The Learning-Performance Distinction and Why Gains in the Practice Room Don’t Always Stick

You know those happy moments in the practice room where the stars and planets align, everything falls into place, and we sound pretty darn great?

Where we feel like all is well in the world, and we walk out of the practice room with a spring in our step and smile on our face?

But why is our awesomeness so temporary? Why does sounding great one day often fail to translate into sounding great the next day, or the next week, or in our next performance?

Sure, there’s our nervousness of course, but it also has to do with the fact that there’s an illusion of sorts at work when we’re learning or improving a skill in the practice room – which can lead us to rely on suboptimal practice strategies.

The two major goals of practice

The goal of practice is to develop skills that are durable and flexible.

Durable, as in being capable of playing a tricky run accurately even if we haven’t played it recently (vs. only being able to play it accurately if we repeat it 5 or 10 times first to get into a groove).

And flexible, as in being able to play that difficult passage slightly faster, slower, louder, softer, with sweaty hands or cold hands, when tired, nervous, or jet lagged.

The problem, is that we often practice in ways that maximize performance – but not learning.


The mastery illusion

Performance (or the “momentary strength” of a skill) is how well we can play a passage while working on it during a practice session or learning how to play it better in a lesson.

On the other hand, learning (or the “underlying habit strength” of a skill), is evident in how well we can play that passage, when it really counts, at some point after a lesson or practice session.

Obviously, we all want to maximize learning, but we tend to gravitate towards practice and instructional strategies that maximize performance, because that’s what we can see on a day to day basis in our practice sessions.

Unfortunately, performance is an imperfect indicator of learning. How we sound in the practice room when we’ve repeated something over and over and gotten into a groove is just an illusion of mastery, much like re-reading a physics text over and over increases our familiarity with the material and makes us think we totally get it – until we see the test and discover we’re toast.

From rats running mazes to people learning video games, studies have demonstrated that learning can continue to occur even after performance during practice appears to plateau – and conversely, that performance can improve without significant increases in learning.

In fact, many practice strategies have opposite effects on performance and learning. Often, when we feel like things are easy and we’re improving rapidly, performance is increasing, but learning is poor, whereas when things are harder and effortful and everything feels like a struggle – these might actually be the times when we are maximizing learning.

We’re poor judges of learning

Since we’re not very good at gauging when we’re learning effectively and when we’re not, we tend to gravitate to practice strategies that maximize the appearance of mastery in the short term. After all, hearing ourselves improve rapidly in a practice session feels pretty productive.

Yet, the strategies that research has found to maximize durable and flexible learning and true mastery in the long term often don’t provide us with the same instant gratification and rapid gains in practice. Instead, they may frustrate us, appear to slow down our progress, and make us feel like we’re not “getting” it as quickly.

But as Itzhak Perlman once said – if we learn something slowly, we forget it slowly.

Three key principles of effective learning

So what are some specific practice strategies that enhance learning?

1. Spaced practice

There is a tendency to repeat passages or a tricky run over and over and over until it sounds better (massed practice). Thing is, this is basically just mindless repetition, which may very well lead to the illusion of improvement in the course of a practice session, but doesn’t translate into very durable learning in the long run.

More effective is to space practices apart, both in terms of each repetition of a passage, and in terms of learning repertoire (learning a new piece over the course of a week vs. cramming into one day).

For instance, the strategies we’ve previously explored in more depth here and here.

2. Interleaved practice

Playing a passage until it sounds great, then moving onto the next passage and making that sound great, and so on feels productive. We sound like we’re getting better and better as we move from one section to the next, whereas moving on before cleaning things up feels really wrong on many levels (not to mention messy and unproductive).

However, the research on interleaved practice is pretty compelling, and suggests that this is one of the keys to prioritizing long-term mastery over fleeting and temporary performance gains.

What’s interesting, is that even when participants have demonstrated greater gains in learning with interleaved practice, they still prefer blocked practice and think that it’s more effective (though in all fairness, it totally does feel more effective in the short term).

Read more about interleaved practice here.

3. Varied practice

We are creatures of habit, and have a tendency to practice things the same way. We use the same warmup, practice in the same room in our house, start from the beginning of each piece, tune our instruments to the same exact pitch, and so on.

Yet in real life, things invariably deviate from the plan. We’ll have to play at a slightly different tempo, different pitch, in a hall with different acoustics, temperature, and more.

Though here too it can feel disruptive to vary how we practice our repertoire, doing so can contribute to a more flexible and robust motor program that will serve us better in a real performance situation.

Read more about variable practice here.

The science of successful learning

There is a fascinating body of research on what actually works and what doesn’t, when it comes to learning effectively.

As it turns out, a lot of what we’ve been doing for most of our lives as both students and teachers is surprisingly unproductive.

I recently read a book that compiles much of this research into an easy-to-digest (and apply) book that is making me completely rethink how I teach.

From the role of visualization and mental rehearsal in strengthening learning, to whether testing is good or bad, to whether there is really any value in tailoring teaching to an individual’s learning style, the authors share the key principles of learning that students and teachers (and coaches and trainers) would all benefit from.

If you’d like to kick things up a notch this summer and give yourself (and your students) an advantage this coming fall, I believe it’s well worth your time. It will, in all likelihood, change how you practice, study, or teach:
Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

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.

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

BOGO pricing is now in effect! (through 11:59pm Sunday)

Sign up anytime now through Sunday (Dec. 4) at 11:59pm Pacific, and you’ll receive a second bonus Beyond Practicing account – at no additional cost – that you can gift to a friend, colleague, family member, student, or teacher (i.e. a practice buddy to explore the course with 😁).

Click the red button below to learn more about the course and get the holiday buy-one-get-one-free offer.


8 Responses

  1. I love those articles and books that helps us to learn better.
    But once I was being so neorotic about effective practice, that i spent too much time planning and worrying.
    I mean, if wasn’t for all the unneffective practice, we wouldn’t have got to the point we are now…
    So, i try to make my practice better, but not so much to the point I feel bad.

    Im always reading your blog, Clickstein’s book and other stuff, thank you all!

  2. I haven’t read the book yet, “Make it stick,” but I will definitely secure it very soon, based on your recommendation and the many endorsements by professors, teachers, and students that praise it. I do not know what specific neuroscience principles are referenced and explored, with respects to learning, and therefore cannot comment on any such specifics. Moreover, your thorough article focuses on strategies that may parallel some of these strategies, and as such, my comments might relate to the book. Rather that guess, I will offer my own thought about what I believe constitutes learning and retention.

    The question that readily comes to mind is whether or not accomplished musicians noted for their musical knowledge and ability followed and applied strategies consistent with ‘the neuroscience of learning,’ as illustrated in said book, or did they learn the fundamental of their craft in a more natural and direct fashion, as I would suggest, as young and ‘stimulated’ students. Of course, this begs for the necessary research to address this question. Still, I would suggest that one can achieve reasonable insight into their learning process through and understanding and appreciation of how we, as young children learned complex task. In other words, the neuroscience of learning is perhaps consistent with the way that young children learn complex task. In my view, based purely on intuition, and perhaps common sense, the best and grounded learning strategies are, in fact, at play, when the developing mind learns complex task.

    No doubt, as ‘adults,’ if this intrinsic and therefore natural strategy is, so to speak, lost, neuroscientist, and the like, have honorably attempted to reestablish and outline the specific strategies necessary to recapture this intrinsic process for the benefit of all concerned. In a sense, I am suggesting that there is nothing new being offered by neuroscience. If that were true, present day musicians following and applying these ‘newly’ recognized strategies would be more knowledgeable and accomplished that their predecessors. In my view, there is nothing new in the process, or character of learning. What is ‘new’ is the recognition of long established methods employed, but not clearly recognized, yet adapted by ‘past masters,’ and of course the developing minds of virtually all young children. Retention of knowledge is the result of the strong and emotional responses to new, relevant, and creative information that is derived from a continuum of integrated learning. This is always the case, whether one is young or old. Strong emotions, coupled with the natural process of learning, cannot be denied in understanding the retention of knowledge.

    I’m intrigued by the lack of response to this critical article. That fact begs serious consideration. It’s as if the idea, or reconsideration, or evaluation of learning and retention, in the context of practice or performance, is somehow inaccessible, or unapproachable. This reluctance to participate, or otherwise consider this critical question intrigues me as much as the subject itself. This lack of participation cannot diminish its importance to any degree. Moreover, the relevance of this issue is an integral part of many articles available herein. I offer these thoughts for consideration. Thank you.

  3. Dear Dr. Kageyama,

    I want to thank you for drawing my attention to Make It Stick, and for thinking about how to apply the book’s ideas to musical practice. After I read your piece, I bought the book, and found it extremely helpful. I have begun to apply the “testing effect” to my own learning, and have found that it really works. I’m also going to incorporate it into my teaching at Indiana U. (which is in US history and politics).

    What I’m curious about is more ideas about how to incorporate their ideas into musical practice (I’m a clarinet and sax player, and play both jazz and classical). You’ve given some, but I’m convinced there must be more, and I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of “effortful” practice, making your brain work harder to retrieve information or making yourself work harder to carry out a skill. For jazz practice, one obvious application is in memorizing tunes and chord changes.

    Anyhow, thanks for what you do–Carl

    1. Hi Carl,

      I’m glad you found the book helpful – it’s one of my favorites, and has certainly changed how I’ve approached teaching too.

      In terms of additional strategies for effortful practice, one activity that I like is something Toby Appel mentioned in his interview – that of practicing a range of things he might do in performances, rather than just having a single option.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Join 48,000+ musicians!

Get the latest research-based tips to level up in the practice room and on stage, from one week to the next.

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!

Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 3-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.

Hello. Add your message here. Learn more
Beat nerves with a friend, with BOGO pricing on the Beyond Practicing course Join Today