In this article, I take you through how you can improve your scratching by utilising a technique known simply as deliberate practice.
It’s something I’ve been meaning to cover for a while now, as I believe that it can really impact your skill level. You can begin using it immediately (and I would recommend using it) whatever level of DJ you are.
You may have already realised that technique is only a small part of scratching; mindset and the way we approach practice make up an even greater part.
I’ll go through the background and a little theory about deliberate practice first to help us grasp all the concepts, before showing you how to apply it to your own scratch practice.
I often get asked:
how much time should I spend practicing?
DJs write to me and tell me that they are practicing for anywhere from half an hour to four hours a day and ask if it’s enough to see an improvement.
I find it hard to answer these types of questions and now that I know a bit more about deliberate practice, I understand why I struggled.
It turns out that the quality of your practice is just as important as the quantity.
This concept might seem really obvious, but I think it is easily and often overlooked.
It’s not just about the hours!
You may have heard that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill.
Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book, Outliers, is largely responsible for introducing this “10,000-hour rule” to a mass audience (it’s the name of one of the chapters).
What wasn’t made clear by Gladwell, is that this is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, a concept which can be traced back to a 1993 paper written by K. Anders Ericsson, who is the world’s leading exponent on the subject.
In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman debunks the popular 10,000-hour mythology, to reveal the more complex truth:
“The “10,000-hour rule” – that this level of practice holds the secret to great success in any field – has become sacrosanct gospel, echoed on websites and recited as litany in high-performance workshops. The problem: it’s only half true. If you are a duffer at golf, say, and make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of practicing that error will not improve your game. You’ll still be a duffer, albeit an older one.
K. Anders Ericsson goes on to state:
“You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal. You have to tweak the system by pushing, allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”
We can’t just turn up and scratch for 10,000 hours however we like.
So rather than asking “am I practicing enough?” it is better to ask “am I practicing in the right way?”. The truth is, I don’t know anything about how you are practicing. Are you focused on learning a specific technique and gradually improving it, or randomly freestyling lots of different techniques? This can make a MASSIVE difference to the outcome!
My thoughts can be summed up by this quote:
The right kind of practice is not a matter of hours. Practice should represent the utmost concentration of brain. It is better to play with concentration for two hours than to practice eight without. I should say that four hours would be a good maximum practice time—I never ask more of my pupils—and that during each minute of the time the brain be as active as the fingers.
– Leopold Auer (violinist, teacher, conductor and composer).
This is where deliberate practice comes in.
What is Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate practice is a form of training that consists of focused, repetitive practice in which the subject continuously monitors his or her performance, and subsequently corrects, experiments, and reacts to immediate and constant feedback, with the aim of steady and consistent improvement.
Here is an expansion on the definition from Noa Kageyama:
Deliberate, or mindful practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, that is, for lack of a better word, more scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of hypothesis testing where we relentlessly seek solutions to clearly defined problems.
Deliberate practice is often slow, and involves repetition of small and very specific sections of a skill instead of just playing through. For example, if you were a musician, you might work on just the opening note of a solo to make sure that it “speaks” exactly the way you want, instead of playing the entire opening phrase.
An example of this for Scratch DJs might be breaking down a new scratch technique into small parts and practicing those before linking them up, rather than trying (and failing to the point of frustration) to do it all in one go.
If you are anything like me, you might have previously thought of scratch practice as hopping on the decks, putting on a beat and scratching.
If your current practice consists of this kind of “jamming” / improvising / freestyling / mindless scratching, keep in mind that this is NOT deliberate practice and you might want to rethink to make progress at a higher level. Not to sound harsh though, as I think most of us default to this out of habit, myself included.
Scratching / turntablism is still relatively new in terms of being recognised as a musical discipline / instrument, so unlike the violin masters, there is really no recognised system of recommended learning or an approach to practice. As more and more DJs are starting to scratch and are wanting to improve, the question of “how do you practice?” or “how do you come up with combos?” (which I will cover another time) comes up more frequently. Whereas we used to just experiment on the decks, a more structured approach can give greater benefits which means faster progress and elevating the art of scratching to a higher level.
All my videos that I have posted under the label “scratch practice” are not examples of deliberate practice. They are mainly me freestyling some techniques that I may or may not have perfected.
If I was to post a video of my deliberate scratch practice, it would most likely be very boring and repetitive to watch as I figure things out and repeat small movements. Maybe you would like to see this though?
Out of all my scratching hours, I’ve maybe only done 3,000 – 4,000 deliberate practice hours. The rest was just freestyling. Deliberate practice is definitely responsible for the main improvements in my scratching style.
Why Practice Deliberately?
Now we know what deliberate practice is, why would we use it?
- To deliberately improve your performance rather than simply by accident.
- To make the most efficient use of the time you invest in practicing and ensure that it counts.
- To cut down the time it takes to learn new techniques and master techniques.
- To develop the habit of perseverance that can then be used for even more deliberate practice.
- Because more hours of practice doesn’t necessarily mean increased improvement.
- 20-30 minutes of deliberate scratch practice is far better than 4 hours of mindless freestyling and improvisation.
Taking inspiration from the world of professional violinists, Noa Kageyama comments:
Violinist Nathan Milstein is said to have once asked his teacher Leopold Auer how many hours a day he should be practicing. Auer responded by saying “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.”
Heifetz also indicated that he never believed in practicing too much, and that excessive practice is “just as bad as practicing too little!” He claimed that he practiced no more than three hours per day on average, and that he didn’t practice at all on Sundays. You know, this is not a bad idea – one of my own teachers, Donald Weilerstein, once suggested that I establish a 24-hour period of time every week where I was not allowed to pick up my instrument.
Deliberate Practice Benefits – Basketball Analogy
This article on Kobe Bryant details how he deliberately practiced making 800 jump shots before the time most of us usually wake up.
Kobe then applies all of the skill he gained in this practice in his basketball GAMES. The game is the reward, his deliberate practice leads up to it and allows him to enjoy it.
Similarly, we gain our skills through our deliberate scratch practice. We then use that skill in our freestyles / jamming, which is our scratch equivalent of a basketball game and the part that most of us enjoy the most and is the greatest reward.
Now that you know what deliberate practice is, here is a 4 part checklist for practicing your scratching deliberately:
- Analyse: identify one part of your scratching that needs improvement: e.g. learning a new technique or increasing your speed of a technique.
- Practice the focused area that you identified in part 1. Break it down into chunks and slow everything down whilst you practice.
- Evaluate your progress: With scratching, you have the benefit of being able to hear when you attain what you were striving for, but you can also record yourself as audio or a video for even more insights. It’s more work but it really does help!
- Repeat go back to part 1 and coninue your practice based on what you observed in part 3. Build up that muscle memory! Keep on!
- Pick a target
- Reach for it
- Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
- Return to step one
Deliberate practice is hard but worth it! Stick with it!
Two Examples Of My Own Deliberate Scratch Practice
Now that we’ve covered the basic “how to” principles, let’s explore some real examples of how I use it in my own scratch training:
1 – Learning a New Technique
I will demo this process in a future video, but here is an overview:
- I pick a scratch technique. Right now it is the slow autobahn and fast autobahn.
- I write down a simple scratch notation and place it in front of me so I can visually see what I am aiming for.
- I chunk the simple scratch notation into small chunks.
- I very slowly practice the first chunk.
- Once it feels like I am getting somewhere, I move onto the second chunk.
- Next I practice linking all the chunks together.
- I practice it over and over slowly until I can do it over a very slow beat.
- All the while I have to focus to avoid reverting to the scratches I can do which provides and instant hit of enjoyment!
When I teach you in my tutorials, I am essentially breaking the steps down into manageable segments that you can deliberately practice and see progress more quickly than if you just tried to do the technique blindly over and over at a faster pace..
Once I can do a technique slowly over a beat, I move onto increasing my speed.
2 – Increasing The Speed of a Technique
Next, it’s time to start deliberately practicing increasing the speed at which I can perform.
My most favourite way to do this is using my Speed Booster resources. These are simply beats where the tempo is increased gradually over a 10 minute period in small 1 BPM increments every 8 bars.
You can also do this manually, although it will break up your practice having to change the BPM yourself:
- Start with a slow beat around 70bpm.
- Practice the technique you wish to speed up
- Increase the speed of the beat by +1 BPM.
- Practice the technique again
- Repeat steps 3+4 over and over
Here is an example of me doing some deliberate practice using my speed booster to improve the speed of my boomerang scratch:
You can see that I struggle in places but I remember a time when I couldn’t even do this technique and had to use the deliberate practice steps detailed in part one to buildup to it.
The fact that I recorded this video also gave me feedback on how I am doing and where I could improve.
I will be covering more about how I learn techniques and how you can too in upcoming video lessons realeased weekly in my School of Scratch.
Please note that this deliberate practice of techniques that I have detailed is just one part of scratching. How you flow and phrase vocal cuts are a few more aspects.
What Happens When You Don’t Practice Deliberately?
Someone noted on one of my scratch videos that I was better at flares and crabs compared to my transforms and suggested it was because I scratch hamster.
I disagree because the truth is, I do not deliberately practice transforms EVER!
Even though transforms may well be easier to perform regular, that is in no way a limitation to being able to perform the scratch hamster. I’ve seen plenty of hamster style scratch DJs perform the transform to a high level.
I’ve maybe been a bit lazy and stuck to the techniques I enjoy, which include more open fader scratches. If I really want to improve my transforms, I need to practice them deliberately just as I did with the boomerang. It involves practicing them for an intense focused period and then adding them into my scratch repertoire when I go back to freestyling.
Deliberate Practice Tips
Here are my top tips for practicing deliberately:
- Keep a practice notebook – I write down my discoveries, things that made scratching easier and simple scratch notation for new scratches and ideas.
- Record yourself preferably on video and watch it back. Don’t share this on social media sites – it’s for you and the benefit of your progress only.
- Sometimes when we are scratching it sounds amazing to our own ears. When we watch it back, you might think otherwise! This is a good thing as you can close down the gap.
- Seek out honest feedback from your peers. Post the end result of your deliberate practice as videos on Youtube. Share them in the Studio Scratches Facebook Group or forums in the School of Scratch.
- Focus on one goal at a time.
- If you allocate yourself an hour and practice deliberately every day for a week you will be surprised at what you achieve.
- Work on developing specific skills, e.g. increase the speed of the chirp scratch or be able to do a chirp flare consistently.
- If you can’t objectively hear if a certain scratch technique you are practicing sounds how think it should sound, I recommend going back to basics and finding an example of how it should be done. Once you know how the original sounded, you are then free to break the rules and make it your own scratch.
- Write a list of the techniques that need improvement or new techniques that you want to learn.
- Frustration with a technique is a great indicator of something you can work on with deliberate practice.
Challenges & Notes on Deliberate Practice
- It is often NOT fun (but not being able to scratch how you want to is also not fun!)
- You need to be motivated or disciplined to start deliberate practice.
- In order to practice with intention for long enough to become an expert or gain useful skills, you need to make the investment.
- It’s an investment into improving your skills for future use.
- When you can start doing some scratches after learning the basics, it’s really tempting to just start freestyling over a beat you like.
- It’s enjoyable to let loose and freestyle over a beat, it’s why we learn all these techniques in the first place.
- It can be super hard to switch from freestyle mode to deliberate mode where you say to yourself: “I’m only going to practice this one scratch for this session”.
- This is the way I learn the majority of my scratches (excluding happy accidents, which incidentally increase after practicing deliberately).
- Going from 4 hours of what I thought was practice, I could initially only manage 10 – 20 mins max of deliberate practice before I got bored and either switched back to freesetyling or just stopped my session for that day. However, I learn new things and improve existing things so much quicker overall by using deliberate practice. Now I’m up to 30-40 mins.
- It’s waayyyy more intense that freestyle scratching or jamming – don’t worry if you can’t manage more than 5-10 minutes before you get distracted at first.
- It can be slow and may sometimes seem frustrating, but it is the only way I have found to learn properly and save time in the long run.
- It is a lot of work to analyse everything you are doing (but so worth it).
Its a personal journey and this quote might help inspire you onwards:
I know what I have to do, and I’m going to do whatever it takes. If I do it, I’ll come out a winner, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else does.
– Florence Griffith Joyner
How To Keep it Fr-Fr-Fresh
- Switch it up to avoid boredom and burnout. Focus on daily short bursts. 15 – 20 minutes is a good place to start.
- Turn off your phone and social connections and get stuck in.
- Once I have deliberately practiced, I reward myself with some scratch freestyle where I can do any techniques that I want.
- Take regular breaks and rest / do something fun in-between.
- Take a day off! You deserve it!
I’l leave you with a some quotes on deliberate practice.
First from the musical world of the violin masters as summarised by Noa Kageyama – a Juilliard-trained violinist turned sport & performance psychologist:
Classical pianist Rubinstein stated that nobody should have to practice more than four hours a day. He explained that if you needed that much time, you probably weren’t doing it right.
Violinist Nathan Milstein who once asked his teacher Leopold Auer how many hours a day he should be practicing. Auer responded by saying “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1 1/2 hours.”
Even Heifetz indicated that he never believed in practicing too much, and that excessive practice is “just as bad as practicing too little!” He claimed that he practiced no more than three hours per day on average, and that he didn’t practice at all on Sundays.
“Shockingly, when we look at some of the most elite musicians in the world, we find that they aren’t necessarily practicing more but, instead, more deliberately. This is because they spend more time focused on the hardest task and focus their energy in packets — instead of diluting their energy over the entire day, they have periods of intense work, followed by breaks. Not relying on willpower, they rely on habit and discipline scheduling. Studies have found that the most elite violinists in the world generally follow a 90-minute work regime, with a 15- to 20-minute break afterwards.”
My Favourite Deliberate Practice Resources
If you would like to lean more about this topic, I recommend the following sources:
- Dr. Noa Kageyama on Lifehacker: A better way to practice.
- Dr. Noa Kageyama: Bulletproof Musician – scroll to the bottom to get a very useful Free Practice Hacks Workbook.
- James Clear: What Mozart and Kobe Bryant Can Teach Us About Deliberate Practice.
- Corbett Barr on Expert Enough: Deliberate Practice: What It Is and Why You Need It.
- Sean McCabe of seanwes: 4 Step Formula to Deliberate Practice & Getting Better on Purpose with Deliberate Practice.
- Drake Baer of Fast Company: Why “Deliberate Practice” Is The Only Way To Keep Getting Better.
If you got value from this article, you might like to know that I will be covering more on the topic in a video tutorial format in my School of Scratch.
Happy deliberate scratch practicing! 😀
– Emma Short-E
P.S. School of Scratch Update
School of Scratch is an online scratch tutorial video membership site. It’s a dedicated space for simple but effective, high quality, online scratch tutorial videos where you can learn at your own pace.
You may have seen in the last couple of weeks on my social sites that my Canon 600D camera that I use to shoot all my videos was in the repair shop after the LCD screen stopped working.
I am pleased to say that the guys at Thomas Camera Services Ltd did an awesome job and expedited the repair. It came back cleaner than it went in (and I take good care of my stuff).
Behind the scenes yesterday I tested the payment system (I’m the first paying customer!)
I also invested in a new Rode microphone and Tascam sound recorder so improve the level of voiceover audio as I add more videos each week. It’s gotta be clean and crispy yo! I’ve been testing them out and can’t wait to record a proper video.
The next post from me here on Studio Scratches will be giving you some sample content of what is included in the School of Scratch so stay tuned!
Launch Date: Tuesday May 27th, 2014
Sign up here for launch notification and early bird discount: SchoolOfScratch.com