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.
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.
- Time spent figuring out what you want the music to sound like.
- Time spent figuring out how to make your body and instrument produce what you hear in your head.
- 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.
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!