Originally published to www.bulletproofmusician.com
When time is short and we have lots of repertoire to learn, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and simply plow through as much as we can in a frenetic, bulldozer-y sort of way.
None of this feels particularly smart or effective as we’re doing it, but in the moment, the desperation kind of compels us to abandon any semblance of practice strategery and simply hunker down and keep our fingers moving, which feels more productive than stopping to engage in practice planning.
But is there a better way of learning music when time is limited? Are there specific strategies that can help us get to a higher level of playing more quickly? Or do we have to just dive in and maximize the number of repetitions we can get in?
The art of practicing
In many areas of our lives, knowing what to do is only part of the equation. For instance, I can have a perfectly sound understanding of how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions, but if I encounter a story problem and can’t figure out which operation to use, my results are going to be less than ideal.
The when is perhaps just as important as knowing what, and this is where the art and skill of practicing comes into play. Like, when is it helpful to engage in slow practice? When is it more helpful to engage in fast practice? When to use/not use the metronome? When to engage in/not engage in interleaved practice? When should we practice vs. when is it better to take a break? What should we working on anyway? Which are the biggest priorities?
This begins to get into an area of practice tactics known as “self-regulation.” As in, what do the most effective practicers do to make sure they’re not being inefficient and simply banging their heads against a wall?
When we’re little, we have parents to help us avoid getting stuck in a rut, but at some point we have to become our own practice coaches and ensure we’re making the most of our time and energy.
To that end, Indiana University professor Pete Miksza, conducted a study to see what would happen if he trained one group of students in effective practice techniques (like slow practice, repetition, whole-part-whole, and chaining), and another group in the same practice techniques plus self-regulation strategies (like concentration, goal-selection, planning, self-evaluation, and rest/reflective activity).
Would there be a difference in learning between the two groups?
5 days. 2 etudes.
On Day 1, the students in both groups recorded themselves sight-reading an etude provided by the researcher. Next, they were given 20 minutes to practice the etude in any way they wished. Then, they were asked to record a second performance of the etude.
On Day 2, both groups were asked to watch a video about various strategies for more effective practicing, and this is where the groups’ training experiences began to diverge. One group’s video (the “comparison” group) trained them in a series of practice techniques like chaining1 and whole-part-whole2.
Meanwhile, the other group’s video (the “treatment” group) included not just this same collection of practice techniques, but self-regulation strategies like effective goal-selection3 and self-evaluation4.
Importantly, both videos included not just a description of the practice and self-regulation strategies, but illustrative demonstrations as well, with the models (several advanced grad students) giving a running play-by-play of what they were doing and thinking as they demonstrated each example.
Following the 15-17 minute video tutorial, students were asked to try out the ideas they learned from the video during their regular practice for the day.
On Day 3, both groups watched the videos again, and were asked once more to try to use these ideas in their practice.
Day 4 was more of the same.
Then came Day 5. As on Day 1, students were given a fresh etude to sight-read, which they recorded, and then had 20 minutes to practice before having to record it again.
So how did the students do? Did the self-regulation strategies do anything to enhance their learning?
Changes from Day 1 to Day 5
After all of the students’ recordings were evaluated by a panel of three graduate music students5, it was time to do some number crunching.
Several cool findings emerged from the data.
- Overall, on both Day 1 and Day 5, both groups made progress during their 20 minute practice session. However, they made more progress during the same 20-minute time span on Day 5, suggesting that the video tutorials helped them become more effective practicers.
- But even cooler, the treatment group (i.e. practice strategies plus self-regulation training) one-upped the comparison group (i.e. practice strategies only) on Day 5, making significantly greater improvement on their etude in the same 20 minutes of practice. So from Day 1 to Day 5, something changed in their ability to learn more quickly. The researcher suggests that the over the course of the 5 days, the students in the treatment group may have learned how to better apply the practice strategies in a more effective and strategically optimal way. For instance, one difference in the practice behaviors of the two groups was that on Day 5, the treatment group spent more time working on musical nuances like articulation and interpretive issues, as opposed to just working on the notes and rhythms.
Here were my main takeaways from this study:
1. Teaching students at this level about practice strategies is still worthwhile – i.e., it shouldn’t be assumed that just because they are playing at a high level that they couldn’t use more tools in their practice strategy toolbox.
2. Teaching students about self-regulation strategies is an absolutely meaningful investment of time – potentially saving them lots of time and frustration over the course of their academic and professional careers.
3. Creating a practice-enhancing video tutorial such as was used in the study might be a fun studio project, and provide dividends in the learning of students for many years to come. Or maybe even having a “practice hacking” studio class/orientation session to kick off every year?
Wondering what “chaining,” “whole-part-whole,” “goal-selection,” and “self-evaluation” mean specifically?
Chaining: Let’s say you have a phrase that is too difficult for you to play all in one fell swoop. Chaining would involve starting with the first bit that you can play, and once you get the hang of it, adding additional little bits to it, until eventually you’re playing the phrase in its entirety.
Whole-part-whole: Let’s say you’re having trouble with a section of music, and there’s one part in particular that’s particularly gnarly. Whole-part-whole would involve working on that little trouble spot in isolation, but then playing the larger section again to make sure you can nail that tricky bit in context.
Goal-selection: Rather than simply diving in and getting stuck in the mindless loop of playing things over and over until they sound better, take a moment to (a) make a note of the key areas that need work and (b) create a plan for how you’re going to solve these issues before you even get started. And prioritize them in some meaningful order – like working on the more basic, foundational things first, then moving to more advanced, higher-level issues. Or even in terms of difficulty – from most to least difficult.
Self-evaluation: Rather than practicing until you can’t take it anymore, take a quick break every so often to take stock of your focus level during practice sessions, spending a moment to ask yourself whether you’re still practicing effectively or if you’re distracted and zoned out and should probably take an honest-to-goodness break to recharge. Kind of like the 20-20-20 rule my kid’s eye doc suggested (take a 20 second break every 20 minutes to rest your eyes by looking at least 20 feet away). This could also mean checking in with yourself to do a self-evaluation of how effectively your current practice strategy is working – and moving onto a new section, or trying a different strategy if what you’re doing isn’t really getting you anywhere.