Let’s say you have a few short pieces that need to be learned before rehearsal tomorrow, and only a few hours today to practice. How would you approach this task?
Would you just dive right in and spend all of your practice time reading through the parts and working out the details?
Or would you hop on YouTube first, and spend a little bit of time listening to some recordings before doing any work on your instrument?
In my early Suzuki years, it was always the latter. I did a ton of listening – upon awakening, during meals, in the car, and even as I was falling asleep every night. I remember well the little Sony stereo set on my dresser that my mom would turn on and leave running as she left the room after tucking me in.
I’m not sure if it’s because of all the listening I did, but I did seem to move through repertoire pretty quickly as a little kid (except for the seeming eternity I spent on LaFolia ).
And even into my grad school days, listening to recordings was always a key part of my learning process when beginning work on a new piece. Whether it was a concerto or piano trio, I always sought out recordings before taking a look at the score or trying to play through it on my violin.
My wife on the other hand (a pianist), was always a look-at-the-score-first kind of person, and didn’t like listening to recordings until after she had already gotten the piece into her fingers. However, a few years ago, when faced with a lot of rep to learn for a performance she had to do on short notice, I suggested that she put recordings of every piece on her phone and spend her 16-hr plane ride immersed in an endlessly repeating playlist.
She’s a quick learner, and probably would have been just fine even without humoring my suggestion, but the marathon listening session certainly didn’t hurt, and I like to think that it helped her get everything into her fingers more quickly upon arrival.
A bit like being able to see what a 10,000-piece puzzle is supposed to look like before trying to put the pieces together.
So this leads to an interesting question about the impact of listening on our learning. Is this just an old Suzuki habit that I never let go of? Or does listening to music in the early going actually accelerate the learning process?
12 minutes. 13 notes.
To see what effect an auditory “model” might have on musicians’ learning rates, a team of researchers (Cash et al., 2014) recruited 32 instrumental music majors1 with some secondary piano training2 to learn a short passage either (a) after listening to a recording or (b) without listening to a recording.
All students were allowed one 12-minute training session sometime between 8-10pm, in which they practiced the following 13-note melody with their left hand (all participants were righties).
Everyone was instructed to “play the melody as quickly, accurately, and evenly as possible,” but those in the listening group were also presented with a recording of the passage, which they heard 10 times before doing any practicing.
12 hours later…
Approximately 12 hours later, after a night of sleep, they returned to the lab to see how much of the previous evening’s practice stuck.
So how did the groups do?
Well, both groups improved with practice, in that everyone performed the passage more accurately after 12 minutes of practice than they did on their first try (no surprise there). In addition, both performed more accurately the following morning than they did at the end of their practice session. Yes, you read that correctly – they continued to improve overnight despite no further practice. Which might sound a little surprising at first, but was actually something the researchers expected to find, as continued motor learning after a period of sleep is a phenomenon that has been observed in other studies.
Different rates of learning
Though both groups improved during the practice session, they did not improve at the same rate. The students who heard the recording started out with an average accuracy score of 52.18 and over the course of the practice session improved to an average score of 99.96 (a 92% improvement). The group which was not given a recording to listen to started out at about the same level of accuracy – 48.71 – but only improved to an average score of 84.16 (a gain of only 73%).
Different levels of performance
Not only did the groups differ in terms of the rapidity of their learning, but the two groups ultimately achieved different levels of performance too. To see what sort of difference in memory consolidation there might be overnight, the researchers asked the participants to come back for another test the next day after a night’s sleep.
The group which heard the recording, despite not practicing any further, ended with an average final accuracy score of 108.75 at the next morning’s test (an improvement of 9% over the previous evening’s performance). The no-listening group improved a wee bit too, but only by 4%, finishing with a final accuracy score of 87.24.
At first glance, the results of the study seem pretty clear – but it’s hard to say from the results what’s “best” in the long term. In the short term, yes, it seems that having an auditory model can accelerate our progress and help us get to a higher level of performance quicker. But does this lock us into a particular way of playing a piece too soon? And make it more difficult to develop our own interpretation of a piece? Or is this more of a concern for advanced players than it is for beginners?
It might be that the optimal approach depends on how much time is available, and also one’s personal preferences. If you’d like to ponder this further, it’s a topic that came up in the podcast episode with cellist Natasha Brofsky and violist Roger Tapping (here). And it came up in conversation with cellist Mark Kosower too (here), who also noted the importance of listening to multiple recordings, instead of just one.
Cash, C. D., Allen, S. E., Simmons, A. L., & Duke, R. A. (2014). Effects of Model Performances on Music Skill Acquisition and Overnight Memory Consolidation. Journal of Research in Music Education, 62(1), 89–99. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022429413520409
- All participants were string or woodwind players.
- No more than a few years of private instruction/group piano class total.