The Importance of Run-Throughs (and How to Get Better Grades While Studying Less)

I’ve always had a habit of cramming for tests. Staying up all night and feverishly force-feeding as much information into my brain as possible – right up until the moment the exam began – was a pretty familiar ritual through college.

It worked out ok on occasion, but no matter how I did on the test, I would forget most of what I crammed into my brain by the next class.

When I got to grad school and realized I could no longer in good conscience continue to get by on this strategy, I found a new strategy that worked better.

Test-enhanced learning!

Test-enhanced learning

As it happens, tests are not just tools teachers use to measure what you have learned.

Tests themselves can enhance our learning, as the act of taking tests has long been known to have a significant impact on learning and long-term recall.

Case in point, a 2006 study in which researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, evaluated students’ recall in three different study conditions.

  • Group 1: One group of students studied a selection of text four times.
  • Group 2: Another group of students studied the text three times, and took one recall test.
  • Group 3: The third group of students studied the text just once, but took three recall tests.

When tested 5 minutes later, Group 1 (studied 4x) scored highest, Group 2 (studied 3x, tested 1x) scored next best, and Group 3 (studied 1x, tested 3x) did the worst.

However, when tested one week later, the results were reversed. Group 1 (studied 4x) recalled the least, Group 2 (studied 3x, tested 1x) scored in the middle of the pack, and Group 3 (studied 1x, tested 3x) had the highest score, demonstrating 42% greater recall than the group which studied the most.

When you think about it, this actually makes sense. After all, Group 1 practiced studying, or putting information into their heads. Meanwhile, Group 3 practiced test-taking, or scanning their memory for the correct information and outputting this information – exactly what is required in a real test-taking situation.

Conceptually, I believe this applies to what we do as musicians as well. It can be tempting to spend all our time “studying” (i.e. practicing) and inputting data into our minds and muscles, but it’s just as important to practice “test-taking” (i.e. performing) where we must output everything we have learned.

Galamian and the division of practice

Indeed, famed violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian encouraged students to think of practice as consisting of three components.

  1. Time spent figuring out what you want the music to sound like.
  2. Time spent figuring out how to make your body and instrument produce what you hear in your head.
  3. Time spent performing the music, and actually practicing all that will be required of us on stage when it really counts.

There is a natural tendency to neglect – or at least put off too long – the third component, only to get on stage and be faced with a number of variables we suddenly realize we haven’t prepared ourself to handle.

One of the other problems with waiting too long is that we can find ourselves spending an inordinate amount of time trying to solve what one of my students calls “imaginary problems” – or those problems that exist when we play at controlled speeds in sterile conditions, but disappear (only to be replaced by different ones) when we play up to tempo with full musical intent and intensity.

Take action

Get out a recording device and do a run-through of your piece or excerpt, as if it were a real performance, with a bow to the audience and everything.

What feels uncomfortable? What are you less certain about? What fails in a run-through, that didn’t seem to be a problem when you were just working through shorter sections?

These are the same problems that are likely to come out of nowhere and surprise you in a high-pressure performance. Of course, now you know what they are, and can proactively prepare an optimal response well in advance of the real thing!

photo credit: betta design via photopin cc

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

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.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


9 Responses

  1. Once again a phenomenal article– your articles help me in music (of course!) but also in almost every other aspect of my life. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for your blog. I am a newbie, learning to play violin (and I’m 58 years old). Your insights help me with processing my lessons and understanding what performance is all about.

  3. I remember when I was in graduate school studying for my qualifying exams, the technique we used and were advised to use by the other more advanced grad students was to get as many old quals as we could — and the department kept the old copies of the tests — and just do them. Over and over. I spent the entire summer doing nothing but taking old qualifying exams, at least ten of them, one question at a time.

    Each one had about five questions on it, and the general tendency was to get over a 50% on each test. In other words, a successful strategy meant that you would spend your summer taking test after test after test, go into the exam room in September, and be able to barf out two questions straight from memory, with minor adjustments (using spherical versus cylindrical coordinates, for example), and then spend the entire rest of the time on ONE unfamiliar problem out of the remaining three that you hadn’t seen before.

    To pass tests, you TAKE tests. Whether it’s physics or music.

  4. Fantastic article! I was not at all surprised by the statistical outcomes of the test takers. I think there is a difference between what I call “passive processing” (which is what much of music practice is) and “active reconstruction” (which is what performance calls upon). I think both are necessary in practicing and learning music. The passive processing is important, not only to establish a foundation to grasp the material, but also, to allow the musician to stop, reflect, take chances, make conscious decisions, etc. But the ultimate “real time” learning certainly takes place in performance mode, where the musician has to “reconstruct” all that she/he has learned and turn it into artistic self-expression.

    As you stated, this is often where unaddressed problems rear their heads. That’s why I really appreciate your advice about “practicing” performance (taking a bow and everything!) In a sense, this reminds me of Leonard Bernstein’s quote: “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time.” Thanks so much for your work, as always.

    1. Hi Bill,

      I like those terms – passive processing and active reconstruction. Nice. And that’s a terrific quote too. It really is interesting how that touch of desperation seems to push us to pull things together and “ship,” as they say…

  5. Dear Dr. Kageyama,
    Thank you for a useful and thought-provoking article.

    I’d love to read further on this subject, could you say which of Ivan Galamian’s books you were referring to?

    Thanks again!

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