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?

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.


You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!


The weekly newsletter!

Join 45,000+ musicians and get the latest research-based tips on how to level up in the practice room and on stage.



Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.