THE BEST WAYS TO PRACTICE using the latest brain research

Recent studies showing how the brain acquires and stores new information can revolutionize our practice habits. Using these new findings, we can learn how to play our instruments faster, and retain the information much better.

We often get frustrated wondering why we played a musical passage over and over, then forgot it the next day. Only to remember it again the day after. “What’s going on in my brain?” you might ask. Recently our blog friend Nancy asked for practice suggestions after she observed: “sometimes after playing a piece, or even practicing scales or chords several times I start making more mistakes…”

Using data from the highly acclaimed book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Harvard University Press), I’d like to help you to make your practice time more effective.

Here’s a paragraph from the book that we will keep referring back to [underlining and asterisks mine]:

Most of us believe that learning is better when you go at something with single-minded purpose: the practice-practice-practice that’s supposed to burn a skill into memory….While practicing is vital to learning and memory, studies have shown that practice is far more effective when it’s broken into separate periods of training that are spaced out. The rapid gains produced by massed practice* (repetition) are often evident, but the rapid forgetting that follows is not. Practice that’s spaced out*, interleaved* with other learning, and varied* produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility.” (p.47)

Now let me define the underlined terms for you.

*Massed practice is when we play something over and over again. It seems to get easier in the short run, but repetitive practice alone does not get your music embedded into your long-term memory.

Cramming for exams is an example. Rereading and massed practice give rise to feelings of fluency … (p. 3) and it may get you through the next day’s midterm. But most of the material will be long forgotten by the time you sit down for the final (p.48).

Alternatives to massed practice:

If you are working on a difficult musical passage, do play it over until you feel that you understand what is going on in that passage. Play it, and analyze the music. Do the notes go up or down? Are they moving in half steps or larger intervals? What is happening in the accompaniment? What chord is being played broken or in block form? Trying humming the melody while playing the accompaniment. Try clapping the rhythm while counting. Then play it again. Once you have practiced the musical passage and feel that you understand it, move onto something else. If you played early in the day, practice it again before you go to bed. You will learn a new musical skill better if you Sleep On It!

The next day you will probably forget much of it. In fact “we lose something like 70 percent” of what we’ve just learned, very quickly. (p.28)

*Spaced practice means that we need to leave time in between our practice session for some forgetting to set in. After we forget something, it is more difficult to relearn it. But that difficulty makes us learn it better!

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. [Repetitive] learning that [seems] easy is like writing in sand, here today, gone tomorrow. (p. 3)

Spacing out your practice might feel less productive than “massed” or repetitive practice. However, you’ll see that eventually, spacing out practice really works better.

Spacing out your practice feels less productive for the very reason that some forgetting has set in and you’ve got to work harder to recall the concepts….What you don’t sense in the moment is that this added effort is making the learning stronger. (p 48)

Spaced practice is more effective because in order for us to store new skills and information into long-term memory, we require a process of “consolidation.” Consolidation is the brain connecting new information to prior knowledge, which may take several days.

The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.” (p.49)

How long must the intervals between practice be?

[Long] enough so that practice doesn’t become a mindless repetition. At a minimum, enough time so that a little forgetting has set in. A little forgetting between practice sessions can be a good thing if it leads to more effortful practice, but you do not want so much forgetting so that retrieval essentially involves relearning the material.The time periods between sessions of practice let memories consolidate. Sleep seems to play a large role in memory consolidation.

*Interleaved practice means that you should alternate practicing your troublesome musical passages with other skills such as finger exercises, sight reading, clapping and counting phrases, analyzing the musical structure, playing scales, practicing chords, reviewing old pieces, listening to your pieces on iTunes or Youtube etc., playing with your eyes closed, exercising your body, taking deep breaths and snack breaks….and other activities!

Here is another interesting revelation for me that the best athletic coaches know: you don’t need to learn your exercise or musical passage perfectly before practicing something else.

 Interleaving the practice of two or more…skills is a more potent alternative to massed practice. (p 49) In interleaving you don’t move from a complete practice set of one topic (or skill) to go to another. You switch before each practice is complete….It’s more effective to distribute practice across…different skills than [to] polish each one in turn. (p.65)

*Varied practice means practicing under various circumstances. Practice on different pianos or keyboards whenever possible. Practice in front of others as well as alone. Play with the TV on. Practice while standing up and dancing. Practice when you’re hungry or when you’re tired. When you first wake up and before you go to bed. Practice with one hand behind your back. Try playing the bass notes with your right hand and the treble notes with your left (with hands separately!). Turn the music upside down and practice a few measures that way! Practice everything an octave higher or lower. Play backwards, from the end towards the beginning. Practice with or without the pedal (whatever is different for you). Play air-piano 🙂 reading the notes while playing in the air. Memorize a few measures. Practice while swaying your body with the beat. Practice with a metronome. Play the accompaniment while you sing the melody. Practice while tapping your foot to the beat. Try lifting your feet while you play. Practice in candlelight. Practice while chewing gum. Practice while smiling. Practice while crying or chanting or humming. Get the picture? This is great for the brain, helpful for performance anxiety, and leads to increased musical mastery.

Varied practice…improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another…Recent neuroimaging studies show that different kinds of practice engage different parts of the brain….(p.51). Like interleaving, varied practice….helps learners reach…to higher levels of conceptual learning and application, building more rounded, deep and durable learning….(p 65)

There’s one more thing I want to add before letting you go back to your piano playing, Take some time to think about your music between your practice sessions. This is a process called *reflection:

One difference between those who do and don’t [learn] is whether they have cultivated the habit of reflection….Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: connecting [prior knowledge] to new experiences, and visualizing what you might do differently next time….Reflection is a form of retrieval practice (what happened? What did I do? How did it work out?), enhanced with elaboration (What would I do differently next time?) (pp.27,66)

Keeping a notebook at your piano is a great strategy. Write down what your musical challenges were today so that you can revisit them tomorrow.

Though now we have the scientific proof to back it up, this information has been known for a long time! The philosopher Aristotle wrote,

Exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory

If you have being paying attention (I hope you haven’t nodded off– this is a long post!), you know that you will need to reread this post many times before you remember the information! Remember to *space out your readings over several days, *interleaving  it with other studies, *varying the circumstances under which you read it, then *reflecting on what it means to you and your practice. If you don’t do these things, you will forget about 70% of this information by tomorrow!

Thanks to our blog friend Nancy for asking the questions, Do you have suggestions for practicing techniques? How much repetition is good? which inspired this vast tirade of mine. What are your thoughts?

With love and music, Gaili

Author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method For Adults 50+ to Spark the Mind, Heart and Soul