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Pianist Leon Fleisher once said something to the effect that playing a note is easy – but playing that note musically is much harder.

Which seems related to his teacher Artur Schnabel’s remark that Mozart’s piano sonatas are “Too easy for children and too difficult for adults.”

However, my tendency in the practice room was always to prioritize technical accuracy over musical intention. To fixate on intonation, rhythm, and quality of sound first – but largely out of context. Without all of the subtle nuances and musical details that I knew were important…but figured I’d save until I had all the basics down first.

Of course, in reality, that just meant I delayed working on all the important stuff. So when the day of the concert arrived and my priorities were inverted to emphasize music over mechanics, predictably, I’d end up with a performance with lots of unexpected and annoying technical inconsistencies scattered throughout.

This kind of out-of-context practice – meaning, practice which isolates a particular skill and strips away some of the demands and complications of how that skill would need to be performed in competition – is pretty typical in sports as well.

Because it simplifies things. And it does help to increase consistency in practice-type situations. But how well do these skills then transfer to competition or performance?

A tennis study

A team of Australian researchers (Krause et al., 2019) recruited thirty-three junior-level tennis players, all of whom were actively competing in Australian state-level tennis tournaments.

Everyone started out with a pre-test to get a sense of their serving skill. Specifically, how fast and how accurate their serves were.

The accuracy bit was really important, because – and this might only be interesting to tennis geeks so humor me for a moment – a 2016 analysis of 25,680 first serves by 151 male players during the Australian Open found that aces were predicted more by accuracy than they were by speed (where serves that were angled more than 5.88° from the returner and less than 6 inches from the service box lines were most likely to result in an ace).

Pre-test

Anyhoo, the pre-test had two parts. One part was a 45-minute match, which gave the researchers a chance to evaluate each player’s “true” serving ability in the realistic context of a match.

The other part of the pre-test was not as representative of performance – but it gave researchers a chance to more objectively evaluate the participants’ serving skill in isolation. Basically, the researchers just split up the service area of the court into six zones, and asked them to hit 1st and 2nd serves into each zone – with no opponent looking to hit the ball back – working across the court from left to right1.

Six weeks of practice

Then, twice a week for the next six weeks, the participants practiced hitting 1st and 2nd serves to each side of the court several times.

However, the players didn’t all practice the same way. Some of the participants practiced in a way that was not especially “representative” of a real match. While others practiced serving in a way that included more of the situational match-like elements that could affect one’s approach to serving in a match.

Three types of practice

For instance, all participants were told to “serve/play like you would in a match,” but the serve only group practiced serving to an empty court, with no opponent to hit to.

Participants in the serve + return group on the other hand, served to an opponent whose job was to hit the ball back just like in a match. This way, you don’t just get feedback about whether your serve is in or out, but you also find out how effective your serve is. Does it result in an ace? A weak return? Or does your opponent absolutely crush your weak 2nd serve down the line?

The third and most realistic practice group was the serve + return + 2 shots group. Participants in this group would serve to an opponent, who would try to hit the ball back, which the server then had to hit, which the opponent would then hit one last time. This scenario is obviously the most match-like, in that the server is most keenly aware of not just the immediate effect of the serve, but the downstream consequences of how the serve impacts how the point unfolds.

Because now, the feedback isn’t limited just to whether your opponent can return your serve or not, but the quality of your opponent’s return, and whether it’s a ball you can attack, or must react defensively to.

Post-test

After six weeks of practice, the participants were tested once again – with another 45-minute match, and another series of first and second serves into each of the six service zones.

So which type of practice resulted in the biggest improvement? Obviously, the most match-like practice, right?

Well, the answer is not as straightforward as you might think!

Let’s look at each group, one at a time. 

Serve only group (least representative)

The serve only group, which served to an empty court and therefore received no feedback on how an opponent might respond to their serves, demonstrated very little meaningful change from the pre-test to the post-test. They did increase their 2nd serve speed by about 3.5 kph during matchplay – but there was no improvement in their placement or use of angles.

Likewise, in the serving test, where they simply had to serve to six locations on an empty court, there was no increase in serving speed from before the six weeks of practice to after.

I would have thought that serving to an empty court would be a good opportunity to experiment more freely with no fear of an opponent taking advantage of a poor serve, but the study suggests that this doesn’t lead to a ton of improvement.

Serve + return group (more representative)

The serve + return group on the other hand, which served against an opponent and therefore got immediate feedback about the effectiveness of each serve, improved the speed of both their 1st and 2nd serves in matchplay. By 4.2 and 3.7 kph, in fact, which was the biggest increase of any group.

That said, their approach to practice seemed to result in a greater emphasis on speed over accuracy, as they hit 15% fewer 2nd serves to the extremities of the service box.

And on the empty-court serving test, though their 1st serves were significantly faster on the post-test than they were on the pre-test, the speed of their 2nd serves was unchanged…

Serve + return + 2 shots (most representative)

Meanwhile, the serve + return + 2 shots group’s practice, which most closely resembled the demands of a real tennis match, didn’t lead to any meaningful changes to either the speed or placement of their 1st serves during matchplay.

Meanwhile, their 2nd serves changed quite a bit. Specifically, these participants hit 2nd serves 3% slower, and they not only hit 10% more serves to the extremities of the service box, but increased the angle of their serves by 31% as well.

In other words, the participants in this group appeared to prioritize accuracy and placement over speed. At least on 2nd serves, where the goal isn’t to win the point outright, but make sure the serve is still challenging enough that your opponent can’t easily attack and put you on the defensive.

The participants in this group were also the only ones to demonstrate a significant increase in the speed of both their 1st and 2nd serves on the skills test. So why didn’t the increased velocity of their serves transfer to matchplay? The researchers suggest that even though they had the ability to hit the ball harder, it seems that when it came time to serve in a real match, they chose to take a little bit off and focus more on accuracy.

Kind of like knowing you can play a passage at quarter note = 94 in the practice room, but given your tendency to rush under pressure and for things to snowball, aiming for quarter = 91 or 92 on stage, so you’re not pushing things too close to the edge of your limits.

So what are we to make of all of this, in the context of music?

Takeaways

Well…my takeaway is that there’s a time and place for practice that’s more representative of performance conditions, and a time and place for practice that’s simplified, and less representative of performance conditions.

How so?

Well, playing a piece with piano is going to be more representative of performance than practicing with a metronome. So if you show up at a competition having prioritized the metronome and having played with piano only once, you might have great metronomic rhythm, but no sense of pulse, a narrow range of dynamic contrast, and very little sense of the interplay between your part and that of the piano or the orchestra.

But on the flip side, if you have a really attentive and flexible pianist, and neglect the metronome entirely, you might end up “cheating” rhythmically and technically – by taking more time than you realize, to compensate for the difficulty of some tricky shifts or sections that aren’t as securely learned as you think they are.

So even though practice that most closely resembles the demands of performance seems like it would always be better than practice that is less representative of performance – that may not always be the case.

Instead, I think the reality might be that the level of representativeness that’s best for learning depends on what the goal of practice is at that moment, and what skill you’re trying to develop.

Ack! Doesn’t that complicate things and make it way more difficult to plan what we should be doing in the practice room from day to day?

It certainly does! But…then again, I think this is also the exact sort of thing that keeps things interesting too, no?


References

Krause, L., Farrow, D., Pinder, R., Buszard, T., Kovalchik, S., & Reid, M. (2019). Enhancing skill transfer in tennis using representative learning design. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1–9.

Footnotes

  1. i.e. a 1st and 2nd serve wide to the deuce side of the court, then up the middle of the box into the body, then up the center of the court, then a 1st and 2nd serve up the middle of the court on the ad side, then to the body, and finally wide