Robert Duke: On the Value of Errors, and How Learning Really Works

Growing up in the pre-YouTube VHS vs Betamax days, I remember watching videos of Oistrakh or Heifetz performing the concerto that I was working on, to see what bowings or fingerings my favorite musicians were using. Or I’d listen to recordings to see what sort of musical and expressive decisions other musicians had made.

Which I enjoyed doing, and found valuable for lots of reasons.

Occasionally, with much reluctance, I’d record and listen to my own performances or run-throughs too…

Which was painful (though still valuable for lots of reasons).

If only…

What I couldn’t do however, was watch videos of my favorite musicians practicing. And the idea of recording myself practicing never crossed my mind.

Which is a shame, because both might have enhanced my learning more than watching only the finished and polished performances of the pieces I was working on.

Because as it’s often said in sports, you play like you practice. And I’m pretty sure I could have played heaps better, if I had practiced better. (The few recordings I’ve seen of me practicing as a kid are orders of magnitude more painful to watch than the videos of me performing.😱😫)

Different times!

Of course, there wasn’t a lot of research readily available on how to practice better in those days. But it’s a different story today, as we’re lucky to have tons more research about this accessible to us nowadays. Much of which has even been done for musicians, by musicians!

So I thought it might be fun to talk to one of the researchers in this area that I’ve looked up to for years.

Meet Robert Duke

Robert Duke is Head of Music and Human Learning at The University of Texas at Austin, a clinical professor in the Dell Medical School at UT, and Director of the Center for Music Learning.

Formerly a studio musician and public school music teacher, Bob has published numerous influential research papers, authored books on effective teaching in music and notable facts & quirks about how our brains work, and also co-hosts the public radio program and podcast Two Guys on Your Head (where topics range from imposter syndrome to writer’s block to Wordle).

In today’s episode, we’ll explore…

  • 2:41 – How did Bob get started in this field?
  • 8:42 – What are some of the misunderstandings we have about how people learn?
  • 13:48 – The importance of acknowledging, and helping students get comfortable with the reality that everyone learns at a different rate.
  • 19:19 – How is mistake-making a good thing?
  • 20:49 – How do you fine what is and isn’t an error, anyway?
  • 24:09 – What are prediction errors, and why is this particular type of error integral to the learning process?
  • 27:48 – Do more advanced players make fewer mistakes than less-experienced players?
  • 28:48 – If students could watch video of their teachers practicing, what would they be most surprised by? Like, what do professionals and students do differently in the practice room? There’s a study which looked at this exact thing!
  • 33:16 – How much of what we do needs to be conscious?
  • 37:43 – Two vital components of learning – listening to ourselves, and having a clear intention. How do the two interact?
  • 39:34 – Why you should probably practice your scales (and other things) at different tempos, rather than at the same old tempo.
  • 40:59 – What might happen if you limited the number of repetitions you could do in a practice session? Would this help or hinder learning?
  • 51:15 – What did Bob do in his band teaching days, that flipped the script and led to a situation where his band students were asking him for permission to be allowed to practice more?

Noa: I've been a huge Robert Duke fan going all the way back to, I think it was 2009, maybe 2007, but I think it was 2009 when you did the Starling-DeLay Symposium. You gave this talk that I just happened to stumble in on, and I just felt like it was the best thing I had ever seen anyone do, ever. It was sort of like, I'm sure you've seen Jerry Maguire, you know, that scene where she's like, "you had me at hello?" Like, that was my, you had me at hello moment.

Ever since, you've done so much fascinating and relevant research on music and learning and long time readers or listeners of the podcast, I think will probably recognize your name. But again, honestly, the thing that's always gotten me so excited about what you do is this theme that seems to be threaded throughout your talks and the programs you organize and your research, and specifically the idea that inflection in musical expression should and can be something that is baked into learning from Day One, uh, rather than it being something that you have to earn when you've developed a certain minimum level of technical competency and

Bob: Yeah, exactly.

Noa: so that's the thing that I'd really love to explore today.

But I, I wonder just for context, if it might be helpful for you to share your origin story perhaps?

Bob: Sure. So you don't, you want me to start with, I was born in a small town in New Jersey. You don't want to go with that, but I will say, you know, I was very fortunate to have, a dad who was a very curious guy and, a mom who was a very nurturing woman. And, that combination is really wonderful if you're a kid because the curiosity sort of gets you into things that sometimes gets you in trouble.

And the nurturing sort of, uh, allows a little bit of the trouble because you, you're forgiven for some of the crazy stuff if you do. But I, I've always felt that way and I started music and you know, when I tell this story, even though it goes farther back than most people want to hear, I first got turned onto music, uh, in third or fourth grade in elementary school.

Cuz nobody in my family played an instrument. Nobody in my family had gone to college. I mean, they, they liked music, they liked to listen to music, you know, but my mom loved Perry Como, and, that was kind of the stuff that was playing in our house, you know. But in third or fourth grade in New Jersey, we got flutophones, in school, and I don't know if anybody knows what a flutophone is anymore. it's like a recorder. I mean, it's fingered like, like a soprano recorder, except it's got a, a wide bell on it. And as it said on the box, when we got them, it was made out of a space-age plastic because, uh, in 1960, all plastic was space-age, plastic.

So anyway, I was just enthralled by this thing. I just couldn't believe that this inanimate thing that I could play it and play music on it, it just blew my mind. I was probably the only kid in my class who took my recorder home to practice. I was just so jazzed by it, you know? And then, later in elementary school, you know, when we got to take an orchestral instrument, I, I did that and I played several instruments when I was in elementary school and, then into junior high.

And I just loved playing music. But I also. I'm just so fascinated by people, why we're so different from each other, and yet we have so many fundamental commonalities and just the way we learn and develop skills and why some people, for some people it seems like things that are new to them come really easily, where somebody's sitting right next to them can be struggling to do this very same thing and that always fascinated me.

So I imagine, that I was gonna do something in, I don't know, some academic field or something. My father wanted me to be an attorney. Cuz for him, you know, success in life was a big salary. So that was, his thought.

But when I got to college, I just loved playing music, I loved working with the people and so I ended up getting a degree, as an undergraduate in music education. Although I love to play, I love to do chamber music and, I had a garage band in school, you know, not the software, a band in a garage. And it was just great, I mean, it was, music was such a big part of my life.

And I taught public school for a while. And then, I got really interested in psychology and I went back to graduate school, at Florida State and got a PhD with Cliff Batson, who quite a remarkable person. I mean just a really brilliant thinker and a great musician. And combining all of that was inspiring to me, that you could really see deeply into music and music making and music learning.

It was just amazing to me. So, I mean, I've sort of been on that path ever since then, and, uh, I've been at Texas now, I can't believe it when I hear myself say this for 37 years, joined the faculty at almost nine. And, it's really been remarkable because, I mean, to me, I have the best job in the world.

You know, the state, state of Texas pays me a salary to kind of pursue my own interests as long as somebody else finds what I'm doing interesting. And fortunately that's been the case for a while. But I think, one of the things that the work that I do and my students and my colleagues and I do has revealed to me is many of the misunderstandings that people have about how human beings are designed to learn.

Evolution has led to our brains working in particular ways. And a lot of what happens in school, and I'm just talking about in music. I'm talking about music and everything else in school, is really not structured optimally for the way human beings learn. And I think that's sort of become a mission of mine, you know, to try to illuminate those differences between the way people try to learn and are taught to learn various things and what actually would be a more optimal and successful path.

Noa: Can you elaborate on that a little bit, but before you do, I might be making way too much of this, but your interest in the flutophone and to quote you being jazzed by the fact that this piece of plastic could create music, was this gravitation towards expression and communication and music-making maybe already kind of a part of your experience even back then, or was that something that came later.

Bob: No, I, you know, I've always been a pretty extroverted kid, you know, and, and I'm still an extroverted adult. To me, the capacity of human expression has always just not only fascinated me, but has just delighted me. I mean, you hear somebody give a good talk or you hear somebody play or sing something beautiful or, even reading, to the extent that an author in just in written text can create these ideas of expressiveness is just, just blows my mind, you know?

So I, I, I always kind of did that. But, I think a lot of that's because, like I said, I had a very nurturing mother who reinforced just about anything I did. And my friends and my wife tell me, she probably reinforced more than she should have. But I think the idea of self-expression and doing all of that was, was always a part of how I saw myself, and how other people saw me, I think.

Noa: So I think we'll get to the self-expression in a moment, but I am curious to find out about some of these misunderstandings about how we learn versus what is happening often.

Bob: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things that's really interesting about the way, public education has evolved in the United States where the goal, understandably, to educate a citizenry was to teach large groups of people all at the same time. That is a challenge for many different reasons, but one of the biggest ones is even if people are learning something that nobody in the room has ever experienced before, everybody's coming to the learning experience with a different set of memories in our heads, right?

And one of the things our brains evolve to do is try to connect the things that we experience with memories that are already in our head. So even though people may be in the same room together and apparently all experiencing the same thing, their experiences are not identical, right? Because some people have either the way their brain operates or you know, there might be, certain networks in their brains that have developed over time, others because of memories that have been stored in their brain.

They're gonna respond differently to the things that they experience that we all experience. You know, even people listening to this podcast are, are gonna interpret some of the things that I say and you say, Noa, differently because they just have different expectations. They have different memories.

So I think that's a big challenge. The other thing is, I think teachers in general, this includes private teachers as well, have sort of come to the mistaken conclusion, I think data would suggest this, that, we need to sort of systematize things to set people up to do things correctly right from the get-go.

And we're not gonna let them do anything until we're sure they're gonna do it right by whatever right is. And if you think about all the things that we learn as human beings outside of school, I mean the things that we learn on our own. Uh, there's typically not that level of systematization in doing that.

It's kind of a mess, you know? And actually the things that we learn like that in sort of a messy way are some of the things that we know the best and, and we're the most skillful at, because we didn't go through this very systematic, you know, you do this first for this long, and then you go on to this thing, and then you go to this thing, because that messiness, that mistake-making, is an inherent part of how brains develop both declarative memories - and by that I mean memories that you can express, in language, and procedural memories. Memories for how to do things. Right. And the thing that's interesting to me is that, and you've talked about this and written about this and you know this as well as anybody about the, the mistaken beliefs about practicing.

You know, if I keep doing exactly the same thing over and over and over again, over again, correctly, my brain is gonna know it better and better and better. Well, no, that's actually not what's happening in your brain. I mean, just, that's just one of many examples of misperceptions about how we should and how we do spend our time and the effect that's having on our understanding and skill.

Noa: I wonder if, does this speak to the challenges of group instruction for music, if everyone's coming to it from different places? Nevermind, you know, baseline of skill and abilities and fit

Bob: Well, I mean, I, yeah, I mean, I mean, group instruction is hard, but what skillful teachers who teach in groups understand is that there are some fundamental principles of doing whatever it is we're doing. You know, whether we're learning to hit a baseball or to play the violin or whatever.

There are some non-negotiables that we've all gotta do to be able to do this right. Your scroll needs to be up. Your wrist needs to be straight in your left hand. Your bow hand needs to be soft. I mean, all the things that we know are non-negotiables in that thing, but after that, it's squishy, you know?

And what one kid is gonna get after a minute might take another kid, 10 minutes, it might take another kid another week. Right? And what skillful group teachers understand is how to structure what's going on, so they're giving individual feedback to people in a group. Because what I tell my undergraduate students here all the time, if, if you give a group feedback, you can almost be certain that for somebody it's the wrong feedback, right?

Because it's that unlikely that everybody in a group is gonna do exactly the same thing and exactly the same way, at exactly the same time. So one of the things that we work here in the Butler School to try to do is, is have people practice acknowledging what they notice in individual learners. So it, it not only provides feedback that's timely and useful for the individuals who are getting it, but it also illustrates the fact that not everybody's in the same place.

And I think what happens a lot, and this is more for social reasons than for, reasons about skill development and learning. Teachers feel a need to pretend that everybody's alike. You know, that everybody's equally capable at any moment, and everybody's kind of the same. That is destined to fail because kids know they're not alike. They know the kids standing next to them can do something that they can't do, and the kid on the other side can't do something that they can do. And we advantage ourselves as teachers and our students as learners when we acknowledge that and don't have a problem with it, well, of course not everybody's gonna learn this in the same way at the same time.

And of course it may take you a little bit longer. But that's a challenge. And I think in school what happens, and this happens very systematically, but very unintentionally, we convey to people that if you don't get something as well, and as quickly as one of your classmates seems to be getting it, there's something wrong with you and maybe you're not cut out for this. That's really a sadness to me. You know? And, and one example that I give, sometimes when I give talks, I say, if you came in the room and I gave you a sheet of paper with a couple of difficult problems on it, but you could solve 'em, and I had you look at the problems and I said, well, how, how capable you think you feel about these problems?

And somebody said, you know, yeah, I could, I could do that. I, it may take me a few minutes, but I, I can do it. And then you start working on it, and then somebody else comes in the room, I give 'em the same set of problems and I say, well, how do you feel? Yeah, I feel pretty good about it. And they start working on it.

And after about two minutes, the second person says, I'm done and gives me the paper. And I say, yeah, they're right. And they walk outta the room. The first person, their self perception has completely changed. Now. Nothing about them has changed. Right? They're just as capable or incapable as they were at the start of this little session.

But because somebody else in the room with them seem to do this more easily and faster, now they think they're not good at this Now that, that's a problem. Right? And if we try to paper over it, it remains a problem, right? If we're able to say to people, well, of course everybody's, you know, not doing equally well all the time, but we're all going to get there eventually.

But there's gonna be some ebb and flow to learning as there is. And once you get comfortable with that idea as a teacher and you help your students get comfortable with that as learners, well now everybody's ready to move forward, right? Knowing that everybody's not starting the same place when we get to the end of the, whatever the term is, whether it's, a semester in a college thing or, a six weeks in a school orchestra program or something, everybody's not gonna be in the same place there either, you know?

But the, like I said, this isn't a music thing. This is a school thing. We continue to live in this mythological place where after somebody takes first semester chemistry for non chemistry majors, that by the end of the semester everybody's kind of gonna get to the same place in their understanding of chemistry, at least all the people who get an A will be in the same, place.

Uh, it's, it is just not so.

Noa: Is there a way to more explicitly communicate that somehow to a group of students? Or is it something that has to happen implicitly?

Bob: I think it needs to happen explicitly like when I'm in, an academic class, you know, and I'm teaching a psychology class or a human learning class or whatever, or a class in pedagogy or something in Texas, we watch, and especially the pedagogy classes, we watch videotapes of one another in class every Friday.

I mean, Friday is TV time, you know, and everybody can see, man, that was really good what that person did there. And then you see somebody else whose.... And by the way, what I ask people to show in class are not their best moments, but the places where they have questions and they're not quite sure how to deal with this thing, right?

So everybody realizes everybody's got a different problem, but whatever realizes is everybody's got a problem. I mean, everybody's working on something. And so it isn't like you look at this big thing and I look at a half hour lesson that you teach, or an hour lesson that you teach and say, okay, that's an A lesson, that's a B minus lesson or whatever, which is just a waste of time.

But everybody recognizes that within the time that you spend teaching, there will be more and less effective moments of what you do. And what everybody's trying to do is make their more effective moments more frequent. And their less effective moments, less frequent. But I think we think about ourselves as human beings in terms of our skills as sort of monolithically.

You know, we say, well, how good a violinist are you? Well, I'm this good a violinist. Well, what's the circumstances? Is this in sight reading or is this repertoire you've had two weeks to work on? What is the thing when you think about how good a violinist are you, or how good a trumpet player are you, or how good a teacher are you?

It varies with the circumstances, not only from one week to the next, from, from one minute to the next. And once, as a teacher, as a performer, oneself who's practicing, you start to recognize the variation in your skill level, from different circumstances, and of course, what we're all aspiring to is we shrink that variation. So we're pretty consistent, and each time we pick up our ax, it's gonna go really well, but still even that, even the best performers in the world, They know why it's, everything isn't a diamond, you know? I mean, sometimes it's a little rough around the edges or whatever, except you want, your rough around the edges to be so good that nobody cares.

But everybody's not monolithically good at anything

Noa: Maybe that relates a little bit to this idea of, of errors and learning, and I know the first thing you probably have to do is define error, because as you've said, I think it was like this for me too. I, I don't know why, but I knew that there were things that I wasn't doing very well sometimes, but the only thing that really counted as errors were playing the right notes, playing them in tune, playing them in time with a good sound, right?

Everything else, even if I was completely amusical or was, you know, doing things that were not at all compelling, those did not seem to me as being errors. It was only those very technical things that seemed to be errors. It's, I wonder if you could kind of expand on that and what role errors really ought to have maybe in learning?

Bob: Yeah. I gave a talk for a biomedical conference, uh, a couple weeks ago and the title was "The Mistakes We Make about Mistake-Making," because we characterize mistakes as things to be avoided. And certainly, I mean, if you're a physician and you're with a patient, you don't wanna make mistakes.

That's true. But when you're learning to be a physician, as my, my students here at Dell Medical School are, mistake-making actually increases your depth of understanding. In ways that not making any mistakes would not. Now just that idea is so foreign to so many people, right? Because what everybody thinks I'm trying to do in this learning situation is for God's sake, don't make a mistake.

But no, your, your brain isn't gonna change anything unless it makes a mistake. And I'll say more about that in, in just a second, but the thing you asked about, what's an error? I mean, to me, when somebody's learning to play an instrument or sing for the first time, like you say, most people think, well, what's an error?

Well, I played B natural instead of B flat or, I was late on that quarter note, or, you know, whatever. To me, an uninflected note is a wrong note. An out of tune note is a wrong note. You know, I , I saw, I saw something a kid had written. This's a junior high kid, I think a middle middle school kid had written on a survey and somebody asked him about an audition that he had played earlier that week and he said, you know, I was really not mad at myself cuz I played all the right notes.

I just forgot the sharps, I played F's and C's. That's sort of a, a, a cute epitome of what I'm talking about. You know? It's, it's like, well, you know, I played all the notes and rhythms and it was pretty much in tune, I know that, did you say anything? Did it express anything to anybody? And I, I recall fondly when I would play the piano with my grandchildren when they were very small.

We weren't reading music, we weren't doing anything, you know, I would sit at the keyboard and they would sit at the keyboard next to me, or they'd sit on my lap, you know, and I would play just some three or four note thing with inflection.

And then I said, see if you can do that. And I go bee-dup buh-duh bup and then I ask them to do that, you know, and so what do they have to think about? They have to think about note length and they have to think about, weight. And of course I didn't say anything. I just did that and said, you try to do what I just did.

And after a few repetitions, they got pretty damn close, you know? And they delighted in the fact that they got so close. Now, when that's your first foray into interacting with a musical instrument, you recognize yourself, my God, I can, I can wrestle this thing into submission and get it to do what I want.

Holy smokes! But the reason that works, of course, is because even my grandchildren, when they were very young, like most children who live in societies where music is ever present have been listening to hours and hours of hours of music. I mean, even in utero, they've been hearing music. So it's not like they don't understand music, they just don't know what stuff is called.

They understand a ton about music. So the challenge then is to how do we exploit what's already in their heads and apply that when they're learning something new, which is a really, interesting way to think about this. I mean, I don't think anybody should be called a beginning musician. You might be a beginning violinist, or you might be a beginning pianist, but you're not a beginning musician because you, your musical, first of all, just inherently you're a little musical and you've been listening to music for hundreds of thousands of, I don't even know the number, but a lot of hours of your life.

So there's a lot of music that's in your memory already. And, and the question, and the challenge for teachers is, how do I use that effectively to help somebody now learn to sing beautifully or play beautifully, you know, whatever they're trying to do.

Okay, lemme go back to the mistake thing. Now, you know, when we're just operating in the world, we're making predictions all the time about what's about to happen in the coming moments. And, and I often ask people, why would evolution select for brains? I mean, for literally billions of years there were, small organisms living quite happily. Well, I don't know how happy they were, but there were organisms living for a long time without even having nervous systems, let alone a brain.

And brains are expensive to run. I mean, a typical adult, a brain is like 3% of their, your body weight, it uses like 20 plus percent of your daily energy, energy expenditure. I mean, that's a really expensive machine to run. What's it for? And there's only really one reason to have a brain, and that's to predict what's about to happen. Because the better you are predicting what's about to happen, the better you are to navigate the world, the better you are to catch prey. The more likely you are to avoid becoming prey, the better you can attract a mate. You know, all the kind of things you're gonna do. But that happens even at the at the millisecond level, like if I'm reaching down now to pick up my coffee cup, my brain, when I'm sending motor commands to the parts of my body that are relevant to picking up this cup, is also doing something that we would have no reason to recognize. Consciously. It's making a copy of that command called an efference copy.

No reason to remember that. That's just jargon. But that copy of the motor command makes a prediction about what's gonna result from that action. So when I reach for the cup, I have a prediction about what it's gonna feel like, what the handle's gonna feel like, how heavy it's gonna be when I try to lift it.

And what my brain does is compare that prediction with the actuality of what I do when I pick up the cup or, or I miss the cup entirely, or I knock the cup over and spill my coffee. And what teaches the brain to do something is the discrepancy between the prediction and the outcome. Now, this is a huge implication for practicing, right?

Because what many people are doing is they're playing their instrument or singing and they don't really have a clear idea about what it is I'm actually trying to do on this iteration of what I'm doing, right? I mean, what is this gonna sound like? And also what's it gonna feel like? Because we know as teachers, one of the things that we're trying to do with many of our students, even very advanced students, is getting them to work less hard physically, because they're expending too much physical energy to do things that shouldn't take that much energy, right?

But anyway, but that prediction thing, each time I just hold my fiddle and put it up on my shoulder. I mean, what is that supposed to feel like? And when I take a breath to sing, what do I want that to feel like? So the discrepancy between those predictions and outcomes, that is the stuff of learning.

But what creates the learning is a discrepancy between the prediction and the outcome. So even if you are a really advanced player. And you're practicing doing something, you are making mistakes. You're making prediction errors, but the mistakes aren't you forgot the key signature or you played a note on the wrong beat.

The mistake is, I really meant for that note to end that way, and it ended too abruptly. And that, to an, an expert is the same kind of error-making that a novice who forgets to play B natural is, except my mistakes have become much more subtle and much smaller in the minds and ears of a listener.

One of my former doctoral students, Lani Hamilton, who's now at University of Missouri, Kansas City Conservatory, did a series of fascinating studies for her dissertation. You might have written about 'em, but I'm not sure. But one, one of the one thing she did, she had people come in and this is like middle school kids, high school kids, undergraduates, graduate students and professional artist-level players and just practice something you're working on for five minutes.

And she recorded 'em. And then, uh, after they were done, uh, she said, okay, I'm gonna play this recording back to you. And what I'd like you to do is press a computer key every time you hear a discrepancy between what you intended to have happen and what actually came about. And she just, it was a very straightforward study.

She just, how often do people push the key? Right? And, and the outcome, which is, I wouldn't be telling the story if the outcome wasn't what it was, is that the frequency of pushing the key didn't change across levels. I mean, the artist pushed the key just as much as the kids did, right. But what they were pushing the key about was very different than what the younger students were pushing the key about.

But I think a lot of people who think about practicing and imagine the practicing of experts have a misconception about what they're doing. One, one of my colleagues here at Texas, Amy Simmons, who's a brilliant scholar, she and I published a number of things together, she did a study about a year and a half ago where she some of our performance faculty agreed to, uh, allow Amy to record them while they were practicing this little excerpt that she gave them to practice.

And then she asked some of their students to practice the same excerpt, and then she asked 'em about their experience and everything. But then what she did is she asked the students to watch their teacher practice. And they were just blown away. And one of the things that I remember that one of the students had said in their interviews with Amy, was I thought he just plays it perfectly slowly and then just gradually speeds it up. Now, this is a graduate student saying this, and a graduate student who can play. Now you gotta think if people are that misinformed, if they have that kind of a misconstrual about what's happening, when people get really good, they're not gonna practice effectively. And I'll tell you one more thing about this little episode that we, Amy and I just presented this a conference a couple weeks ago actually.

Um, is that when my colleague Jonathan Gunn, great clarinet player, used to be principal clarinet Cincinnati Symphony, just wonderful artist and lovely teacher playing this little etude. And, uh, the first thing he did is he played it, all the way through with inflection. You know, he played it like music, and there was some knotty stuff in there that he had to stop and work out, and he turned the metronome on for a minute to do this thing right. Now, you look at one of his graduate students do it, she looks at the music, finds a hard spot, turns on the metronome, and that's where she starts. Now, if anything, sort of epitomizes the difference between experts approach to music-making and non-experts, that's it. And the reason non-experts approach it that way is our fault, because what we don't convey to them is bef often enough, I should say. And not, not that nobody does this, I'm too broad a brush there.

But anyway, is that the first thing you want to do is get a sense of what is this thing you're trying to create musically? And then, where are the impediments in the music, which you'll discover when you try to play it or sing it. Where are the impediments that are keeping you from conveying that thing that you want to convey to somebody?

But it starts with a conception of the thing you're trying to convey. You have a musical intention. And a lot of times when I ask little kids, I say, what's your intention here playing this music? And a kid will say, don't miss any notes. And that's cute, but , but I mean, but it just shows they have no conception about listeners, and what's striking to me, I, I had the real privilege of inviting, uh, Stephen Clapp, who I know you know very well, uh, who passed a number of years ago.

And you know what a great teacher Stephen was, uh, to be a part of our distinguished teacher series here in the Butler School. And one of the deals of this is the people who participate allowed me to send a doctoral student to go and record them with their own students. And what was so interesting to me, watching Stephen play and watching him teach is how often he and almost all the other teachers who have been part of the Distinguished Teacher series talk to their students about who's listening. You know, like, what, what do you want someone to hear when that happens in the music? And, you know, it's an interesting thing when, when young teachers, inexperienced teachers, start talking to young players like that.

It's such an interesting conversation because now it's not, what about my clarinet and my embouchure, my tongue and my fingers like that? Okay, so someone's listening to this. What do you want to have happen when that phrase ends? Do you want them to just pause for a minute?

Cause they're not sure what's gonna happen next way. So, so everything is starting with this intention of conveying something to other human beings. I mean, it's a tremendous departure from, I think what you started our conversation with, which is you gotta earn that by, by, you know, doing your scales. But, you know, listen, all that stuff scales arpeggios they should all be done musically. You know, there shouldn't be anything merely mechanical about this whole process.

Noa: I'm curious about the learning through discrepancies between your expectations and results. How important is it that that discrepancy, realization, be conscious as opposed to just sort of something that you, in the back of your mind somewhere, you sort of notice, but you can't really actually identify that it's been noticed.

Bob: That's a great question because it, it brings up an interesting thing about us human beings. And how much of our behavior and how much of our decision making and how much of our acting is operating below our conscious awareness. I mean, what I often do in this graduate teaching class that I teach for the beginning of the semester, a lot of wind players in there. And I say, well, tell me, what do you do when you play softly? What do you do? You know, what do you do physically? First of all, they don't have an answer at the ready, you know, and then when they start talking, I say, well, what, what do you, what do you do? They say, well, you, you, less, less air. Okay, but faster air.

I said, well, how do you, make less air? I mean, where does the less air happen if you're gonna make it faster? And you know, they've never really thought about their lungs are a bellows and when they activate their diaphragm it makes the space inside their body bigger than space outside.

So air brushes in, but then when you're blowing air out, if you're gonna limit the amount of air, where does the limiting take place? Is it at the embouchure or is it the throat or where? And they say, well, no, no, don't do any of that. Well, it's gotta happen somewhere, you know? Now I say all that just to say they've learned that completely unconsciously, they've learned it completely implicitly, I mean, I shouldn't say everybody again, that's another too broad brush of statement, but most people are unable to articulate what exactly it is that they're doing.

And you know what? There's no reason for them to. Likewise, if you think about any wind or string instrument, you are making innumerable adjustments in pitch and tone with the bow, with your left hand, with your breath, with your tongue, with your embouchure. You couldn't possibly control all those consciously.

So what do you do? You make prediction errors, right? You're trying to play this note and make it sound in tune and sound is the same tone quality as a note below it, right? And now I'm listening and I don't, I'm not quite sure what I'm doing with my lips and my tongue. I don't know, because what I'm doing is so subtle, I couldn't possibly consciously will myself into do that stuff.

Certainly not fast enough that I could play this passage at speed and will myself to do all that stuff. So almost all of it in that instance is non-conscious. Almost all of it is just comparing, I have this intention about this note that I'm trying to produce, so this melody that I'm trying to play, or this phrase that I'm trying to, or this interval I'm trying to play and I'm hearing what's happening and it's not what I want.

So I start doing stuff with my body. But I couldn't tell you exactly the combination of muscles that are activating to do this thing, and I'm trying to do.

it's really cool actually, when you think about it, but that's true of almost all of our motor behavior, right? I mean, if you were to describe to somebody how to walk, when do you shift your center of gravity? We couldn't tell you. And if we tried to think about it, we'd probably fall down.

I mean, all of that stuff is learned implicitly, again, with prediction errors, right? I, I have a thing that I want to do and I start to move and some stuff isn't happening the way I want, so I move in some different way. And I mean, I'm oversimplifying, but not that much, you know? And that's the way learning happens.

Noa: So it sounds like there ought to be some target in mind. and it, and it also sounds like there, and this is maybe what I was getting at too, like, so it's, it's not like we can have a vague, fuzzy target and just take a shot at something. And if it's in the neighborhood, then great. It sounds like it's, it's helpful to have a clear target and also we do, it seems, if I'm understanding, have to monitor to some degree whether we landed on the target or not in order to be able to make adjustments.

Bob: Yeah. And, and you know what, what I hear a lot of teachers say, and I'm sure you hear this too, and what people do when they're practicing too, you know, I really need to listen to myself. I, I'm really listening to myself and I'm being, or, or I'll, I'll record myself and play it back and that kind of thing.

And that's all really valuable. But you need to have a conception about what you're trying to do, that's pretty vivid. It isn't that if you have only a vague idea about what you're trying to accomplish, it's not like you won't learn anything, but if you really want to refine what you're doing, your brain needs a pretty clear idea about this is what I'm trying to do, this is what I'm intending to do, this is what I'm expecting is gonna happen. Because without that, your brain has nothing to compare the outcome to. Right? I have a slide that I use when I give talks about this, and it's a guy, uh, throwing a dart and he is got a blindfold on. And I said, you know, a lot of people practice just like that.

I'm not sure where the dart board is. I don't know if I'm hitting the dart board. And if, if you walk into a practice room and every time you are gonna play, you don't have a pretty clear idea about what's supposed to happen, you're probably wasting your time. And I think a lot of people who don't do that practice sort of mindlessly, you know, I play this thing over and over and over again thinking something good is happening. No, I mean, there's a phrase that people say, used to say, practice make perfect. And now they, the new hip iteration is, I know you know better than anybody, perfect practice makes perfect.

Actually, what it ought to say is, perfect practice makes habituation. And what that means is, the more things don't change, the less your brain pays attention. So if I'm doing something repeatedly and I think my brain perceives that what I'm doing is the same in every iteration, it's gonna pay less and less attention to what it's doing because it doesn't have to.

And this is why if you wanna optimize practice, even if you're a very great player, you should change things about what you do solely for the purpose of making your brain work harder. So if you always play your scales at, at 120. You know, don't do that. I mean, play 'em at 126, or play them at 118 or 112, or do something that makes you pay attention.

Because the more you're relying on automaticity to do what you're doing, that's not a learning experience, right? I mean, you want to rely on automaticity when the audition comes and when the performance comes, because you want to have practiced to automaticity. So you can just focus on making these things happen for your audience.

But while you're learning, if you're relying on automaticity by nature of the very fact, it's automatic , you know, your brain isn't making any adjustments because it doesn't have to.

Noa: I wonder if part of the reason why we we don't do that is this notion we have of what an error is. And so our tendency is to be like, you know what, if I just keep it at the same, I can get increasingly consistent right there and then I'll have that nailed down and feel really confident about it. Any suggestions or ideas from the research on how to cultivate that clear idea of what it is that we're going for?

I mean, is muddling through part of that, maybe in the early stages? But there may be other things that could be useful?

Bob: Yeah, muddling is good. Uh, in any sense. But I'll tell you about an interesting experiment that, uh, one of my former doctoral students, Rick Palese did a couple years ago, which to me was just so telling and so compelling. So one of the things that we noticed a lot, just sort of in a naive way, just eavesdropping on the practice rooms up on the fifth and sixth floor of the music building.

And, I just don't hear a lot of quiet. I don't hear a lot of thoughtful time.

It's just like, there's sound coming out, all the time, you know? Which to me indicates for most people, you're not really planning about what's gonna happen in the next iteration of this thing. You're just playing it again and again, and again and again, again, you know, not that consecutive repetitions are inherently bad forever, but there should be some time when you wait. So, uh, we did a couple of studies, the first of which was published this last year, I think. But we just asked people to practice this little thing, or maybe, I guess in the first one, maybe we just ask 'em to practice something, just something they're working on. And what we asked them, was pick some passage that you think you can play well, if you practice it for like three minutes. But this is stuff they brought with 'em to the session, right? And so what we'd like you to do is to imagine this played just perfectly and then play it. And one of the things that we measured was, well, how long did they take to imagine?

And was the time they took to imagine at least as long as the time it took to actually play it right? You know what I'm gonna say, or I wouldn't be telling this story. I mean, the more advanced musicians, of course, the time it took to imagine was at least as long and sometimes longer than what they actually played. For the kids, it was like, okay, I'm ready!

You know, because they, they, and what it was really revealing about that they, that was not their habit to really imagine without doing anything what this thing is that they're trying to do. It's really kind of an interesting study. But what we did next, which I think was even more fascinating, is we say, well, what if we found a way or created a way where perhaps it would force people to think a little bit more.

So we created this other thing where we had these etudes that, uh, Rick had created through some process. I don't remember what, what it was. But anyway, we had these etudes and what we told some people would do, they came in and just practiced the way they normally practice some etude, and we just monitored that, and then we gave 'em another etude that was a similar difficulty, and we said, okay, when you play this etude, you can only play 15 times and then you're done.

So you could play one note. You could play the whole thing. You could do whatever you want. But the proctor doing the experiment is keeping count. And when you're done after 15 times, you're done and you need to record it. Right. Now, what's interesting to me, is that for the younger players, this doesn't have any effect of 'em at all because again, they don't, they're not practiced at imagining what they're doing.

But the college students, and particularly the graduate students, when you asked them that was over how they felt about the etude, where they only had 15 trials to practice and the etude where they could just do whatever they want, they just came in and did whatever they normally do. The majority of the graduate students said they felt more prepared and they played better when they had this limit on the number of repetitions that they could play. Now you think about most of us when we practice, we think about time and repetitions as, sort of an unlimited resource. I mean, I could stay here all night if I want to and keep banging on this thing, but what if we didn't? What if we just said, no, you've only got, and again, I'm not limiting time because limiting time, what we found that did is it just caused people to do stuff more and faster, right?

But to limit the number of times you can play, man, you want each time to count. So I want to be really sure, what am I gonna do this time when I play it? You know? Now I'm not suggesting that that should be a thing that everybody should do, but I think it's worth everybody who's a good player doing the experiment. Saying, well, what if you say, and it doesn't have to be 15, it can we just pull that number outta the air, you know?

But I mean, you pick some number and say, I can only play this many times and then I'm putting this piece away. And it just makes the opportunities to play or sing more precious, because I've only got a few of them and I don't wanna waste them. But what's interesting to me is that when they were made more precious, because you had fewer of them than you would typically do. People knew what to do. I mean, the advanced students knew what to do. They knew, boy, I'm gonna, plan a little bit more for each time I play. And they got more done, usually in, in less time, than they did when they were just practicing on their own.

Noa: This is actually something that, Pamela Frank mentioned once, just intuited on her own because of the injuries that she had. She said, I don't remember the exact number, but something like three or maybe five at most, she said she gave herself just three chances to try to solve a problem in a passage.

If you couldn't solve it in three repetitions, she couldn't afford to stay on it. She had to move on. And like with a very limited amount of time she could spend working with her instrument, she needed to move on to something else. So, so yeah, it did require that she more thoughtfully engage in each repetition it sounds like.

Bob: yeah, yeah. You know, it is a really interesting thing too, because when I think most, people, um, think about practicing you, you know, the chunks that they think about are too big. I mean, the units of analysis, the unit of conception is too big. Like, what am I gonna do in the next hour? That's too big a chunk to think about, you know? It's like, what am I gonna do? Because, you know, you know, you're a terrific musician. Everybody who's a terrific musician knows you don't get a Sonata movement better. You get that little interval in tune, and you make this little phrase ending lovely.

And all of that coalesces into now this movement is better. But I think if you think about each one of those little targets, as that's a lesson, how do you approach that little thing that you do right there? I think I presented this at that same thing at Juilliard all these years ago.

This idea of having a rehearsal frame, you know, having a target where you say, this is what I'm trying to do. And, it's interesting you say that about Pamela Frank, because one of the things that I write about in intelligent music teaching, if you're trying to do something with a student and after, you know, 2, 3, 4 repetitions, they can't do it, you need to change something. You know, walk away or change it in some way that makes this doable.

You know, an interesting thing I'm working on with a current doctoral student, uh, Micah Killion. You might know Micah, he got his degree at Juilliard. He was a principal trumpet in the Air Force Band in DC for a long time. And now he's a doctoral student here. And you know, I've always been just so puzzled by when people talk about practice strategies, and you say, well, what are practice strategies?

And they say, well, you know, you can go slower and you can put on the metronome. I don't know. Because just saying, going slower, that's not a strategy. I mean, because it doesn't take account of, well, when do you go slower and how much slower and when do you stop going slow?

All of that is a strategy, saying, going slower, that's not a strategy. Turn on the metronome. That's not a strategy. That's like saying, you know, what's your strategy for making an omelet? And I say, well, one strategy is the pan, you know. That's not, that's not a strategy. It's just a thing that you have to do that.

But anyway, all effective practice strategies come down to this. And this is a word that Micah and I made up, uh, and I think I made it up, but if Micah did, I just stole it. He'll, he'll tell me is, is that everything about practicing is about making things that are currently undoable doable. It's all about doable-izing, something. That's the word we, we made up, right? So if I'm working on something and I get to this knotty thing, what's my strategy? My strategy is I have to change something to make this doable. Cause it's not doable in tempo, in character. So what am I gonna do? And the goal is to doable-ize it with minimal alterations away from the character and tempo of the performance.

Now, when you think about it that way, that's a practice strategy, right? The practice strategy is you encounter something that is unmanageable. Your goal is to doable-ize it. You might use a metronome, you might play fewer notes. You might slur it, you might take it down in octave, blah, blah, blah, blah.

You have all these things you might do. Right? But those are just the surface features. The real thing you're doing is you're taking something that's currently not doable and doable-izing it. I mean, that to me is such a valuable concept because just like you, you were quoting from Pamela Frank, you know, he says, look, I, I can't just keep banging on this thing for a totally different set of reasons.

I mean, physically, I just can't do this. But nobody should be doing that. I mean, nobody should saying, boy, I've been like three times and I still can't do it. So I'm, let me just keep banging on this thing. And many people sort of wear that tenacity with a badge of honor. You know, like, man, I will play this 60 times until I get it.

Well, you know, stop it. Because your brain doesn't work that way. Right? Because what you're teaching your brain is all the associations that come with you're not doing it, are now the things that have become associated with that thing. Both the motor things that have become associated, the emotional things associated with that.

I mean, all that is, there's nothing good about that at all, even though we praise people for that sometimes.

Noa: I'd love for you to share the reverse practicing thing you did with your band class way back in the day, the story that you told.

I'd love to just hear that story and then maybe if you can elaborate a little bit on like, like what did you need to hear from them in order for them to be allowed to take their instrument home to practice?

Bob: Yeah. Sure. When I was teaching public school in Atlanta, I had a band and orchestra program in a lovely school. Was just such a fun job and everything and, and when I would start beginners on instruments, I've always thought that you want to make sure that you learn the most efficient way to make this thing work. And by this thing, I mean the combination of the instrument in your body and everything that works together in synchrony to produce sounds that are beautiful. And I mean, beautiful. I mean, there's no reason even a beginner can't make a pretty good sound right from the get-go if they're set up right to do that. So anyway, one of the things that I thought about, uh, because I observed this when I was a student teacher, long before that and when I'd see a lot of kids doing stuff, and also just when I observed, when I was listening to all kinds of people practicing, even, college students practicing and, and I'd think, don't do that. You know, the best thing you can do right now is pack up. Whatever you're doing right now, don't do more of that. And it is interesting to think about. That's always the go-to thing. You know, somebody can't do something. And what somebody says is you need to practice more without knowing what it is they're doing when they're practicing.

And often what people don't want to do is more of what, of what they're doing. Anyway, so I thought, well, clearly telling people how to practice is a failed strategy because all the people who practice terribly do so, not because somebody hasn't told 'em how to practice, right? They haven't practiced how to practice.

And if you come at things from the idea that practicing is something you learn to do, well, then you've created a different kind of mindset about what you're doing. It's not like I can just practice because I can. But anyway, I knew that when I was a kid and I got my first instrument after the flutophone, my first orchestral instrument, which was a trumpet by the way I was just so jazzed that I wanted to play this thing, but I also knew that what I was teaching myself was to do a lot of disadvantageous things , cuz I wanted to play like Doc Severinsen.

And so I was just squeezing the hell outta everything to get high notes to come out, which was just horrible, right? So, so I decided for my beginners that I didn't want them practicing by themselves. Cuz after you've had one day, or two days, or three days of beginning trombone, and you take your instrument home, what are you gonna do that's good?

I mean, nothing that I think is good, you know? So, so what I did is I set up to the parents. I let everybody know, you know, cuz they've rented these instruments and they think, how come my kid can't take your instrument home? I said, no instruments are going home until people show me in class that they're doing things consistently well about the way they're sitting in their hand position and the way they're holding the instrument, the way they're taking a breath, the way the bows on the string, you know, whatever it is.

No instruments go home until that happens. Because even well-intentioned parents, and you knew this, you were a Suzuki kid. Even well-intentioned parents can do only so much. When they're working with their kids at home, supervising practice.

So I told the class because the first day of a band, for example, you know, people start walking toward the door with their case, I said, where are you going? I'm going home. I said, not with your trombone, you're not. Put your trombone in the instrument room, you know. And of course the kid would say, well, Mr. Duke, how come I can't take my trombone? I said, because you don't play well enough to practice on your own yet. You have to play much better before you can practice. I mean, this is just, uh, not ready yet.

So anyway, I had these practice sheets that I would put in all of my students' cases, but the practice sheets had the maximum amount of time they were allowed to practice when they were at home. So I would be sitting in class, I'd be looking at kids and see how they looked. And after this is after several weeks.

I mean, they've been playing several weeks, maybe even more than several. And I would notice some clarinet kid who's sitting up straight and her embouchure looks great and her corners are firm. And, you know, angle of the horn looks great. Her tone is really good. And I say, Cindy, give me, gimme your practice sheet.

You can take your clarinet home today and you can practice for five minutes. And so I'd five minutes and my deal with the parents is, one is that you do have to be strict about, you don't have to help your kid practice, but you have to make 'em put their horn away after the time is up.

Like five minutes horn goes back in the case. So anyway, so Cindy was thrilled, right? And then of course Cindy's stand mate, who's sitting next to Cindy. Well, how come, how come I can't take my instrument home? Well, I mean, your, your bell is way far out.

And I don't see all this firmed up the way it needs to be. So you're not, you're not ready to practice at home yet. Now this kid's busted her chops trying to be better in class so she can get to take her clarinet home, right?

And so here's another thing that cycles back all the way back to where we started this, not everybody's the same. And I don't expect everybody to do the same thing at the same time. So when Cindy's standmate says, well, how come I can't take my clarinet home? It's because you don't look as good as Cindy does. You can, you just have to work harder at that in class. And when you do this consistently in class, I'll let you take your instrument home.

And so now everybody's thinking about, and if, if you're a clarinet player for those clarinet players who are listening to this thing, the, the five minutes starts when you open the case. So for a kid playing clarinet, it's gonna take like three minutes just to get the damn thing together and wet the reed and get the reed on the mouthpiece, you know?

And the kid might play a couple notes and ding the timer goes off and the mom says, sorry, he gotta put your away, whereupon the kid comes to me the next day in class and says, Mr. Duke, can I practice longer? Now, when's the last time you had a kid ask you that? Right? And it gets back to what we're talking about, about the graduate students, right?

I want practice time to be something like, you don't waste this, right? This is something that's so lovely and you can get so much done. But only if you're clear about what you're trying to do. You have an expectation that's clear in your mind and you're able to discriminate between what you're intending to do and what actually comes about.

And when that happens effectively, you're gonna learn some stuff when you practice.

Noa: Yeah, I just love that story. So thank you for indulging me

Bob: I do too. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.


Bob mentioned a number of former and current doctoral students and colleagues with whom he has collaborated on various studies. You can learn more about their work here:

  • 27:48 – Lani Hamilton (how often do musicians of different levels notice a discrepancy between what they want, and what actually comes out of their instrument)
  • 28:48 – Amy Simmons (how do students practice vs. how do professionals practice?)
  • 41:04 – Rick Palese (what happens if you restrict the number of repetitions one can put in during practice?)
  • 45:57 – I made a reference to Pamela Frank, and how she described limiting the numbers of repetitions she allowed herself in practice when recovering from an injury. You can learn more about this and other details about her approach to practicing in this podcast episode.
  • 47:57 – Micah Killion (on making the undoable, doable)

More from Robert Duke

Wondering if Bob has written a book for teachers? He has! It’s about the fundamental principles of learning, specifically with regards to teaching music:

Trying to find a productive way to procrastinate on practicing? There are lots more resources (like The Habits of Musicianship) and links to more studies for further exploration at Bob’s lab website here:

Looking for a new podcast for your commute? Get weekly, bite-sized podcast episodes on topics related to your brain. With banter. And topics ranging from imposter syndrome to memory to happiness to multitasking:

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

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

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.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


4 Responses

  1. So….I haven’t even finished yet but the whole brain expectation and needing to go in with a vivid expectation of what you will hear made sense to me in a new way and I sat down with a piece I’m doing (classical guitar) and normally I’d just start playing. Instead I looked at it and went through just reading it and hearing it in my head and where I stumbled hearing it clearly I went over that to clarify what I expected to hear. Wow. What a difference. This is a fairly simple piece comparatively speaking but the principles are all the same. And I could tell in 10 minutes something that has been missing in learning to practice mindfully ( a phrase one hears over and over and I’ve tried to accomplish but this really hit the spot this time for me). I’m definitely recommending this interview!

  2. I’ve been a Bob Duke fan since seeing him speak in Maryland. Do you have a link to the Starling-Delay talk that you mention at the top of the podcast?
    His ideas continue to inspire me as a teacher and performer. Also, thank you Noa for all of your great ideas and research.

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