Posted by: Liz Massey | July 11, 2008

Practice makes fluent

You’ll notice that I post frequently on the topics of practice and technique. I’ve found that the topic is extremely relevant to creative people, so much so that it is one of the four pillars I’ve found support a person’s “creative momentum,” along with de-cluttering one’s creative landscape, building positive habits and rituals into one’s creative routine, and finding worthy projects to work on.

And as I’ve noted earlier, how one practices matters. We’re used to thinking about “practice makes perfect,” but a concept from education can help artists achieve an even more important objective in their practice regimen: fluency.

Fluency is a simple concept, one that’s easy to recognize when applied to learning a language. Not only can someone who is fluent in a language “perform” (speak or write) given tasks accurately, he or she can do it rapidly and without hesitation. Carl Binder, a behavioral psychologist and performance consultant, defines fluency as “accuracy plus speed” or “quality plus pace.” He believes the measurement or time element is the key to determining mastery, as he asserts that, “We see many children and adults who can perform skills and demonstrate knowledge accurately enough–given unlimited time to do so. But the real difference that we see in expert performers is that they behave fluently–both accurately and quickly, without hesitation.”

Thinking about arts training, especially for those who are self-taught, much frustration when one “plateaus” at a certain level of skill may actually be due to ignorance of the fluency principle. Binder notes that piling one non-fluent skill on top of another creates emotional stress and makes application of the entire skill set difficult to apply.

In other words, half-learning a bunch of artistic techniques can take you to the place where you say, “I guess I’m not a musician (painter/writer/videographer/etc.).” But your frustration probably has less to do with talent or capability than it does with fluency.

How Fluency Works

Educators who work with students to achieve fluency in a given task break the process down into 3 segements:

1) Learning the new behavior

2) Practicing the components that make up a great performance

3) Combining the components into a fluent composite performance

To use a creative example many of us are familiar with, musicians start with the goal of being able to play a certain song. “Fluency” would entail being able to play it, error-free, at the proper tempo. Step 1 might involve listening to the song (if a recorded version exists) and sight-reading it to get a general idea of what skills will be needed to play it well.

Step 2 involves practicing both the passages of the song that require improvement for fluency, as well as the musical drills (scales, tricky fingerings, etc.) that support making successful performance of such passages “second nature.”

Step 3 can happen once a musician has successfully mastered the pieces of the song that were troublesome. The goal in this step is to blend the fluent performance of each segment into a flawless–and musical–whole. This is often where the real music-making occurs, in my experience, but it has to be supported by the drills and micro-level practice.

Benefits of Fluency

Gaining fluency in a skill helps you build a solid foundation in your art or craft. Practicing with fluency in mind promotes the following:

Retention. Skills you are fluent in can be recalled and performed years later, even if you’re rusty. You haven’t forgotten how to do them.

Endurance. The more fluent you are at a task, the better able you are to concentrate on it for long periods of time and resist distractions (which are omnipresent for most of us!).

Application. As mentioned earlier, skills that are mastered at the fluent level, because they have become second nature, can be combined to perform more complex actions in an increasingly creative manner. The skills are also transferable to new situations.

Tips for developing a fluency-focused practice routine

1. Build time-based or real-world measurements into your goals for practice.

This is easy enough for musicians and others whose art is based in a time-measured medium, but writers and visual artists can practice skills in timed writing or drawing exercises. The goal is to get to the point where you’ve achieved what educators calls automaticity: “overlearning” key skills to the point where they require far less of your memory and brain-power to perform.

2. Break big performance goals into smaller “chunks” and master the “chunks” first.

Sometimes it helps to differentiate between practice to learn the skill initially (grasp the concept itself) and practice to get better at it (drills, flash cards, etc.).

3. Short practice intervals are better than long ones to achieve fluency.

This is the best news about fluency I know. Long practice sessions overtax and frustrate novices–if you want to practice your craft for two hours today, break it up into 15-minute “sprints” and focus each one on drilling yourself on a specified aspect of a goal you’re working on.

4. If you get stuck in learning a skill, move back to rehearsing a simpler skill that supports it.

This can lower the frustration level, and can also help you diagnose what foundational skills you haven’t achieved fluency in yet.

5. Chart your progress towards fluency.

Blogs can be a great place to share your practice regimen with others, or just have a convenient place to see where you’ve been, practice-wise. Here’s an example of a cellist’s practice blog; the Daily Paintworks website is a gathering of work by “daily painters,” who have pledged to paint every day (often in small formats, creating works that explore new techniques or skills), many of whom have their own blogs.

If you want to take a more left-brained, utilitarian approach to charting, graph paper or a simple lined-paper notebook work just fine for recording your rehearsals.

The questions to you…

  • Do you have a practice regimen you follow to improve your creative and artistic abilities? Has it been focused on fluency?
  • What are the biggest challenges you face in adapting fluency as a goal in the practice of your art or craft or creative pursuit?


  1. […] to see how I’m doing in relation to some of the advice I previously passed along related to fluency and “deliberate […]

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