Proceedings paper



Self-Regulation and Musical Practice: A Longitudinal Study

Gary E. McPherson and James M. Renwick

School of Music and Music Education

The University of New South Wales

Sydney, Australia

Because practice is essential for successful learning on a musical instrument, it is the focus of attention for a number of music psychologists (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993; Slododa, Davidson, Howe & Moore 1996). One of the most discussed aspects concerns deliberate practice (Ericsson et al., 1993), a term used to describe goal-oriented, structured and effortful facets of practice in which motivation, resources and attention determine the amount and quality of practice undertaken. Studies show that a major characteristic of expert musicians is the amount of deliberate practice they have undertaken during the many years required to develop their skills to a high level (Ericsson, 1997). Expert musicians exert a great deal more effort and concentration during their practice than less skilled musicians, and are more likely to monitor and control their playing by focusing their attention on what they are practising and how it can be improved (Ericsson, 1997).

From a somewhat different perspective, Sloboda and Davidson (1996) contrast 'formal' and 'informal' aspects of practice. They found that high-achieving musicians tend to do significantly greater amounts of 'formal' practice, such as scales, pieces and technical exercises, than their less successful peers. High achievers are also likely to report more 'informal' practice, such as playing their favourite pieces by ear, 'messing about,' or improvising. Sloboda and Davidson conclude that these 'informal' ways of practising contribute to musical success because the highest achieving students are able to find the right balance between freedom and discipline in their practice. Similarly, in a study designed to explore motivational and self-regulatory components of instrumental performance, McPherson and McCormick (1998) identified three aspects of practice which they defined as 'Informal/Creative Activities' (i.e., playing by ear and improvising for one's own enjoyment), 'Repertoire' (i.e., learning new pieces and performing older familiar pieces), and 'Technical Work' (i.e., using a warm-up routine, practising scales, arpeggios, and études, and sight-reading music). Results showed that the amount of time students report practising each week in each of these three areas was significantly related to the quality of their cognitive engagement during their practice and also to how much they reported enjoying music and playing their instrument. Students who undertook higher levels of practice were more likely to rehearse music in their minds and to make critical ongoing judgements concerning the success or otherwise of their efforts. They were also more capable of organising their practice in ways that provide for efficient learning, such as practising the pieces that need most work and isolating difficult sections of a piece that need further refinement. These results suggest that students who are more cognitively engaged while practising not only tend to do more practice, but enjoy learning their instrument more and are also more efficient with their learning.

In the last decade, a body of observational research on expert practising has emerged (Hallam, 1995; Miklaszewski, 1989; Nielsen, 1999). This work has analysed experts' highly developed use of learning strategies. These strategies include (1) the manipulation of the speed of work and the size of repeated material depending on its familiarity and complexity, (2) the creation of dependable motor programs through adherence to consistent technical plans such as fingerings, and (3) the use of musical structure to facilitate memorisation (Chaffin & Imreh, 1997). Other observational research has compared novices with experts to investigate the gradual emergence of such strategies over time (Gruson, 1988; Williamon & Vallentine, in press).

In contrast to these expertise-oriented perspectives, musical practice can also be studied in terms of the self-regulated processes that students use to study their instrument. For many schoolchildren, practice plays a role that is close to homework (Xu & Corno, 1998). Effective practice, like efficient homework, requires self-regulation, which is evident when students are "metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorially active participants in their own learning process" (Zimmerman, 1986, p. 308). In this conception, self-regulation is not seen as a fixed characteristic, but rather as a set of context-specific processes that students select from in order to accomplish a task (Zimmerman, 1998). The degree to which these self-regulatory processes are employed by students depends on six dimensions, which appear to be consistent across a range of diverse disciplines such as music, sport and academic learning (Zimmerman, 1994, 1998). Reinterpreted for musical practice, these dimensions incorporate:

1. Motive - feeling free to and capable of deciding whether to practise

2. Method - planning and employing suitable strategies when practising

3. Time - consistency of practice and time management

4. Performance outcomes - monitoring, evaluating and controlling performance

5. Physical environment - structuring the practice environment (e.g., away from distractions)

6. Social factors - actively seeking information that might assist (e.g., from another family member, teacher, practice diary or method book).

We consider this self-regulatory perspective to be particularly attractive. Not only does it enable us to clarify key processes involved in efficient musical practice and to compare these with other disciplines, but it may lead to a more complete understanding of musical learning with implications for optimising practice. Consequently, it is from this perspective that the present study is grounded.

Parameters of the Study

So far, most research has concentrated on defining the processes that lead to expert performance, often through the use of retrospective accounts and studies in which performers are asked to prepare researcher-assigned pieces for a formal performance. Relatively little research has studied practice in naturalistic settings, free of researcher-imposed restrictions. Another gap in existing literature concerns the very beginning stages of learning an instrument and particularly what young children actually do when practising their instrument at home. To expand knowledge in this area, we analysed the videotapes of children's home practice using a procedure that attempted to make our observations as 'normal' and therefore as ecologically valid as possible. Data we obtained from the analyses of these videos was used to supplement information obtained from regular, detailed interviews with a larger sample of 156 children in eight primary schools (K-6) who commenced learning at the same time, and from interviews with their mothers, classroom teachers, and instrumental teachers. Our purpose was to synthesise findings from the larger sample of interview data with new information obtained from analysing children's videotaped practice, in a way that would shed light on the self-regulatory processes outlined earlier.


At the beginning of the study all the children and their parents were invited to participate in the videotaping of practice. Before the taping commenced, the 27 parents and their children who agreed to participate were interviewed in order to explain the purpose of the study and in order for the researchers to stress that the home practice sessions should be as normal as possible, and representative of how each child generally practised his or her instrument. After viewing all videotapes, seven children (three females and four males) were selected for the analysis reported here. The rest were excluded because they were irregular with videotaping of practice or because the child's behaviour appeared to be unduly influenced by the recording situation. Two were novices, three had learnt another instrument (e.g., piano) which they ceased playing before joining the school instrumental program, and two were continuing to play piano while beginning their new band instrument. The sample consisted of two trumpets, two clarinets, and one flute, saxophone and cornet.

Tapes of 14 practice sessions undertaken in Year 1 of the study (two for each of the seven children) and 10 sessions from Year 3 (two for each of the five children still learning) were selected for analysis. They were coded using the software package, The Observer (Noldus Information Technology, 1995), which allows the researcher to play the videotape at various speeds through a computer interface, and to use various 'channels' to code behaviour. This process provides highly rigorous data that can be revisited by repeatedly viewing the videotape, although this rigor comes at a high cost in terms of research time: a 10-minute practice session can take up to 5 hours to code.

Results and Discussion

Results for the analyses can be discussed according to the six self-regulatory processes as defined by Zimmerman (1994, 1998).


To understand this dimension of self-regulation, it is necessary to examine the degree to which the children feel free to and capable of deciding whether or not to practise. Results from interviews before the children commenced learning (see McPherson, accepted) show that they were able to differentiate between their interest in learning a musical instrument, the importance to them of being good at music, whether they thought their learning would be useful to their short and long-term goals, and also the cost of their participation, in terms of the effort needed to continue improving. During the first year of learning, the children's initial motives and expectations for learning, as measured by whether they predicted that they would play until the end of primary school, high school or into their adult lives, coupled with how much practice they undertook, provided a powerful predictor of their achievement. Children who made the least progress tended to express more extrinsic reasons for learning, such as being part of the school band because their friends were also involved. In contrast, children who made rapid progress were more likely to express intrinsic reasons, such as always having liked music or wanting to play particular pieces for their own personal enjoyment (our presentation will highlight findings from the larger sample relevant to this aspect of self-regulation).


The method dimension focuses on how the children practised, in terms of the essential conditions that allowed them to choose or adapt a particular method when they practised. Statistics generated by The Observer revealed that most of the children's practice consisted of simply playing the piece through without any other strategy being used (see Table 1 - Year 1: 94%; Year 3: 96%). This type of playing was accompanied by foot-tapping for 4% of the time in Year 1, declining to 2% in Year 3. It was also introduced by counting the beat aloud in 1% of the time in Year 1, but this behaviour had disappeared by Year 3. Other strategies such as singing, silent fingering, and silent inspection of the music each accounted for less than 2% of the total time in both years. No evidence of chanting or using a metronome was observed.



Interviews with the instrumental music teachers revealed that the standard advice about practice given to the students was to work for 15-20 minutes 5 days in the week, and that this should consist of repeating pieces and exercises until a degree of fluency is reached. Contrary to this advice, the vast majority (Year 1: 90%; Year 3: 92%) of playing time was spent playing through a piece or exercise only once. Although the children would occasionally stop and repeat a small section after an error, as soon as they finally reached the end of the piece they seemed content to move on to another task. This trend was remarkably stable across the 3 years (see Table 1). As a result, there was virtually no evidence of the deliberate practice strategies which typify expert musicians. For these children, practice involved a rather superficial coverage of performance literature, with little evidence during the first three years of the types of self-regulatory strategies that would enable them to more efficiently control their own learning.


How children plan and manage their time has important implications for how efficient their practice will be. In Year 1, only 73% of the students' observed videotaped practice was spent playing their instrument. This percentage rose to 84% by Year 3, suggesting that these five subjects were beginning to spend their time more efficiently. As shown in Table 1, the vast majority of this playing time was spent on repertoire (Year 1: 84%; Year 3: 93%) with approximately equal time spent on ensemble parts and solo pieces. Technical work (scales and arpeggios) took up the remainder of playing time (Year 1: 15%; Year 3: 7%), while the presence of playing by ear, improvising, and playing from memory was negligible. This pedagogically unbalanced 'diet' (McPherson, 1998) is surprising, and reveals that the 'informal' practice found by Sloboda et al. (1996) in more experienced young musicians had not yet emerged in this group of beginners.

Interestingly, the remainder (Year 1: 27%; Year 3: 16%) of the children's practice time was spent on non-playing activities. These activities show an interesting pattern of change with skill acquisition. Time spent looking for printed music to play rose from 45% of non-practising time in Year 1 to 76% in Year 3. Time spent talking or being spoken to fell from 32% in Year 1 to only 8% in Year 3, mostly as a factor of the reduced presence of other people in the room in the later sessions. Between Year 1 and Year 3, daydreaming fell from 4% to 3% of non-playing time, responding to distractions fell from 4% to 2%, and expressions of frustration fell from 3% to 1%. Time spent resting between pieces rose from 3% of non-practising time in Year 1 to 6% in Year 3, possibly as a factor of the longer pieces played at this stage.

Table 1 also reveals marked differences between individuals. For example, in Year 1, the least efficient learner spent only 57% of his time actually playing, while the most efficient learner spent 82% of his time practising. Research in academic subjects shows that many children actively avoid studying or use less time than allocated (Zimmerman & Weinstein, 1994). This was also true in our analysis of the videotapes. For our least efficient learner, 21% of his total session time was spent talking with his mother about his practice tasks in a highly unfocussed manner, where the child's repeated errors became the primary focus, and a source of considerable frustration. With some children, there was a high level of reference to the time, with frequent behaviours such as calling out to a parent to ask if they were "allowed to stop yet". For our sample it appears that a minimum time limit was often enforced, yet the efficient use of that time was not.

Performance Outcomes

A typical self-regulated approach to practice involves an ability to react by choosing, modifying and adapting one's playing based on the feedback obtained when performing. We chose to assess this type of performance outcome by analysing the nature of the children's errors (Palmer & Drake, 1997). Our two trumpet-players had to be eliminated from this analysis because their pitching was too inaccurate: using aural analysis alone meant that only the clearer pitching of beginner woodwind instruments and the cornet could be assessed. Clear pitch and sound-production errors were coded; no attempt was made to assess rhythmic accuracy, which varied enormously among the sample.

As Table 1 shows, nearly half the errors made by subjects in the 1st year of learning were ignored, which points to a general inability by the children to self-regulate the accuracy of their music reading. The attentional demands of learning an unfamiliar instrument, together with the considerable cognitive challenge of learning to read music at the same time, left the students largely unable to verify their own accuracy. However, there were very large individual differences between subjects in their self-regulation of accuracy. Table 1 shows the total errors per minute and the ignored errors per minute for the two subjects with the highest (KR) and lowest (WD) error rate. It reveals how, while the subject KR makes many more errors than WD, she also ignored a far higher proportion of these errors than WD did. WD's regulation of his own accuracy was remarkable in Year 1 and also when we analysed his practice in Year 3. Most notably, his rate of improvement is very high on the second run-through of a piece: in Year 1 his error rate fell from 1.4 per min on the first run-through to 0.6 per min on the second run-through, suggesting that he possessed an outstanding ability to retain a mental representation of his performance between run-throughs, and to use this as a basis for learning from his errors. In Year 3, the same phenomenon prevailed with WD. Table 1 shows the ratio of errors on the second run-through divided by the error rate on the first run-through. Although the frequency of WD's errors had risen (Year 1: 1.4; Year 3: 6.7) because of a steep increase in the difficulty of the repertoire he was playing, the error rate on the second run-through of his practice was only 34% of that on the first.

Such large individual differences in children's ability to self-regulate the accuracy of their playing can partly be explained by considering the enormous demands placed on working memory for children simultaneously learning to read notation, to manipulate the keys or valves on their instrument, and to adjust their embouchure according to aural feedback. The tradition from which these students come places great importance on learning to read notation from the first lesson, and for many of them, there is insufficient opportunity to learn to associate their nascent aural schemata with the notation. The most accurate students in the study were relieved of this high cognitive load because they had learnt how to read music on instruments such as the piano or recorder before starting on their band instrument. The seven children fell into three clear groups concerning prior learning, and these corresponded clearly to their ability to monitor their playing. The two children who had previously learnt the piano and were continuing made an average of 2.6 errors per minute in Year 1; those who had previously learnt an instrument but had discontinued averaged 7.3 errors per minute; and those that were complete beginners (the two trumpeters) made too many errors to count. Thus, the children with prior experience in learning another instrument, and for whom reading had become to a certain extent automatised, displayed a more refined ability to monitor and control their own playing.

Physical environment

Self-regulated learners are aware that their physical environment should be conducive to efficient learning. There was a wide range of locations chosen by the children for practice, ranging from the privacy of a bedroom to a shared family space. Some children would appear in different rooms in different sessions, suggesting that they were choosing a quiet space according to the family situation on the day. This appeared to give the children access to help from other family members when they needed it, but also meant that some needed to spend some of their practice time coping with distractions from siblings, pets, and a television in the next room. Data obtained from both the videotaped practice sessions and child/mother interviews, shows that the physical environment was mostly well-equipped with a music stand and an appropriate chair (on the videotapes only one child stood while practising). However, differences between children were noticeable. One child practised (in his pyjamas) while sitting cross-legged on his pillow with the bell of his trumpet resting on the bed. The poor posture of this young learner could be contrasted with some of his peers, who were more capable of holding their instrument correctly while sitting or standing with a straight back and suitable playing position.

Social factors

When faced with difficulties, self-regulated learners actively seek help from knowledgeable others. The observation of family involvement reveals a rich pattern (see Table 1) with a noticeable decline in the participation of parents between the 1st and 3rd years of learning. In Year 1, one or both parents were present in the room for 65% of the observed time. (This level of participation may, of course, have been affected by the role some parents took in being a camera-operator). This time spent in the practice room further broke down into three parental behaviours: 6% involved a parent 'teaching' the child (i.e. taking a very active instructive role). Another 12% of parental involvement can be described as 'guiding' (e.g. "What piece are you going to do first?"). The remainder of the time (81%) was spent 'listening' less actively again. A large amount of maternal involvement with some of the children consisted of bolstering motivation and delivering praise ("That sounds fantastic!"). Discussion between parent and child about appropriate practising strategies was found in only one subject, and this was highly argumentative - certainly falling outside of the parental involvement that might be called "autonomy-supportive" (Grolnick, Kurowski, & Gurland, 1999). Nevertheless, by the 3rd year of the study, a higher level of autonomy was observed, with parents present in only 22% of the time, and now almost exclusively in a semi-listening but supportive capacity.

In Year 1, five of the seven children showed high usage of a practice diary in which the teacher had written down set tasks. The two trumpeters, who showed poor monitoring of their errors, were not observed referring to a diary at all. By Year 3, only two children continued to refer to their diary, possibly implying that the other three children were capable of remembering what had been assigned by their teacher.


Zimmerman (1998) concludes that the self-regulatory processes identified here are distinguishing characteristics of experts across a number of diverse disciplines that include music, sport and professional writing. He also believes that they can be found, to a greater or lesser extent, in the early stages of learning. It can therefore be speculated that musicians who display these characteristics early in their development will be more likely to practise harder and more efficiently, will display a higher self-efficacy about their own capacity to learn, and be more likely to achieve at a higher level. Early results from our interview and videotape research show that the practice habits of the children we studied varied considerably and that there were important differences between the children on each of the six self-regulatory processes, even from the very earliest practice sessions.

Our results lead us to conclude that a majority of our learners possessed the will to learn their instrument, but not necessarily the level of skill required to ensure efficient and effective practice. By this we mean that the young learners were typically excited about learning their instrument and came to their learning as optimistic, keen participants. However, while their instrumental teachers were making them aware of what to practise, many had very little idea of how to practise. An important implication therefore is that teachers should spend time during their lessons demonstrating and modelling specific strategies that their students can try when practising, such as how to correct or prevent certain types of performance errors. However, such strategies will be ineffective unless the learners also develop their capacity to monitor and control their own learning. Consequently, teachers should also devise strategies whereby learners can be encouraged to reflect on the adequacy of their own practice habits, and especially on how they might invent better ways (such as self-reflective comments in their diaries) that will help them practise more efficiently. Our preliminary findings suggest that the skills of knowing how to self-monitor, set goals and use appropriate strategies take time to develop in young children. Helping children to reflect on their own progress and ability to employ self-regulatory processes may go some way to improving instrumental instruction, especially for children who do not pick up these skills implicitly.

Realising that our study only scratches the surface of the complex issues which surround the self-regulatory behaviour of young musicians, we intend to build on the findings reported here in order to construct a more detailed profile of the participating instrumentalists from the data yet to be analysed. At their most basic level, our early results, combined with the extensive body of evidence found in academic learning confirms that the six self-regulatory processes are used to greater or lesser degrees in young musicians as a means of improving performance. Every time a young musician self-initiates practice, consciously plans what to practise, chooses to correct their performance, structures their learning environment, or actively seeks information from knowledgeable others, they come one step closer to refining the self-regulatory processes that will eventually become automatised. For researchers, the challenge involves expanding and clarifying these issues in a way that will provide useful information that teachers can use to cater for the wide range of abilities which they encounter in their everyday teaching.


This research has been supported by a large Australian Research Council Grant (No. A79700682), awarded for 3 years in 1996.


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