For More Perfect Practice, Try…Longer…Pauses

In theory, piñatas are terrific fun.

I mean, what’s not to like? A hanging cornucopia of sweets, opened in spectacular fashion by smashing with a stick while blindfolded? Good times!

Of course, the reality of piñatas is never quite as exciting as one might hope.

First off, there are tons of complete misses, glancing blows, and weak hits. Then the older siblings get into the act, but to no avail. And eventually, the host parent, with growing impatience and frustration starts whack, whack, whacking at the thing in a frenzy until finally the candy begins to trickle out.

A similar thing can also happen in the practice room (wait, no, it’s not what you’re thinking!). We hear something we don’t like, stop, rewind, and try it again. But dang, it doesn’t sound right, so with nary a pause to reflect upon what just happened, we simply dive back in, and try it again, and again, and again, (whack, whack, whack!) until finally we hear something that sounds decent and move on.

This piñata approach to practicing often does lead to the desired result – eventually. But it comes at a cost. After all, we’ve just played it incorrectly a bunch of times, and correctly only once. That’s a pretty underwhelming correct-to-incorrect ratio, and means we’ve had far more practice doing it wrong than doing it right (read this for a quick refresher on the importance of a positive correct-to-incorrect ratio).

So how can we improve our correct-to-incorrect ratio, learn more from each mistake, and get things up to par without creating lots of bad habits?

The value of the pause

Several researchers have looked at something known as the “inter-trial interval” or “post-KR delay” (KR stands for Knowledge of Results). This is the amount of time that elapses between one practice attempt and the next. For instance, if you’re practicing a tricky shift, you could just execute the shift over and over with no pauses between attempts. Or, you could try the shift, pause, and then try again (and pause again, try again, etc.). That pause between attempts is the inter-trial interval.

Honestly, I’m not sure I ever allowed for even the slightest pause between practice attempts when I was a kid. I totally piñata’d my way through every practice session. Heck, even in lessons I’d often cut my teachers off while they were still finishing their sentence in a rush to play the passage again and get it right.

I always assumed that learning happened during the time my muscles were moving. The idea that some of the learning might take place in the time between practice attempts never occurred to me.

Uhh…but how long are we supposed to wait between practice attempts? Are we talking an itty bitty short pause? Or a more substantial grand pause? Might there even be an optimal pause length between practice attempts for maximal learning?

A test of different pause lengths

A 2005 study in the journal Experimental Brain Research yields a few clues.

35 participants were split up into 6 groups, and given one practice session (and 25 practice attempts) to learn a tricky motor task. The only difference between groups was the amount of time each was given between practice attempts. One group received a 1 second pause between attempts, while the others were given either 5, 10, 15, 20, or 40 seconds.

The task was to move their index finger around in the air so as to manipulate a cursor and hit an on-screen target. Kind of like playing games on the original Wii. Except that their hand was hidden from view, and everything was 60 degrees off, so moving your fingers up would actually make the cursor move 60 degrees off-center. If that sounds easy, just rotate your trackpad or mouse 60 degrees and try clicking on the links in this article really quickly. Not so easy, eh?

Everyone got better with practice, but the participants who received only a 1-second pause between practice attempts consistently performed worse than the others, and weren’t as accurate in their efforts to hit the target. Simply because of a difference in the length of the pause taken between practice attempts!

24-36 hours later, everyone returned to the lab for a test to see how much of their finger pointing skills remained after a day of no further practice.

The test was simple. Just 5 attempts to perform the same exact task as the day before and hit the target.

As during training, the 5, 10, 15, 20, and 40-second groups all performed at about the same level. But once again, the 1-second group performed more poorly than the others.


The authors surmised that a 1-second break wasn’t enough time to process the information gleaned from each previous attempt, and get it into long-term memory. So even though they took the same exact number of practice trials as the other participants, the amount of learning the 1-second pausers were able to do between trials was reduced. Hence, the difference in performance during training, and their inferior performance on the test the following day.

More of the same

A 2007 study in the Journal of Neurophysiology also reported on this phenomenon.

Participants in this study engaged in essentially the same task, except instead of waving their finger around in the air, they used a “two-joint, planar manipulandum equipped with torque motors, rotary encoders, and force transducers.” And no, it’s not really important that you know all that, but sheesh, isn’t that the most impressive sounding contraption ever?

Anyhow, the researchers in this study replicated the findings of the other study, finding that a longer delay between practice attempts led to more rapid improvements than a shorter delay (in this case, a 14-second-delay beating out a 4-second delay). They conducted a series of follow-up experiments and also found evidence suggesting that the performance improvement from trial to trial is due to the increased learning that can occur in the time following each error.

Take action

All in all, it seems that our gains in the practice room come not only from the learning that occurs during each practice attempt and the muscle movements we make, but also from the learning that occurs in the time between our practice attempts.

So while it’s not clear if there’s a “perfect” pause length, 5 seconds seems like a good length to try. Better than 1 second, but not so long that it interrupts the flow of your practice session.

It takes a bit of discipline to get in the habit of pausing for a moment between practice repetitions. But give it a try. Don’t just piñata through your practice session. Take your time. Pause. Ponder or reflect on what just happened (rather than spending the time mentally counting to 5). Plan your next move. And see what happens!

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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15 Responses

  1. Great post, Noa! That is going up on my blog! The pinata is a great metaphor. I am tempted to hang one up in my room to point to as a reminder. For myself, too. I find it useful to trouble shoot in that pause: What happened? What do I need to correct? Or, record myself and then listen back (but that is more than 5 seconds). Great help, thank you!

  2. With regard to the first study, a one second pause between attempts or ‘results’, though experimentally useful, if not necessary, seems a bit small for a realistic comparison with say a five seconds pause or more. It could be argued that a one second pause is more like a turn than a stop, or per this discussion a pause. In other words the practitioner, extending the analogy, is holding on to, or attempting to retain, or perhaps capture through a surge of creative energy either a defined goal or, as in improvisation, a unique yet fluid result (I’m obviously speaking in musical terms). Moreover, I think the tendency to rapidly attempt to refine an execution with little or no pause is not entirely without reason or merit. It is in essences the inherent need to ‘play’ without regard to process, or a well defined process. Of course and of necessity, a disciplined approach and understanding as to how to achieve a refined and defined result must be instituted and achieved initially, and primarily if, in the case of learning to play a musical instrument well, and in an established manner, is the goal.

    What I am suggesting is that once a musician has learned to take reasonable pauses between attempts to learn and execute a phrase, and of course gain competence in all of the demands of a piece, the inherent tendency to play with less reflection, as with pauses, is natural, and perhaps the goal of competent musicianship. The tendency to ‘rush,’ in said fashion, is counterproductive when learning is the goal, yet, I suggest, at a higher level of competence and accomplishment, pausing disrupts the requisite flow necessary for artistic expression. Yes, I know, I’m somewhat conflating the demands of practice and performance. Perhaps, but my real point is to suggest that the psychological tendency to forge and hammer through a practice session, though counterproductive, has validity if and only if a practitioner has ‘mastered’ this tendency and can perform in a adequate and skilled fashion.

    Of course, you don’t have to agree with my every point. But there is reason and logic to most of human behavior, and therefore the need to correct and comprehend how such behavior can be applied to certain and specific situations. I offer these opinions for your consideration. Thank you.

  3. Thank you Dr. Kageyama! Another great post! Funny, but just this past week I started to challenge my students to record their practice of one of their tricker songs and then listen back to it.

    Two things that I noticed:
    1: Some of the younger students had a slightly more difficult time following the music with a pencil than I had anticipated.
    2: The challenge was to listen back and think about what areas stuck out, make some notes on the page and mentally internalize the tricky area(s) before trying it again the next day. I’ll be getting the results from this approach this week…

    It seems to me like there are some interesting parallels between what I suggested and this article. It’s also nice in that I am having my students record this process on the iPhones or iPads… The extra bonus of this is I am having them label each recording with the name of the song and the date, thus having them create a musical diary of each song and their progress on their iPhones!

    As I always tell my 35 students, they are as much a teacher to me as I am to them. 🙂

    Warm regards,

    Rod Contreras

    1. Rod, I also found that pausing and reflecting by having the little ones or adults describe in their own words how they did/what could be done better etc to be quite helpful. I let them put down notes and remarks. It is maybe a bit of a longer pause than recommended in the article, but I am curious about the question of ‘what to do in that pause’. The brain might just benefit from a little active processing and spelling it out in detail for a while may help that.

      I love the idea of a regular iPhone library. I could even imagine my 8 year olds doing something like that over the course of the week on their own.
      Great stuff!
      Thank you

  4. So how can we improve our correct-to-incorrect ratio, learn more from each mistake, and get things up to par without creating lots of bad habits?

    I like that statement above. In my case, I keep on doing the same thing over and over again without learning from it. This reminds me to take note of my mistake to make sure, I’m gonna do it right on my next attemp.

    1. Gracie, there was a post on here a while ago that talked about how the best results were achieved by practicers who avoided mistakes entirely. Nothing worse than practicing mistakes. If we go slow enough it is possible to avoid them. Dr. k. Do you remember the post I am referring to by my description?

  5. Thanks for the link of the evolution of art Dr. Kageyama! It was great to show students just how amazing the progression of art is through time! I got a chance to share the link with students and they loved it!

    Also, the way I’ve been presenting the whole process of recording oneself is in the context of attending a music concert: one person is the solo pianist, having to process and be the music maker and the other is an audience member who is watching the performer from the vantage point of an audience member. How do they experience the same music in that space? The basic premise is that when you record yourself, you are able to be the performer while playing live and then become like an audience member, observing your own playing from a different angle. You notice things about the music that you might not as a performer (especially for those who are not pros of course).

    In general, in my own experience, I’ve found my own inner corrections to be more resonant and stimulating when coming from within myself than those given to me by others. Obviously a piano teacher’s feedback should be duly noted on the part of the student, but it seems to me that by having these recordings, not only do you increase self awareness, but also an ability to connect your eyes with the music better as well as increase the motivation for students to embrace the hard work that is practice, especially of trickier sections…

    I need to share this stuff more with other piano teachers! Thanks and happy thanksgiving everyone!

  6. I think there is an important variable not taken in consideration in the description of the studies. Let’s talk about the fist. If I take only 1 second between 25 tries, how much time do I spend studying? And if I take 5 or 10 seconds trying the same 25 times, how much time do I spend? Twice the time? Well, if that is the case, I could try 50 times taking only 1 second between each try spending the same amount of time practicing. The question is: would the larger space of time between the tries still be more effective in this case where I compare the same amount of time spent in the practice room? (now with different numbers of repetitions in each situation, naturally). I do believe that the answer probably is yes, but wouldn’t it also be considered in the studies?
    Thank you,
    Best regards from Brazil

    1. Hi Menan,

      Very astute observation. Yes, with longer pauses, it might mean that it takes longer to practice a particular phrase than if we played it without pauses. The researchers acknowledge that this isn’t necessarily a formula for faster practicing, but rather for more effective practice. The idea being, it’s not so much the number of repetitions we need to get in, but the ratio of correct to incorrect repetitions that’s likely to result in a higher level of playing proficiency.

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