A Practice Hack That Could Significantly Boost Practice Efficiency (but May Not Feel Like It In the Moment)

I don’t know if it’s true, or just my imagination, but I’ve always felt that my most productive practice years were actually my very earliest years, up until about the time I was in mid-to-late elementary school.

In that period of my life, practice was structured in a very particular way. One key factor was that I practiced in multiple practice sessions per day – morning, afternoon, and evening. And not because I had so much rep to learn that it had to be split across multiple sessions, but more just so I could “touch” everything I was working on more than once per day. If I’m remembering the rationale correctly, my mom figured that we eat three meals a day, so why not practice three times a day too?

Whatever the reason, this formula seemed to work pretty well.

As I got older however, I started moving away from this practice structure, and consolidating all my work into one single mega-session.

In college, for instance, I’d generally plop down in a practice room after dinner, start out with some etudes/technical exercises, then move sequentially through my repertoire, spending ~30-45 minutes on each piece before moving onto the next one on my list.

Or sometimes, I’d devote a whole day to one piece, and put everything else on the back burner (like the day before a lesson when it seemed like my best bet was to put all my eggs in one basket).

At the time, I figured practice was practice, and it didn’t really matter how or when I did it, but there is accumulating research which suggests that maybe there really was something to my childhood approach.

How so?

Flashcards

Twenty UCLA students participated in a study geared towards identifying the most effective and efficient way to learn GRE-type vocabulary words with flashcards. Would learning be best with a big stack of flashcards? Or is learning optimized when students use smaller stacks of flashcards?

Well, let’s mull this over for a moment.

If you were to study with a large stack of flashcards (say, 20), it might take quite a while to get through the stack. So it’s very possible that by the time you get back to the first card, you’ll already have forgotten the answer. On the other hand, with a small stack (like 5), forgetting is less of an issue, as it’s easier to keep the answers in mind as you keep cycling through the stack in a short span of time.

So, say you had a set of 20 flashcards you needed to learn. Would you dive right in and study that single stack of 20 cards? Or would you split it up into a bunch of smaller stacks and work through the “sub-stacks” one batch at a time?

Big stack vs. small stacks

The participating students were asked them to complete an online vocabulary lesson which would help them learn 20 GRE-type words (like “effulgent”).

One group (the “spaced learning” group) was presented with one large “stack” of 20 digital flashcards. The program rotated through the cards 4 times, in the same order, so they had a chance to study and attempt to recall the content of each flashcard 4 times.

Another group (the “massed learning” group) was given 4 smaller “stacks” of 5 flashcards each. In this condition, the software rotated through each stack 4 times before moving onto the next stack, so these students also had an opportunity to study and recall the content of each flash card 4 times.

There was no limit placed on their study time, and they weren’t given any particular instructions on how to study; they were simply told that they would have to take a test ~24 hours following their study session.

Same time, but different results

Students in both groups averaged about 22 minutes of study time. However, despite spending the same amount of time studying, one group performed significantly better than the other on the recall test.

Specifically, the spaced group (with the big stack of 20 cards) successfully recalled 49% of the words, while the students in the massed group (small stacks) only recalled 36% of the words.

Why such a difference?

Why spacing works

There are a few theories about why spacing practice leads to better learning. One is that we tend to pay better attention (and not be so prone to going on autopilot) when we’re studying or working on new things, as compared with when we are repeating the same few things over and over in a short span of time.

Another is that when we work on one thing, and don’t come back to it for a while, it takes more effort to remember it again, which enhances learning.

And in a practical sense, when we introduce spacing in our study or practice, it means that we are learning and retrieving information in different contexts too. Different practice rooms. Different times of day. When our bodies feel more or less fatigued. All of which is way more conducive to flexible and durable learning than if we try to learn everything at the same time, in the same setting.

The illusion of learning

There was one more rather curious finding.

After completing their study session, students were asked to predict their performance on the next day’s test. Those in the spaced condition predicted they would remember about 43% of the words (but actually scored 49%). Meanwhile, students in the massed condition predicted they would remember about 50% (but only recalled 36%).

So the spaced group underestimated their performance, while the massed group overestimated their performance. In other words, studying in a massed fashion resulted in the illusion of effective learning.

Take action

Looking back, I see that my childhood practice – where I practiced every piece I was working on multiple times a day – falls under the category of “spaced” practice. Conversely, my college practice – where I spent more continuous time working on each piece, but only once per day – was “massed” practice. So perhaps it’s not just in my imagination that I learned quicker/better when I was a young child…

Of course, it’s one thing to engage in this kind of spaced practice if your rep consists of shorter pieces or orchestral excerpts, but what if you are working on a huge concerto?

Well, perhaps another way to use the “big stack of flashcards” model would be to take a movement of the concerto, and work through it from beginning to end, focusing your attention on tricky passages in intense bursts, but moving on after a few minutes and ensuring you don’t get stuck in any one section, so that there’s enough time to work through the entire movement multiple times? Compared to the “small stack” model of practice, where you might work through the same piece from beginning to end, but spend more time working through tricky spots in each section in that moment, with the aim of getting through the piece only once in that practice session.

It certainly sounds a little unusual, but in an odd way, it also makes sense. Have you ever structured your practice this way? And if you did, how did it go?

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It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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Comments

23 Responses

  1. This seems counterintuitive, but I am willing to try it out. It just so happens I set up a group of oung practicers to set up their six easy pieces on cards and place them on their piano. The instruction was to play one piece everytime the pass the piano. Next week I will have them play all their pieces and then repeat later in the day. It will be my own experiment.

  2. I put small, focused excerpts on notecards to keep students from simply practicing pieces from beginning to end. They find that they usually can get through their stack of excerpts more than once in a practice. This practice method works really well, so I am wondering if this method is spaced enough even though they practice in one session?

    1. I totally agree with you about having students practice excerpts and use this mindset in my elementary instrumental class lessons. I have my young ones list how many “reps” they did on each excerpt.

    2. Elizabeth,

      I think so – as long as there is some time between excerpts, that they can get through them more than once in a practice session, it’s probably enough time for some forgetting to set in.

      1. I wish I could upload my spreadsheet (it is self explanatory). I am 62 and trying to get back to where I was when I quit playing at 30. After reading “make it stick” by Peter C. Brown, I designed the following practice session for learning 4 pieces (broken down into sections) and technique for (grade 8 – RCM – Canadian eh!).
        I practice 3 times a day, 30minutes each, working only 5minutes on each piece or technique as follows:

        First 30 minutes (9ish AM) I review yesterdays practice except technique (I don’t review technique):
        • Tech: Ab & F scales – 5min
        • Invention 1 – Section 1 – 5 minutes
        • Prelude 1 – Section 4 – 5 minutes
        • Tech: Ab & F Tonic Chords – 5 minutes
        • Invention 13 – Section 3 – 5 minutes
        • Milonga del angel – Section 2 – 5 minutes

        Second Session: 30 minutes (noonish)
        • Tech: Ab & F Chords (dom7, dim7) – 5min
        • Invention 1 – Section 2 – 5 minutes
        • Prelude 1 – Section 3 – 5 minutes
        • Tech: Ab & F Tonic Arpeggios – 5 minutes
        • Invention 13 – Section 4 – 5 minutes
        • Milonga del angel – Section 1 – 5 minutes

        Third Session: 30 minutes (later in the day)
        • Tech: Ab & F Arpeggios (dom7, dim7) – 5min
        • Invention 1 – Section 2 – 5 minutes
        • Prelude 1 – Section 3 – 5 minutes
        • No more technique for the day (25 minutes)
        • Invention 13 – Section 4 – 5 minutes
        • Milonga del angel – Section 1 – 5 minutes

        I update and print a new spreadsheet every day and make notes on a work work sheet that breaks each of my pieces into sections.

        I have only been doing this for about 2 months now and the progress is night and day. I started out with only 2 30-minute sessions for the first month and am adding sessions as I feel more confident. I really can’t imagine practicing more than 3 hours like this without being completely exhausted? Oh how I used to waste the hours on massed practice. This is much tougher, but the rewards are such that I find it much more encouraging – not to mention that I “really, really, really” look forward to my practice sessions.

        Noa; Thanks for everything!!! If you would like a copy of my spreadsheet, please feel free to contact me…

  3. The multiple sessions in effect “multiply” one’s “remembering.” When I taught college elective classes, I encouraged students (who were always busy with studies, probably some work, maybe family) 1. not to underestimate the value of short sessions (even 15-20 minutes) and 2. frequent sessions over the week – even if they were short. I explained that they were “practicing remembering.” – a gateway to eventual accomplishment. It just seemed to be common sense.

    1. Hi Chris,

      Nope, big stack=spaced and small stacks=massed. It’s a little confusing, right? I think it helps to think of it as Mary Jo described it in her comment – if you have a big stack of cards, and cycle through multiple times, how much time does this allow for forgetting to occur between each time you get back to card #1? Compared with small stacks which means studying the same thing over and over with very little forgetting.

      With practice, the tendency to play the same passage or section over and over doesn’t allow for much forgetting to occur, whereas working on it for a little while, moving on, then coming back later in the same day or even practice session will allow some forgetting to occur so you can practice remembering it again.

  4. For me there’s a much greater chance that burst practice sessions are centered on “process” while those marathon sessions are very outcome oriented. We all know there is a Zen to practice; as your attachment to an outcome increases the quality of the result can rapidly move inversely. That’s no source of comfort if you have to learn a concerto in a week, but acknowledgment and acceptance of what is true right now, is the gateway to improving. That and your enjoyment of the process itself.

  5. You’ve written on inter-leaved practice before and that has proven useful for mastering the tricky bits in my parts. This seems to be a variation on that idea, just with a longer interval.

    Another thing to try: When an excerpt has been learned set it aside and come back to it in increasing intervals (1 day, 2 days, 3 days, 5 days, etc.) If you flub it relearn it and go back to 1 day. I have used this method for learning thousands of foreign vocabulary words and hundreds of parishioner’s names. I haven’t tried it yet for excerpts, but I would be very surprised if it didn’t work for retaining mastery.

    1. Chris,
      I have applied exactly what you have recommend for three years now and love the results. I have a long list of concepts that I apply to the pieces I’m becoming familiar with. Each of those concepts are followed up in the following way. 3 days of intense application, then a break of a week. After that I pull up the passage or piece and apply the concept. This is followed by a two week break and the pattern continues in the following way. 1 month, 2 months, 3 months, 6 months, and finally 12 months. The reason I do this is because I have made a commitment to learn all of my pieces permanently.

  6. Supposedly, Rachmaninov used to wake early in the morning, practice, take a nap, and practice again, claiming it was like practicing twice in one day. Do you know if this is true, or comment on that as related to this article?

    1. Hi Matthew,

      No idea if this is true or not, but there are other studies which do suggest that sleep between practice sessions can help us learn more effectively, for a variety of reasons. And even if it didn’t, who wouldn’t like a nap in the middle of the day?

  7. I remember a study you quoted which said tired learners don’t do as well. Doesn’t learning dimenish as the day’s activities wear us down? Our minds or at least mine goes through a slow-down sleepy cycle in early afternoon or after dinner. I stay away from those times to have a practice session unless it’s with people who motivate me. Another factor is how many times I’ve practiced a piece. You can practice it to death by being bored with it.
    I can’t imagine trying to learn a new language from a stack of cards. My mind would rebel because I’m not interested in a new language. Studying three times a day would have been worse. Just saying that learning (as you know) is a complex mixture of things we have more or less control of.

    1. Hi Steve,

      Yep, being fatigued makes learning tougher. But we do tend to have ups and downs in our energy throughout the day, and can still have pretty good energy and focus even later in the day, depending on when. I used to have some pretty good practice sessions after 9pm, for instance. But yes, figuring out how to practice/learn optimal involves a mix of many different variables.

  8. This is great. I have always noticed that multiple practice sessions in one day — especially short sessions in which you simply touch briefly on everything — reinforce concepts better than marathon sessions. However, I will say that it’s crucial not to be practicing mistakes simply because you are trying to practice quickly. Perhaps the best way I’ve found to accomplish this is to pull out each piece, focus on one or two difficult sections, and then run the whole movement at a tempo which I know I can handle from beginning to end. Then, I put it away and come back to it later in the day.

    Thanks for this!

  9. Wow, this is thought-provoking stuff! I can see how it works & I think a balance is certainly required. If there’s a tricky passage, it does need some time devoted to repetition in order to master it (rather than just practising faking it as we play through the whole piece) so detailed, slow, concentrated, focused practice is required in the initial stages – that would be “massed” practice, right? But thereafter, what’s needed is practising getting it right first time, not practising getting it right after several repeats, so that would be “spaced” practice.

    I realise I do this intuitively as I direct my bell-ringing team. We play through a piece in rehearsal, then I direct the ringers in practice of the tricky bits and try to work out exactly where and what the problems are, and we do a few repeats on the difficult passages until we’ve mastered them. Then after coffee break, we play through the whole piece to “practice remembering” to get it right.

    Did you know, Noa, that the Pali word “sati” (now all-too regularly translated as mindfulness) actually originally meant “remembering”? (Look up Bhikkhu Bodhi’s paper – What does mindfulness really mean?”) Spaced practice exactly describes mindfulness – practising remembering, again and again. Remembering to be kind to yourself is as important a part of that as remembering your perceived experiences. So, perhaps according to the Buddhist tradition, “practising remembering” is a life-skill, not just a practice hack?!! 😉

    Thanks so much for all you share on this blog – it really is fascinating and I learn so much.

  10. Sometimes it’s a really good method. A long time ago I read a good advice on your blog about learning a piece by heart (or practicing something new in general) and that the best thing is to revise the yesterday’s learned parts from a piece first thing in the morning.
    So I did this for a while:
    1. revise the piece right after my morning warm-up, work on it but only if I had memory slips (the parts I didn’t know yet: from sheet music);
    2. in the afternoon I would work on ”techincal” parts and fine-tuning;
    3. and in the evening I would learn a new part of it by heart.
    I never had a memory slip on that piece, everyone should try this method!

  11. For the last 4 years I’ve been dealing with tendonitis, which has forced me to take this approach. Before my arm started having issues, my preferred method of practice was to do everything in 2-3 hour sessions with few (if any) breaks. I liked the momentum I could build up in one uninterrupted interval. I spent more time on everything, 30-40 minutes on each piece, etc. After my arm problems began, I had to limit my practice to less than 2 hours per day and sometimes no more than 15-20 minutes at a time! That was at its worst, 30-45 min sessions were sometimes an option. I also had to contend with not being able to practice for days at a time. All of this happened when I had juries to prepare for, gigs to play, and orchestra music to learn. I became very efficient and targeted in my practice. I was (and still am!) surprised and a little unsettled by how much, or rather, how little I actually needed to practice. I’d always spent a significant portion of my practice on orchestra music. Now, I exclusively practiced small, tricky sections, and left everything else be (i.e. the stuff I already knew, but used to practice in order to feel prepared). Limited practice time really forced me to set specific goals for each practice session, and to spread my practice into several tiny chunks.

    I also figured out how to practice mentally (this was before I discovered this blog!!) and spent hours thinking about what I was going to work on when I actually could go back to the violin. Overall, tendonitis has taught me a lot about how to be a better violinist in the practice room.

    1. For example, when working on recital music with a 2-hour daily limit split into at least 3 sessions, I would make detailed plans for each session. For each 30 min slot, I’d warm up for 10min and then work on two pieces. I’d pick an aspect (intonation/rhythm/expression,etc.) to work on and give myself 10 minutes for that piece/section. Sometimes it was just two bars that needed to be drilled for intonation, other times it would be a larger section that needed more thoughtful phrasing or dynamic variation. The second piece in that session would get a run through or metronome work. This way, each session had focused, detail work, as well as big picture work. I rotated pieces so that I visited different aspects of each one over every 48 hour period. My plans help me have productive practice sessions, but I am always willing to modify them if necessary. For example, an entire session devoted to cleaning up double stops might be needed, even at the expense of running through the Bach…

  12. I haven’t gone through all the comments so maybe someone already said this, but spaced practice may be less rewarding short-term because by the end of the several repetitions it’s not as good as with massed practice. I really think the trick is the same behind the effectiveness of sleep as learning enhancer – when we take two steps, our brains take five more when we’re not consciously working at it, but if we take five steps, it takes way more effort and then the brain will only take one more if that much when we’re not pushing the matter. Maybe it has to do with fatiguing very specific areas or pathways of the brain.

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