently it has a huge impact.

Before moving on to step two, figure out how much time you can and should commit to your practice plan (your practice plan does include making music, by the way).

The second thing you must do is schedule this time out. Your scheduled time doesn’t need to be set in stone—things always pop-up—but it should be defined.

Step 2: Work out your ratio

It’s important to not spend all your time practicing (not working directly on a song), and it’s also important not to spend all your time producing (working directly on a song but not actively learning).

Of course, making a song is practice, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But directed, deliberate practice should be part of your schedule.

The question is, how much should you do? Should you split it 50/50? Should you spend more time making music and less time actively learning and practicing?

There’s no right answer, and it’s something that will change over time. It also depends on the skill level. A lot of my friends who are great producers but want to get to the next level spend a lot of their time actively learning and studying as opposed to working on songs the whole time.

If you know what ratio suits you best—that’s great, use it. If you’re not sure, I recommend starting with an 80/20 split: 80% of your time towards making music, and 20% of your time towards active learning and practicing.

The reason I recommend this split is that what you learn during the 20% is going to need to be practiced during the 80% when you’re making music. For instance, if I spend two hours one week learning about jazz chord progressions, it’s a good idea for me to include them in a song I’m working on, and by doing so, I’m practicing.

Remember, the real learning happens inside the DAW when we’re making songs, but study helps us direct that learning. It helps reduce trial and error.

I’ll use an analogy to explain what I mean:

Let’s say I want to learn to chop onions. I could stand there for hours on end with hundreds of onions, trying out different approaches and comparing them, working out how to chop faster and easier, how to cut finer, and so on.

Or I could go online to a reputable cooking website and learn one of the chef-recommended techniques for chopping onions. And then I could leverage trial and error to perfect a method that’s already been proven to work.

So, you can learn to craft a good chord progression through trial and error. If you plot a wrong note, you’ll notice it, and you’ll move the note. Over time, you’ll become more aware of which notes sound good, and which notes sound bad. You won’t understand why they sound good and bad, of course, you’ll just know that they do.

Or you could study up on chords and harmonic progression beforehand. You’d know in advance which notes work together, and why they work together. By doing this, you skip a number of steps that you’d have to work through otherwise, placing you far ahead of the person working from trial and error right from the start.

Before moving on, figure out your ratio. If you don’t know what to choose, just start with the 80/20 split. You can always adjust it later.

Step 3: What’s your focus?

When I first developed a plan like this, I made the mistake of trying to practice too many things.

I wanted to learn more about music theory, I wanted to be better at sound design and mixing. I wanted to be a whiz in Ableton and know all the keyboard shortcuts.

I figured by packing my plan with everything under the sun, I wouldn’t get bored and I’d always be interested.

And it’s true—I didn’t get bored, but I also didn’t learn much at all. I was heading in several directions at once and didn’t have time to process or implement what I learned.

So, instead of designing a curriculum for your practice plan from the ground up, I recommend a much more simple approach (that you may find difficult initially)—choosing one thing at a time.

This means that your weekly practice would look something like this:

Rather than this:

The former is less interesting. It isn’t exciting. But it’s practical, and it will help you far more than a diverse practice plan.

Note: One hidden benefit to focusing on one thing is that it helps you develop concentration. It’s easy to flick from one thing to the next when you’re learning, but by doing so, you don’t develop the concentration that’s necessary for highly creative work.

Choosing one thing is important, but that brings up a few questions, namely: what should I focus on? For how long should I focus on it?

It’s a valid question—should you just pick something at random and run with it? Should you do it for a week? A month? A year?

To figure out what to focus on learning, ask yourself one or both of the following questions:

  1. What do you want to be great at as a producer? What do you want to be known for?
  2. What’s holding your music back?

The answer may be the same to both questions.

For instance, I might want to be known for my melodies, and they also happen to be the thing holding my music back. The mix sounds great, the sound design is pristine, but the melodies are lacking. That should be what I focus on during my practice sessions.

Taking my example. I want to get better at melodies. I’d devise a basic plan that includes a little bit of theory/study and a lot of directed practice.

  1. Finish two books on music theory, particularly around melody.
  2. Remake as many melodies as possible during my two hours per week. Do this for four weeks.
  3. Write as many melodies as possible during my two hours per week. Do this for four weeks.

If I did this the other way around, it’d be less effective. By starting with theory and study, I can recreate melodies in step two and actually understand what’s going on. I can explain why a melody sounds the way it does, and make connections between things.

By remaking melodies in step two, I have a good idea of why certain melodies sound the way they do and a more intuitive understanding of how good melodies are crafted. This allows me to be more directed during the final step.

All in all, this plan might take a few months, which seems awfully long. But remember, this is dedicating two hours per week. I could easily add another two hours in on the weekend and halve the time.

How long should you focus on it for?

This is a hard question to answer because it’s not like you get to a certain point where you feel you’ve mastered something. The same way an athlete doesn’t just stop practicing something because they’re world-class at it. There’s no finality in learning.

So, to some extent, you need to create arbitrary deadlines as I did above for my plan. There’s nothing special about four weeks, I could have just as easily said: “keep going until one hundred melodies have been written.”

There’s nothing wrong with your deadlines being arbitrary. Deadlines are inherently beneficial, and if you don’t set them, you run the risk of becoming complacent and fed-up/bored.

So, set arbitrary deadlines. Figure out over time what works for you—maybe you’re a fast learner and only need a few weeks. Maybe you don’t have much time and you need to do it slower. Just set something and adjust it later.

Practice plans for different skills

You’re welcome to go ahead and create your own practice plan if you know what you need to learn. Otherwise, I’ve listed several below for different skills. You should adjust the variables based on how much time you have.

These practice plans are all based on the Theory -> Imitate -> Create model that you can see in the example I laid out earlier (melody practice).

Structure & arrangement basics

  1. Watch our video on avoiding the 8-bar loop trap.
  2. Using blank MIDI clips in your DAW, analyze/deconstruct the arrangement for 50 songs OR for 4 weeks.
  3. Using construction kits and pre-made loops, create 20 common but slightly different structures (construction kits aren’t cheating in this scenario as they’re purely being used for practice/learning).

Synthesis basics

  1. Read Sound on Sound Synth Secrets
  2. Reverse engineer presets for 4 weeks: take a screenshot of a preset, and then recreate it from scratch by following said screenshot. Take note of how the sound changes with each knob you twist.
  3. Recreate presets for 4 weeks: listen to a preset, don’t look at how it’s made, and then attempt to recreate it.
  4. Create your own sounds for 4 weeks: don’t listen to presets, just create.
  5. Fill in the gaps with creative sound design tips.

(These techniques are very similar to what we mention in our 3 Rs of Sound Design article.)

Theory basics

  1. Read Music Theory for Computer Musicians
  2. Remake existing melodies for 4 weeks.
  3. Write melodies over existing chord progressions for 2 weeks.
  4. Write original melodies for 4 weeks.

Note: I haven’t added a basic practice plan for mixing because it’s difficult to do so unless you have access to stems. The only way you can really practice mixing is to mix. However, it’s worth reading a book or two on mixing. I recommend Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior.

What’s Next?

Deliberate practice can undoubtedly fast-track your progress as a producer.

But it’s only one part of the picture.

That’s why you can grab the rest of the Producer’s Guide to Workflow & Creativity. The book used to cost $49, but now we’ve made it available for free. Grab it below, right now.

Download Free eBook
About the Author

Sam Matla

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I run EDMProd and teach EDM Foundations. Drop me a line on Twitter and follow me on Instagram @sammatla.

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