Honoring Anders Ericsson (1947-2020)

Late last week, I learned through a colleague that Anders Ericsson — the intellectual father of deliberate practice — had just died, suddenly and tragically. He was only 73. Anders and I were emailing just a few days prior. This has been a complete gut-wrenching shock.

Anyone who has worked with me knows how fully Ericsson’s research permeates everything I do, and everything I teach. And while it may be common for scientists’ work to have important ramifications for advancing understanding, technological development, and public policy, in my experience it’s much rarer to see that impact so obviously and immediately at the level of individual experience. Part of the reason I’m so passionate about teaching and deliberate-practice-blogging is that it’s a unique area where science can directly impact the outcomes in peoples’ lives right now.

In a previous post, I wrote about the fundamentally empowering message of Ericsson’s work:

“Finally, after centuries of suffering under [a] false paradigm, scientific research is proving that the traditional notion of talent is nonsense. Here’s the reality: your ‘potential’ is scalable according to the time and effort you’re willing to put in. To quote Anders Ericsson, ‘the right sort of practice can help pretty much anyone improve in just about any area they choose to focus on. We can shape our own potential.’”

Now, anytime someone would try to address him as “Dr. Ericsson” he would quickly jump in — “No, no! Anders. Please!” So I'm going to honor that here too. Anders was my intellectual hero. He was also a mentor, a collaborator, and we were in the middle of designing further research studies into applied deliberate practice.

Anders was like an enthusiastic hyper-curious psychology Santa Claus. We’d have zoom sessions with collaborators and in the background his desk was stacked literally 3 feet deep in books and magazines. Classic scientist, through and through. (You can see what I mean in this screenshot from a zoom call discussing our pilot research study on March 9th, 2020:

In a moving tribute, Anders’ FSU colleague Dr. Neil Charness writes:

“Anders was the consummate scholar…. Unlike the bite-size snacks that much of our literature is composed of today, when you sit down to read his work, it is like being at a banquet…. He edited and contributed seminal work to the best-selling handbook that Cambridge University Press had ever published: The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance…. Those volumes speak eloquently to the way in which he revolutionized research in the field of expert performance. His theories were optimistic ones, stressing the importance of the methods by which people tackled skill acquisition and the role of deliberate practice in building skill…. Students flocked to his courses and to his lab to learn from the master…. It was awe-inspiring to listen to someone with such a complete grasp of the field…. Yes, he was and is a superstar. He shone so brightly, illuminating our field, blazing new paths, lighting the way for so many students and colleagues. He will be sorely missed, but his work will endure. We mourn his death but celebrate a fabulously rich and inspirational life.”

Anders' Peak coauthor, Robert Pool, further confirms this portrait, noting that “Anders was the ideal scientist, always insisting on the primacy of data and evidence…. His insistence on grounding his work on solid evidence is what gave it so much power and what assures me that his work will stand the test of time.”

In the end, I'm grateful I had the chance to tell Anders directly that his research has been one of the singularly most impactful things in my own life. (When I first reached out to Anders via email, I was astonished that a frenetically busy researcher of his stature wrote back within 36 hours:

It's not an exaggeration to say that Anders’ work completely transformed how I approach music and practicing, my worldview, and my entire sense of self. Now multiply that personal impact by millions. Below I’ve gathered well-wishes and testimonials from deliberate practicers of all stripes for whom Anders’ work has been transformational. They're a testament not just to the scope and breadth of Anders’ research, but also to the deeply personal way it impacted so many striving practicers. (Following the testimonials, you can read more about my mission to honor Anders’ ongoing legacy through my “pay-what-you-can” Deliberate Practice Bootcamp Online, where all proceeds will be donated to ArtistRelief.org and the NAACP.)

In my previous post I wrote “As we enter the summer of 2020, tragedies are not waning — they are multiplying, stacked atop each other like some sort of horrific layer cake.” Well…it’s time to add one more layer to that cake: Anders’ untimely death remains a huge loss…for his family, friends, academia, and the wider world of anyone interested in deliberate practice.

A redditor wrote “Here's to K. Anders Ericsson: the world's expert on experts.” Anders truly was the expert on experts. I'd like to think that if he'd survived to the After Times, Anders and I would have finally had the chance to get together over the beers we'd been discussing over Zoom. I hope he might have even considered me a friend. I considered him one, and I will miss him so much.

Testimonials

“Anders Ericsson's research on deliberate practice has benefited me immensely. It's brought about a paradigm shift in my attitude: no task seems insurmountable. In applying this knowledge through consistent and deliberate action, I've been able to improve my playing faster than I thought possible. It's also benefited me in other aspects of life. This is truly a great setback to the field of performance excellence. My sincerest condolences to the entire Ericsson family. He will be greatly missed.”
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~ Alex Artale, Boise Philharmonic Principal Timpanist

“What an incredible book that I require my students to read. It took me eleven years of trying to figure out what would later be called ‘deliberate practice.’ Peak: read it because your competition is.”
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~ Dean Borghesani, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Principal Timpanist

“Deliberate practice has given me the means to devise and implement a practice routine that is as efficient and effective as possible. Before I learned about this concept, the path to achieving my musical goals was dauntingly unclear to me. I thought that great musicians simply possessed natural talent that I did not, and that I would never be able to reach the level I desired. Now, thanks to having gained a firm grasp of the principles of deliberate practice, I feel more confident than ever about my abilities to attain my dreams as a musician.”
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~ Zubin Hathi, percussion/timpani, M.M. Cleveland Institute of Music (2021).

“The work of Anders Ericsson has undoubtedly changed how I use my practice time. But through the tenets of deliberate practice, I learned a more general lesson: our time is only as valuable as we decide to make it…because Ericsson understood that while developing expertise in anything is a commitment, it is still a choice. Thank you Anders Ericsson.”
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~ Sunjay Jayaram, violin, B.M. New York University (2021).

“The loss that the collective community feels with the passing of Anders Ericsson is hard to express in words. His work is responsible for changing the trajectory of my life and the way I approach it everyday. Anyone who has used his research to improve their own work must continue to spread this information to the world. Thank you for everything.”
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~ Theo Kalaitzis, M.M. DePaul University (2015), NYC freelance timpanist.

“I was so saddened to hear of Anders passing. I have benefited so much from his research which has been drilled into me by Professor Haaheim during two years of his Process of Auditions course and the Artful Timpani Auditioning Seminar. My practice routine is so much better and meaningful. God Bless Anders!”
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~ Jeffrey Kautz, percussion/timpani, M.M. New York University (2019).

“I’ve long been fascinated with motivation, the drive for excellence, and the practice required to achieve great things. As a band director, I’ve tried to give my students the skills needed to help them meet whatever goals to which they aspire. I have been able to share with them many examples of human achievement and uplifting stories that inspire, but it wasn’t until I read Anders’ book Peak that I finally had a manual to show them the ‘how’! His book literally gave me a curriculum of why, what, and how to teach the skills needed to make lasting improvement. I will forever be indebted to Anders for this seminal work.”
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~ Paul Kile, director of bands, Edina High School (Minnesota).

“Anders’ work and influence, both through Peak and the deliberate practice concepts Mr. Haaheim incorporated into our timpani lessons, completely shifted my perspective on music and my path to what will hopefully be a successful career. I knew I wanted to improve, but I lacked the framework to understand what I needed to do; Anders provided that framework and unlocked the path to improving at the things in life that I am passionate about.”
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~ Danny Kocher, percussion/timpani, A.D. New York University (2020).

“I cannot express the true depth of my sadness and sympathy regarding the loss of Anders Ericsson. The groundbreaking research and invaluable contributions of his impactful research cannot be overstated. The world faces a significant loss of an inspirational spirit, powerful mind, and unsurpassed scientist. My experience with the deliberate practice model has been a gradual implementation of its fundamentals, a lengthy process that will eventually result in tremendous benefits. Anders' research has greatly impacted countless individuals at the forefront of their respective fields, and I hope this impact continues to grow.”
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~ Madelyn Kudronowicz, principal percussion/timpani MYSO, Cedarburg High School class of 2020.

“As an educator and student of science, chess, music, and other interdisciplinary topics, I've seen the effects of deliberate practice firsthand. The idea that correct action is the main factor in continued improvement of a skill motivates me to identify those actions and share them with others. Anders Ericsson's pioneering research on the topic has shined a scientific light into what works and what doesn't, providing evidence that there is potential for greatness in everybody.”
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~ Steven Lenhert, Associate Professor, Department of Biological Science, Florida State University.

“Every thinker stands on the shoulders of giants, and in my present research there are none broader than Anders Ericsson’s. As I’m sure is true of many academics in an endless number of fields, my work relies on the foundation Ericsson provided for us. His contributions to the understanding of human achievement were, are, and shall remain legendary.”
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~ Sean Millman, percussion/timpani, music training researcher, PhD (candidate) New York University.

“Anders Ericsson and deliberate practice provided me a roadmap both to musical mastery and away from my greatest fears about not being talented. In his work I found a tangible, logical, thoughtful way out of anxiety-inducing thought patterns; I felt I could trust deliberate practice when I wasn't sure I could trust myself. But after working with Anders Ericsson for even a short time, my memories of him are of his simultaneously giant but gentle presence. Whenever people would gush to him about how much his work has helped their lives (which happened very often), his completely non-egotistical response was to find out more information. He was never about taking credit for his findings and creative ideas. Instead, he would excitedly and curiously ask, ‘oh, how?’ and immediately redirect attention to information discovery. And he wanted to use that information to objectively and measurably change habits, actions, and lives. In class once, he told us how he wanted to be an explorer when he was a kid, but he then realized there might not be many more physical places to really discover! Instead, he turned his spirit for discovery to psychology, and he was a force of unending energy, exploration, and enthusiasm for learning. I can't think of any teacher, or person, more genuine in their curiosity about the world, or their invitation to others to join that curiosity. People (myself included) would nervously approach him in the hopes of earning a moment of his time, but his attention was given freely and openly. Anyone who wanted to learn more was enthusiastically invited into his journey. And he connected people all over the world in a community excited to understand expert performance and learning. He leaves behind a powerful legacy in his prolific and impactful work, but also in his kind manner of welcoming people into the search for knowledge. I know I will hold both of his legacies with me for a long time.”
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~ Jessica Pollock, clarinet, D.M. (candidate) Florida State University.

“Anders Ericsson’s work has made a profound impact on my preparation and musicianship, but even more broadly on my overall outlook on ‘improvement.’ Applying the principles and attributes of deliberate practice has been a huge turning point for me.”
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~ Walt Puyear, saxophone M.M. University of Michigan (2021).

“Anders Ericsson’s research has without a doubt changed my life. His book Peak has been one of my most valuable assets, and has had a great influence on my playing and mindset. Without his research and incredible work, I'm not sure I would be where I am today. For that, I owe him my deepest gratitude. I wish I could have had the opportunity to meet him in person, and it saddens me that he is no longer with us.”
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~ Tim Schneider, percussion/timpani, B.M. New York University (2021).

“From the moment I first learned about Anders Ericsson and his research on deliberate practice, it truly changed my entire approach to music learning. His work continues to be a massive source of motivation and inspiration, especially when looking at how steep the mountain of expertise is. His book Peak has a special place on my bookshelf, and I am incredibly thankful and grateful to have it as a guide for my learning. Rest in peace.”
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~ Jonathan Sotelo, percussion/timpani, M.M. University of Maryland (2022).

“Through my connection and my mentoring with Jason Haaheim, I became acquainted with the work and methodology of Anders Ericsson. While I’m still in the process of internalizing Ericsson’s teachings, I’ve already been able to put into action many of his ideas. My thoughts go to the family and loved ones of this one-of-a-kind scholar whose work will certainly pave the way for generations to come.”
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~ David Cariano Timme, percussion/timpani, M.M. Norwegian Academy of Music.

“Anders Ericsson's passing is a great loss for us all. His research, and his efforts to make it accessible to a wider audience, have deeply influenced my learning and practicing habits. More importantly, his book Peak has shifted my understanding of concepts such as talent and mastery, replacing ‘learned helplessness' with a sense of agency and a great curiosity for a multifaceted and radically nuanced phenomenon. His seminal work is a significant contribution to the advancement of science and a catalyst to human accomplishment, for which we ought to be grateful.”
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~ Baptiste Watiez, bassist, host of the XPol Podcast.

“It is too often that great individuals leave us without knowing the effects they have made in the lives of both friends and strangers. I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Ericsson in person, but I have personally benefited from his work through those he has mentored. The principals introduced to me have been equally effective on stage as a performer as they are as a nurse. To his colleagues that continue to propel and share his work, my sincerest thank you. To his family, I offer my deepest condolences.”
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~ Cory Woessner, registered nurse, percussion/timpani, Northland Timpani Summit alumnus.

Honoring a Legacy, and Giving Back

Ever since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, I've been struggling to determine how I might be able to help, or give back in any meaningful way. As the pandemic is predictably resurging in the U.S., today (Sunday, June 28th) was supposed to have been the day we commenced our in-person Deliberate Practice Bootcamp. Unsurprisingly, that had to be Covid-cancelled. But as a way to honor Anders’ memory and his colossal contributions to our field, I've decided to offer an online version of the seminar. The Deliberate Practice Bootcamp ONLINE will be a pay-what-you-can ($25 minimum) weeklong seminar open to all instrumentalists, July 27-31, 6:00-7:30p edt each evening, with proceeds donated to ArtistRelief.org and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
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Since 2017, I’ve hosted the in-person Deliberate Practice Bootcamp (DPB) in my hometown of Minneapolis at the MacPhail Center for Music. (DPB grew out of my Northland Timpani Summit as a way to open the event to non-timpanists in a relevant and helpful fashion.) DPB-ONLINE is my offering for anyone to learn about deliberate practice, and simultaneously help fundraise for both social justice and artists-in-need.
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In deference to the economic hardship of the Covid-era, I’m setting a low minimum payment ($25) to make this accessible to as many people as possible. From those minimum payments, I’ll be covering our costs and then donating all remaining proceeds. DPB registration would normally be $150, so if you can pay more, please do. Not only will your artist-colleagues-in-need thank you — you’ll be contributing to the ongoing fight for social justice!
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Please consider joining me online later this July to honor Anders Ericsson, and to explore how deliberate practice can transform your life too.

Explore the Deliberate Practice Bootcamp ONLINE

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