Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight – PART 1

Have you ever been frustrated by the fact that you can take a difficult passage, work on it for a bit, get it sounding pretty good, but return to the practice room the next day to discover that you’re back at square 1? That nothing has really changed? And despite how good it sounded yesterday, now it sounds just as bad as it did before you worked on it?

Most of us can live with “2 steps forward, 1 step back.” It’s the “2 steps forward, 1.99999999 steps back” that makes us want to tear our hair out.

So what are we to do?

Are we just supposed to keep at it and learn how to be more patient? Or is there a different way to practice that can make these improvements more permanent?

Enter Christine Carter

Christine Carter is a clarinetist, and associate professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, Canada. She did her doctoral dissertation on the contextual interference effect – a phenomenon that can help you make your daily progress in the practice room actually stick, so in this post, she shares a few suggestions on how we can make the most of our practice time.

Take it away, Christine!

Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight - Part 1

by Christine Carter, DMA

Making the most of your hours in the practice room:

One simple change that could drastically increase your productivity

When it comes to practicing, we often think in terms of time: How many hours are necessary to achieve optimal progress? While this is a valid concern, a more important question is how we can make each hour count. What is the most efficient way to work so that what is practiced today actually sticks tomorrow? There is nothing more frustrating than spending a day hard at work only to return the next day at the starting line. Unfortunately, our current practice model is setting us up for this daily disappointment.

Repetition, babies, and brain scans

Early on in our musical training, we are taught the importance of repetition. How often have we been told to “play each passage ten times perfectly before moving on”? The challenge with this well-intentioned advice is that it is not in line with the way our brains work. We are hardwired to pay attention to change, not repetition. This hardwiring can already be observed in preverbal infants. Show a baby the same object over and over again and they will gradually stop paying attention through a process called habituation. Change the object, and the attention returns full force. The same goes for adults. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that there is progressively less brain activation when stimuli are repeated. The fact is, repeated information does not receive the same amount of processing as new information. And on some level, we all know this. Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged. But instead of listening to this instinctive voice of reason, we blame ourselves for our lack of attention and yell at ourselves to “focus!” Luckily, there is an alternative.

Blocked practice schedules

In the field of sport psychology, the continuous repetition discussed above is called blocked practice. In a blocked practice schedule, all repetitions of one activity are completed before moving on to a second activity. For example, a baseball player who must hit fifteen fastballs, fifteen curve balls, and fifteen change-up pitches in practice would complete all of the fastballs before moving on to the curve balls and so on. This most resembles the way the majority of musicians practice, especially when it comes to challenging passages. We work on one excerpt for a given amount of time and then move on to the next excerpt until all tasks for the day are complete. A blocked approach seems logical.  Muscle memory requires repetition and why wouldn’t we do all of the repetitions in a row? After all, if we are working on a difficult passage, it feels a lot more comfortable 10 minutes into practice than at the beginning. It is precisely this feeling of comfort and improvement that reinforces our reliance on blocked practice. The problem with this kind of practicing, however, is that the positive results we feel in the practice room today do not lead to the best long-term learning tomorrow. Practicing in a way that optimizes performance in the practice room does not optimize learning.

Random practice schedules

What if we took the blocks of practice on particular tasks and broke them down into smaller segments on each task? In the baseball example above, the players could hit the three different types of pitches in an alternating fashion, instead of doing all of one kind in a row. Two breakdown options are a repeating order (e.g., abc abc abc…) or an arbitrary order (e.g., acb cba bca…). In either, the net result will still be 15 practice hits of each of the three types of pitches, exactly the same as the net result in the blocked practice schedule. The only variable that changes is the order in which the pitches are practiced. This type of interspersed schedule is called a random practice schedule (also known as an interleaved practice schedule).

In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning. In the blocked schedule above, the baseball players must only construct the action plan for each type of pitch once, at the beginning of each block. In the random schedule, they must construct and later reconstruct an action plan fifteen times for each pitch. Although a blocked schedule may produce superior performance during practice, study after study has shown that a random practice schedule consistently produces superior retention following practice a day or more later (i.e., the amount actually learned). This phenomenon is called the contextual interference effect.

How much better is a random practice schedule?

It turns out that the hypothetical baseball example used above is not hypothetical.  In a 1994 study by Hall, Domingues, and Cavazos, elite baseball players were assigned to either the blocked or random practice schedules discussed above. After twelve practice sessions, the baseball players in the random practice schedule hit 57% more of the pitches than when they started. The blocked group only hit 25% more of the pitches, meaning that the random practice schedule was more than twice as effective, even though the two groups hit the same number of practice pitches. Similar results have been found across a wide variety of fields. Most pertinent to our interests as musicians, my preliminary research at the Brain and Mind Institute in Canada provides empirical support for the use of a random practice schedule in music. Not only does this research suggest that a random practice schedule is more effective than a blocked schedule for practicing musical passages, participant interviews also reveal that random practice has positive effects on factors such as goal setting and focus.

How to use a random schedule in the practice room

Rather than spending long uninterrupted periods of time woodshedding each excerpt or section of a piece, pick a few passages you would like to work on and alternate between them. If you want to spend a total of 30 minutes on a particular excerpt, practice in shorter segments, continually returning to this excerpt until you have achieved your 30-minute goal. Experiment with lengths of time. If you are practicing excerpts that are very short, you may be able to switch between them at a faster pace than would be required for longer sections. You can use a small alarm clock to time specific intervals or switch after each repetition. At its most basic level, random practice might look like this:


Material to Practice

3 minutesExcerpt A
3 minutesExcerpt B
3 minutesExcerpt C
3 minutesExcerpt A
3 minutesExcerpt B
3 minutesExcerpt C

Practicing passages in different rhythmic variations is a great way of introducing contextual interference on a smaller scale. But instead of doing all rhythmic variations on a single excerpt before moving onto the next, do one variation on excerpt A, one on excerpt B and then return to excerpt A for a second variation etc. Technique can also be interspersed into the random schedule, instead of doing all of it in one long block. An example of a more complicated random practice session might look something like the following:


Material to Practice

2 minutesLong tone, scale, long tone, scale…
3 minutesExcerpt A (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutesThird progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio…
3 minutesExcerpt B (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutesLong tone, scale, long tone, scale…
3 minutesExcerpt A (using second rhythmic variation)
2 minutesThird progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio…
3 minutesExcerpt B (using second rhythmic variation)

The permutations are endless and the exact division of time is not important. What is crucial is that you are keeping your brain engaged by varying the material. More engagement means you will be less bored, more goal-oriented (you have to be if you only have 3 minutes to accomplish something), and substantially more productive. Most importantly, when you return to the practice room the next day, you can start from where you left off. This type of practice sticks.

Additional resources

Dr. Robert Bjork on the benefits of interleaving practice @ Go Cognitive (6-minute video)

About Christine

Dr. Christine Carter is interested in how musicians can be more effective on stage and in the practice room. Her research has led to a variety of article publications and invitations to give workshops at dozens of institutions around the world. She currently holds a SSHRC Insight Development Grant with co-researchers Dr. Jessica Grahn (Brain and Mind Institute, Western University) and Dr. Jonathan De Souza (Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western University) to investigate music practice strategies. She is a Visiting Scholar at Dr. Grahn’s Music and Neuroscience Lab.

Christine is also an active clarinetist. Performances have taken her across the globe, from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House. She completed her Doctor of Musical Arts at Manhattan School of Music, where she taught the Woodwind Lab for 4 years, and is now Associate Professor of Music at Memorial University in Canada. Christine is a Buffet Crampon Artist.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


206 Responses

      1. How interesting. I am very busy and take my classical guitar everywhere I go. Even if I have 5 minutes to wait in a doctor’s office, I pull it out and play. I do the same, having guitars strategically placed in my office and home, so I can play something quickly. I think this equates to random practice like you’ve mentioned and it works really well. I loved your article. Thank you.

    1. If you are talking about music practice; then why are you blabbering on about baseball? Do you think you are Steven Jay Gould or something? I got into the art and music because I didn’t like baseball and football….like most people who are in our little world.

        1. I would like to think that most people have minimal interest in what you think about baseball, and even less in what you think most people think about baseball. Who elected you spokesman for that group? Baseball is a thing that requires practice and that studies have been conducted on. Some of the things learned in baseball have applicability to music. Get over your bias!

        2. Sports references are an instant total turn-off for me too. However, what we are talking about in all of these cases, sports, music, and also dance, is motor control and memory. The brain functions are the same with different applications. Think of dance movements instead of sports. Dance is as complex as music, and integrates well with it.

      1. You fail to understand that musicians are athletes of the small muscles. While the exertion is different than that of the base ball player, the learning mechanisms and nerve centers in the brain, which Dr Kageyama has spent a professional lifetime studying, are the same for sports as for the violinist, or, in my case the bassist.
        Perhaps it is _you_ who needs to get over your bias.

        1. Well, you know, I’ve been practing for 3 years now, and the most advanced thing I can play is a intermediate version of Stars of Stripes Forever. And I can’t say I didn’t slack off, so I tried lots of things to try to advance faster. But, everything I did from the websites didn’t work for me. The majority of the time I’ve been practicing was spent on disappointing my piano teacher or being bored and skipping it. I know did those things wrong, and the least you could do is tell me what I’m doing wrong.

  1. How wonderful to see positive findings on the Random Method of Practice. I’ve used it for many years on myself and have noticed how well it works for my students. In fact many of the practice games on my site are based on this principal. I just go one step further and include activities to wake up the whole mind, so that the major subconscious part is being used as well.

  2. Very interesting theory. I would like to mention a few things that I think are very important about the repetitive practicing that you are discouraging. I didn’t see any mention about the element of training your mind to focus intently on what you are practicing when you become bored by the repetition. For me (lifelong professional musician, soloist, and teacher), when I spend time practicing something I want to take to a higher level and use strict repetition, it does not get easier with each repetition. It gets harder because it gets harder to concentrate. This training is very important – that is – training both the mind to concentrate and the body to play correctly. The results of this practice show up for me on the next day. Of course, it is also important to mix up your practice methods and this is just one tool in the tool box.

    Perhaps it is more useful to describe many practice tools instead of setting up a false dichotomy.

    1. If it works better than the previously hailed methods, why would you not use it consistently? As a professional you should know that you don’t use a student instrument one day and a professional instrument the next day to “mix up your practice methods”. That is called stupidity. You use the best method every single time because if you’re not, someone is, and they are 100% for sure getting better than you.

      1. The study left a lot of things unsaid — the whole assumption underlying it is that random practice between three tasks works once you know the basic technique of doing the three tasks. In order to get to the point where random practice is useful however, you will probably need to take techniques 1, 2, and 3 to the woodshed separately and clean them up. Then, and only then, once you know you can do them reliably well, do you start to randomize things.

        Mixing up practice methods isn’t stupidity. It’s an acknowledgement that all methods accomplish different things and most studies are limited. No one practice method addresses ALL practice issues. Method 1 addresses a set of issues, method 2 addresses another non-overlapping set. Realizing this is sensible, not stupid. As I said in the above example, repetitive practice builds a general awareness of the basics of a technique, whereas random practice helps burn it in in realistic situations … but only after the initial repetitions have been completed.

        In other words, the definition of “best method” changes depending on your situation and level of attainment. This may be frustrating, but it’s also life. Get used to it.

        1. Thank you for your comment, Janis. You touch an a very interesting point regarding when heightened contextual interference should be used. The literature is somewhat mixed. There is significant evidence that the use of a random practice schedule at the very beginning of skill acquisition is effective. Many of the contextual interference studies specifically looked at novel tasks, unfamiliar to the subjects, and consistently found practice under high levels of contextual interference to be more conducive to long-term learning than straight repetition. For example, refer to the motor learning tasks studied by Shea and Morgan (1979) and Maslovat, Chua, Lee, and Franks (2004), the badminton study by Wrisberg (1991), or the music study by Stambaugh (2009). Jared Porter has looked at the use of random schedules in novice golfers. One study compared three different schedules along the contextual interference continuum and found that the highest level produced the best retention (2007). Another found that systematically increasing contextual interference produced better results than either extreme of the spectrum (2010). Still another study of golf by Guadagnoli, Holcomb, and Weber (1999) found that a random practice schedule was better for experienced golfers, while blocked produced better retention for novice performers. While the majority of studies support the use of random practice, the question of when, where, and with who is definitely worthy of continued research.

    2. I do agree with what you’re saying about the repetition being useful in certain contexts, however I think the article is very concisely addressing age old uncreative practise structures which we invariably apply to every aspect of music making and which quickly become redundant. Your comment about being a lifelong performer just reinforces this idea that “it works for me and I’ve done ok” and with the greatest of respect this is an unhelpful attitude which sadly dominates instrumental instruction at all levels from pre school to conservatoire.

      If I’m practising a slow/controlled solo which takes place at the beginning of a programme there is very little point in practising it over and over again-my embouchore will become tired because of the control needed and in the end it leaves you focusing too much on the physical act of keeping going instead of on the musical issues which are of far greater importance. Am I doing something wrong? Of course not. In this context, it’s obvious that repetition is not fit for purpose and massively inappropriate. However, perhaps the opposite could be argued if the solo takes place at the end of the piece, or halfway through a long piece. Equally, if you’re practising a difficult bravura passage why should repetition of the passage in an identical way be needed at all if you build it up from a slower tempo over an extended period of practise? If you can play something correctly, why torture yourself playing it over and over again at that same tempo? You’re not “reinforcing” anything, apart from building up tension at specific points through an over reliance on muscle memory.

      Technical consistency should not be the ability to recreate something in exactly the same way every time with no variation, it’s the ability to respond creatively to a different environment, a different reed, a different string, a different acoustic and make the piece function in the way it needs to.

      1. I believe strict practice methods persist not because of
        practical concerns, but because “this is the way it has always been
        done” assumes the importance of an ethos or a code of the craft. We
        all know it takes great sacrifice to become a musician. This is a
        way of teaching the young player to accept it without questioning,
        and a way of reassuring the more senior player that dues are still
        being paid.

    3. I had the same thought as I was reading this! I cannot remember becoming bored through repetition because I do not do blind repetition. Each set focuses on a specific part (intonation, articulation, alternates. musicality, breathing, etc). If one becomes bored than perhaps they have stopped engaging their mind and have not found new perspectives to think about while practicing.

      In this random schedule its seems like it would be very difficult to work on the finite details of passages. Perhaps this would be more geared towards a piece that has been well learned and is ready to be performed.

      Regardless I am willing to give it a shot and see what happens. Perhaps the two paired would be a much healthier and productive ay of practicing.

    4. I disagree that interleaving doesn’t train for focus. I think this passage speaks directly to training for focus. “When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning.”

    5. I agree with you 100%! It is more useful to describe more practice tools that to just favour just one, if you can’t practice repetition with 100% concentration you should strive to be better on it, not avoid it. Same as when doing random practice, you should also still be 100% focused otherwise you’re just wasting your time.

      I’m familiar with that neuroscience research that’s mentioned in this article, but the test subjects there are normal people, I’m pretty sure that when they test professional classical musicians there’ll be different results.

      It’s really a narrow minded thinking and counter-productive to say that there’s only one practicing approach that will work for everybody, the argument to just practice one way is not really that strong anyway.

      1. The neurological principles hold true for both expert and beginning musicians. The benefits of randomness will apply to both, but each will need to practice material that is optimal for his or her level.

        We are all different, but generally not THAT different. It has nothing to do with being open minded or not.

  3. For beginners, or anyone taking on a piece that is challenging in many (most? all?) areas, if you practice randomly, and never get it right, aren’t you learning to do it wrong?
    To follow the baseball analogy, can you apply the same training strategy that is effective with professional baseball players to a 9 yr old first year little league player who has never thrown a hardball?

    1. This is exactly what I said above in response to Hunter. You repeat to learn the basics of a given task. Once you have hit an intermediate level, then you can start to benefit from randomizing, but until then, it’s got to be 15 fastballs, 15 curves, and 15 sliders in a row.

      Anyhow, IAWTC. 🙂

      1. I think Janis hits the nail on the head. What’s appropriate for one level of player may not be appropriate for another. There is a wonderful Bruce Lee quote which addresses this:

        “Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
        After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
        Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.”
        I’ve read it before but just found it here:

        My own practice typically mixes both approaches, e.g., I’m working now on a longish (10 minute) piece with several difficult passages for me. I first “chunk” each difficulty passage by itself, repeating it over and over until it gets to where it needs to be. Then I work on getting the first pass at the difficult passage to be better and better by starting further and further back towards the beginning of the piece, effectively introducing the variety being recommended here. I’ve found that, if a passage is near my technical limits, just paying attention to it in the context of a varied practice session results in repeating my mistakes over and over with no improvement.

    2. If you never get it right, than you have chosen the wrong practice. That has nothing to do with the randomization strategy working or not. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work with beginners doing simpler tasks.

    3. Good question, Joe. Many studies of the contextual interference effect suggest that random practice schedules are indeed effective for beginners. For example, this has been observed for novice golf (Porter et al., 2007), novice snowboarding (Smith, 2002), novice badminton (Wrisberg, 1991), as well as tasks such as art identification (Kornell et al., 2008), handwriting acquisition (Ste-Marie et al., 2004), and, most importantly, beginner music learning (Stambaugh, 2009). You can also see my earlier reply to Janis about this.

      It is important to differentiate between the the structure of practice and the more micro-level practice techniques utilized. Switching back and forth between two or more passages does not necessitate repeated inaccuracy. If a musician is experiencing difficulty with a passage in a blocked practice schedule, they may practice slowly, with different rhythms, singing, clapping, or with any other number of practice techniques to address the challenge. These same techniques can be used in a random schedule, the only difference being how the time on each passage is divided (e.g., 20 minutes all at once or 4 minutes x 5).

  4. I gotta disagree with a large portion of this article – We’re creatures of habit. Our brains don’t desire change, they desire habits. Hence, the reason humans are referred to as “creatures of habit” – If a child performs an action with desired results, ie. If a child makes someone laugh with an action, that child will repeat that action over and over to achieve the same desired result. The child can do it 200 times without receiving the desired result, but once someone laughs, the behavior returns to full force. (Ever seen the experiment where they put drugs into the mouse’s water bottle? – The mouse licks and licks with no results – just off of the pure chance that the desired result connected to the behavior will return.) – We as humans do not desire change. We desire habits and repetiveness. If you’re in a practice room, and you play a passage 25 times, and you finally get it right on the 25th time, your brain has been supplied with positive reinforcement – Giving you the desired effect – you will then repeat the action over and over and over to achieve the same result. — having said all of that, If the end result is not appealing or rewarding enough to the musician, then the work isn’t worth the trouble, and can quickly become boring or just a pure hassle. This can be compared to working at a lumber yard for minimum wage – It’s just not worth the work – That’s the reason that you’re making no progress. You have no interest in what you’re exercising. Pick pieces that truly hold your interest… Play music that you care about, and you’ll be truly amazed at the rate at which you progress…

    1. “I gotta disagree with a large portion of this article — We’re creatures of habit. Our brains don’t desire change, they desire habits.”

      The point of the article wasnt about what we like or desire, but what produced the best results. From the article:
      “After twelve practice sessions, the baseball players in the random practice schedule hit 57% more of the pitches than when they started. The blocked group only hit 25% more of the pitches, meaning that the random practice schedule was almost twice as effective, even though the two groups hit the same number of practice pitches.”

    2. I hear what you’re saying, but where’s your evidence that we crave habit and that the 25th (and only correct) repetition is the one that provides critical positive feedback and enhances learning? Sounds like opinion to me.

      Watch the video and listen carefully to what he has to say about how the block practicers felt about their mastery versus how the interleaving practicers felt. It’s very instructive. Their subjective impressions didn’t match the objective measured results. That result right there tells us how important it is to constantly question our assumptions.

      1. Dear Sir, ma’am, I agree with you, in part. As a professional violist, however, I do not limit muself to my “impression” of the way my practising is going. When the chips are down, such as in an audition, one’s subconscious can insert itself, either for good or bad. An example: I auditioned for the Asst. Principle Viola position of the orchestra I was in, when I was in my late 20s. My “impression” was that I played so out of tune that I would not only NOT get the job, but that I would LOSE my seat in that orchestra. My colleagues, however, BURST through the door of the waiting room, saying “have NEVER heard anyone playing so perfectly in tune!”

        This started a life-long personal research: WHY was there such a dissociation between my impression and what feedback others gave me, and how could I turn that to my advantage, instead of having, as a dream once synbolized it for me, an evil looki
        ng man in the recording studio above where I was playing, who was turning the volume knobs up and down, despite what I REALLY was playing.

        I wondered about our senses…I have the feeling that, under normal stress, for example, our hearing of “in tune” may be, as it were, between five to twelve and five after twelve on the clock. Anything in that area is in tune. But, under stress, our hearing becomes much more acute, between one second before and after twelve. I questioned about other senses and perhaps the sense of touch can be compared: Some people, who do not like to be touched, experience a caress as a slap!

        To me, practicing means making a connection between what is in our subconscious, where our musical ideas come from. We need to bring the inspiration we feel into the real world as notes that can be heard by someone else. It is not enough to be “In the Zone”. As such, the experience that progress in the practice room doesn’t carry over to performance, is valuable. Just at that point, we have a chance to ask that “man in the recording studio” what his input would be! And, if you listen to your body, it will tell you what to do.

        Actually, at the age of 69, I realize that I hate to practice, and love to perform!

    3. If you practice something 25 times and only get it right the 25th time you will have practiced it wrong 24 times and that’s what will stick. If you read some literature that looks at what exactly happens in the brain when you learn something (This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin or The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle) you will learn that for any action you perform the brain will reinforce neural circuits with each repetition – no matter what the action is. So if you practice something and need 24 failed attempts to get it right you will have reinforced the wrong neural circuits 24 times.

      With a random practice schedule you train yourself to get things right on the very first attempt. And that’s a habit you really want to get into because it’s exactly what you need on the bandstand.

      1. Thanks for your valuable comment, Florian, and also for mentioning the two books. Practicing is a complex combination of skills, principal amonth which is the principle that you stated. Why don’t my students perform as well as I do? Because they make mistakes in their practicing, and these mistakes will resurface in lessons and performances. You can bet on it! Getting them to follow my model of virtually no errors – ever – in practice is a whole different issue. It seems only the most advanced and professional level students can translate that concept into action, even when I explain and demonstrate. Strange!

    4. I think you are completely correct in a sense that we are creatures of habit. When it comes to an instrument, first we have to find what we are doing wrong. Within the discovery of this area of improvement, we then must identify what we can change to make this blemish disappear. Through vigorously analyzing our technique via repetition do we smooth out our rough spots and create the habit. A habit isn’t instantaneous. I believe the practice method mentioned above is a good way to expose your weak points in passages in order to identify and make it clear where you still need improvement. As soon as you are relaxed with one passage, you move to the next. That switching of the passages takes you out of your comfort zone. The better habits you create through analysis, the less uncomfortable it will be. Etc.

      I am new to the violin but have almost 7 years experience in flute. I know that, for being a beginner violin student, I need to pay attention to many details and repeat methods until I find the one that works the best. Then, after that becomes evident and is most efficient, will I add it as much as possibly into my repertoire until it becomes second nature. I wish forming a habit could be that easy. I’d be finished all my books by now lol

      And as always, articles like this aren’t meant for everyone. We all know everyone works on different levels.

  5. For me, random practice seems a bit diffuse. A practicer who comes back to a passage the next day only to find it worse is likely dealing with an issue that won’t improve by simply “mixing it up,” IMHO.

    I wish I had learned far earlier in my career the amount of depth and interest that one can place in even a simple passage. Simple rhythmic variation is only a start; I’ve created dozens of routines that fall into several large categories. Follow such an approach in the proper state of mind and I guarantee that almost any passage can be cracked, assuming your basic technique and mechanics are sound.

    It’s a truism that we often practice in the wrong state of mind, and that for some crazy reason we hold our analytical, problem solving mind in reserve until it’s time to mount the performance stage. It’s the exact WRONG approach. It’s a constant burden even for my own practice, even though I know better.

    In any event, randomness sounds like an interesting tactic, but the basic tools of practice are the deeper strategies used, and your ability to deploy them with skill. I try to build that into my teaching, even for the youngest of students.

    I’ve learned that great practice is the solution to almost any musical or psychological challenge, yet its the least developed area of pedagogy for so many musicians. That perhaps is a reflection of a larger cultural bias: Western culture treats the word “practice” as a verb. “Get in that room and get to work!” But think of practice in the Eastern sense of “being” instead of “doing” and it takes on a whole new meaning.

    Some people call it “talent,” but I see it differently. At the heart of any great musical performance is a musician who is adept at the strategies of practice.

    1. Thanks for your message, Bill. I completely agree with you. Random practice is not going to solve anything if the practice itself is not effective (e.g., mindlessly playing through passages back and forth). Random practice is a structural tool to get a larger impact out of the other practice strategies being utilized.

    2. Bill, can you recommend the best book for on type of practice strategy that you employ, the “being” instead of “doing” approach?

      1. Hi Jim, a couple of things come to mind. Keep reading this blog, also natesviolin.com. Not explicitly focussed on this topic, but a good start is Madeline Bruser’s “The Art of Practicing.”
        Maybe someday I’ll chronicle my own practice journey (along with many sidesteps) in a book. For now, I’m writing about it on my blog: http://invincibleviolinist.com. I’d love to know more about your interest in this topic as well. (apologies to Noa, if I’m stepping on the rules here by posting an outside link).

    1. By all means, watch the video. He makes a fascinating point that the block practicers felt more confident of their mastery while the interleavers, who felt less confident, nevertheless demonstrated more mastery by objective measurement. That finding right there is reason enough to experiment myself for the next week.

  6. This technique has been tested and proven effective in a lab, and in several tests in different fields of study. If it doesn’t appeal to you, or doesn’t work for you, fine. I think the author explained very effectively the reasons it does work, and does make sense. It makes sense to me. I think any tool that can help break the monotony of repetitive practice and actually help you retain progress and learning is fabulous, thanks for sharing! I know I won’t be the only one who will be helped by this!

  7. Noa, I really appreciate that you introduce us to such a wide range of experts on this blog. Christine’s post is really useful. Also, I read this post as a mom practicing with kids and I realize that you can make this type of practice a game:

    Write what you want to practice on a tiny piece of paper. Ten times. Do that for each thing you want to practice. Then the child can pick something out of a hat each time to determine what they practice.


    1. This is a great idea, Penelope, thank you for sharing. I’ve also found that students enjoy mixing theory and ear-training into their practice, rather than doing all of the theoretical material in a chunk at the beginning or end of their session.

  8. While I am a strong advocate for extensive repetition in practice, it needs to be tightly controlled so it doesn’t become mind-numbing. I use the “Technique of a Hundred Beans” for that. The randomizing approach you discuss here is extremely effective and useful; I recommend using the technique called “Index Cards” for that purpose.

    Both are discussed in more detail here: http://www.warrensenders.com/journal/?p=695

    Thanks for a very useful and important post!

  9. Its funny, I have been using this technique with my students for a long time. Some of them have such little time to practice I tell them to break it up into smaller segments and alternate between what they work on. After reading this I will fine tune my approach now. Good to know it actually has a scientific name. Thank you.

  10. Two things: 1) Quick playing makes poor muscle-memory and mere habituation (so do less reps, but more slowly, especially when coming back to a piece), and
    2) If you over-practice until you are exhausted, your mind will commence your next practice session with the same state, so you fall into a vortex of “diminshing returns” (so part of the discipline of practicing is to learn one’s own best tolerance of individual practice times, feeling states, health, etc., as this does change over short and long periods).
    This was taught to me by my piano teacher of many years, who passed away as a very senior person in the mid ’70’s (he had taught generations of my Family), and so was way ahead of his time. The best part is that it taught me to be aware and learn my limitations in all parts of my life. Very Zen, as it requires one to be exquisitely “mindful”, and adaptive. And interestingly, as these things go, he did not profess any “zen” philosphically at all, which also shows the universality of wisdom.

  11. With all due respect. Applying different rhythms should only be done if a player happens to be playing unevenly, adding false articulations or has poor coordination. From a string player’s perspective, the act of introducing any kind of muscle reflexes other then the ones required for the correct execution of the passage, etc…in question, only serves to disturb the organic timing necessary. As a descendent of the Heifetz lineage, I was instructed that one should never/ever practice in a manner that one would not eventualy be required to play – it only wastes time and provides possibilities for an eventual slip of mind and coordination, since once a new possibility is introduced, the brain may recall it when one least needs it! At one point, either the fingers or bow arm may actually enter a ‘confused state’ and not truly know what to do…possibly leading to a dystonia.

    I tell all my students: practise so slowly that you can think, and allow time for your muscles and senses to feel what is necessary for proper execution; then speed it up, always under control. All playing must be deliberate and not by chance.
    There is no substitute for active memory = intelligence, and good muscle memory = learned reflexes. What one needs is a proper effective routine of practice habits, conditioning and well learned technique; since technique is what happens before the sound!
    Just wish that playing the violin was like riding a bicycle or swimming; once learned, one never forgets!

    1. Quick reply: That’s not the case on playing different rhythms. One of the best reasons to play with different rhythms is to get used to being flexible in execution, to being able to not feel lost or disoriented if things go one millimeter out of spec. I still remember a comment by Joyce DiDonato where she remarked that she changes up rhythms all the time. The way she put it is that, if she’s inspired to do something even minutely different in one given performance, she want her voice “to be able to respond no matter what.”

      If that’s not the case, and you are inspired whether suddenly or not to change things a bit, your response will be fear. Fear is not the way you want to react to a moment of inspiration; you want to be able to take it and see where it leads, not freeze up and think, “Ohmigod, things are going out of compliance from the way I learned them! Reel it back, reel it back!” If you fear inspiration as a performer, you are in a sad situation.

      The Heifetz model, at least the way your describing it, is that there is ONE right way to play a piece and only one. Any other way is wrong. Any deviation from the exact predestined performance is automatically bad. Not only does this attitude produce a brittle performance mentality where any deviation from what’s been predetermined is a four-alarm emergency, but I highly doubt Heifetz himself really had that attitude.

    2. Rhythmic variations also allow you to break down mental speed barriers, especially when attempting to notch up the metronome into the red zone.

  12. Couldn’t agree more with this!! It is what I recommend to all my students, as well as colleagues I try to encourage (it’s never a good idea to hoard knowledge 🙂 If you think about it, muscle fibers should theoretically respond the same with increased attention span. That is of course why circuit-training sessions are more productive in addition to intervals. In different words, I heard both of these translated to fit the musical experience of productive practicing. I knew I couldn’t have been wrong all this time!

    1. excellent point linking this to Interval/circuit training.
      I think it also reinforces the importance of warm-ups on the day of a concert or audition — while the comfortable facility achieved by block practice may dissipate after a few days, it does get you “in the groove” for the near term.

  13. I’m amazed by some of the comments here and the apparent resistance to this idea. As a professional performing musician who is also taking auditions I feel a real need for mixing things up and will certainly try this method. I’ve been playing the same excerpts for 15 years and it takes very little time for my brain to switch off and feel like I’m just going through the motions. If I want to get physically fit it is more effective to do interval training than run 10 miles and so I see this practice method as no different. Thank you Noah and Christine for sharing these ideas and helping us to always question what we are doing.

  14. I have a teacher who iterates:
    “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Imperfect practice makes errors permanent.”
    Dr Suzuki said that children can learn by repeating 10 or a 100 times but an adult may take 10,000 times. In that respect I’m surely an adult.
    I shall have to add this practice technique to my arsenal.

  15. I like seeing new ideas about how to practice, but I also think correct and relaxed repetition is key to making things few natural. I also agree that the “how to” practice depends on the level of student and type of literature. Some things I’ve given names to used w/many levels of players (beginners through college seniors) are:
    Me Play, You Play
    Finger and Say
    Incremental Sequencing
    Add-A (note, measure, phase, section forward or backward) or chunking
    Identify & Isolate to Conquer
    Rhythm Alone
    Pitch or Notes Alone
    Rhythmic Displacement (differing rhythmic patterns)
    Articulated Vocalization
    Slow Practice
    Symmetrical To & Fro
    Endurance Practice

    The point w/students and myself is that we need to be systematic and creative.

  16. This looks like a great article on the application of this research to music practice. There was a 2001 replication study of the 1994 article mentioned above titled: Consistent and Variable Practice Conditions: Effects on Relative and Absolute Timing from the Journal of Motor Behavior, 2001, Vol. 33, No. 2 pgs. 139-152 written by Charles Shea, et al.

    The research results in Shea’s article confirm and really dig into the nuts and bolts of how we develop relative and absolute motor memory. Fascinating stuff and lots of applications to how humans learn any motor activity plus it explains the conditions of how the research was conducted.

    If this post really makes you think, dig into Shea’s replication study and take a look at the references at the end of the article. There has been such extensive research on generalized motor program (GMP) and I just love research that flies in the face of what we “think” is most effective.

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