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 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.


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