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:

Length

Material to Practice

3 minutesExcerpt A
3 minutesExcerpt B
3 minutesExcerpt C
3 minutesExcerpt A
3 minutesExcerpt B
3 minutesExcerpt C
 Etc.

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:

Length

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)
 Etc.

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.

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Comments

206 Responses

  1. This is interesting. Let me tell you what works for me. I am a professional violist (now retired.) Like most violists I started on violin and only switched to viola after college. I had never studied Stamitz and managed to avoid it like the plague.

    But there came a time when I was ready for the challenge. I was a new mother and I put
    my baby in her rocking chair and would practise two hours on the first page. Then . she would have enough. Every day it seemed like I had never seen the piece before and I had to start at the beginning. After a LONG time, I thought “what is going on here? If there is a passage in the orchestra that is tricky, I run through it silently (just fingers) while the conductor is talking to the clarinets. And I conquor the thing in 30 seconds!

    I thought perhaps time was the clue. So I got a timer and set it for a half hour. At the end of that time i went to the next page and got the whole 4 pages practised in 2 hours! And, it stuck! So I tried 15 minutes, and I accomplished as much on 15 minutes as I had in a half hour! Eventually, I found that choosing a spot and limitimg it to 5 minutes was the most effective! (Many years later I made an “arrangement” of the Stamitz for you tube. If any violists want a laugh, go to maribone2002 on you tube. Ifwant a laugh, lo
    of of thof that time Ivwent to

  2. With respect to Dr. Carter, practice is NOT just practical. It is part of our ethic and identity as musicians. And sometimes that means working harder, not smarter – cultivating things like toughness, the willingness to pay dues, and the ability to (yes) yell at yourself.

    There aren’t going to be a lot of voiced objections to the kind of rethinking Dr. Carter is doing, but the bang-your-head approach will still be supreme for many who came up with music as trade, man’s work, passed down from masters, through tradition.

        1. I was perhaps hasty in using the term man’s work. I didn’t mean it is intrinsically – only that it carries many of the same associations and connotations.

          Consider what I say above substituting “blue collar work” for man’s work. Is it more relevant?

    1. Nope, blue-collar work doesn’t work for me either. We musicians work hard, undeniably, but my cousins, uncles, and aunts who work in the lumber mills or running line for the county or farming or on commercial fishing vessels already think I have an unbelievably cushy work life. They’re polite enough not to say so at the family reunion.

      I wouldn’t dream of comparing my work to theirs when the closest I’ve come to exposure to a toxic substance in the workplace is the suspect intonation emanating from a certain section in the orchestra, and certain gentlemen in tuxes who take the Allspice commercials to heart and apply liberally.

      I have one colleague who frequently declares musicians are prostitutes. Wonder what the sex workers would have to say about that!

      1. I’ll drop the metaphors, since they only hang folks up.
        I’ll just say that punishing, bang-your-head practice methods are
        deeply ingrained into the tradition, status, and craft ethic of
        what it means to be a musician. And at least for the foreseeable
        future, that false ethic, which makes things far more difficult
        than they already are, is not going away. Those who teach in a
        different way will be up against it as much as those who
        learn.

  3. I feel random practice sessions are more effective and easier to learn. The boredom in practice sessions vanish when we practice different items in random sessions. Moreover, it will help to reproduce the whatever learned at any time or even after many days.

  4. Hello! Interesting article. I am troubled by the baseball analogy in that hitters have to hit unpredictable types of pitches, so varying the type of pitch you hit is helpful. You have to be able to hit a different pitch every time you go to the plate. However, in music we have to hit the same “pitch” (passage). You need to practice a predictable sequence at some point. I do believe in engaged practicing, but also wonder at what point one should practice for endurance and long-term focus. I am also curious as to how this relates to the creation of myelin in the brain as published by Daniel Coyle in the “Talent Code.” When you switch passages is more myelin produced ? Thank you for your articles!

  5. In my opinion, one must begin practice with enough time for the body, hands and brain to truly accept the information. If you have to learn something overnight, no process will produce stellar results. However given a reasonable amount of time to prepare, Dr. Carter’s process is superb.

    I don’t know many people who love to practice. Rather they need to practice in order to achieve the pleasure they are able to realize in the final product (the successful concert, the low-scoring golf game, the personal-best marathon time, etc…). In marathon training, there are “muscle mix-up” training methods as well as speed training exercises that are similar. It is apparent to me that Dr. Christine Carter is simply offering us a technique to beat the inevitable boredom that are brains begin to sense after numerous repetitions of the same passage. We all are slightly different in the way we receive information and her technique allows us to stay engaged. But as someone who has won several auditions and also teaches at the collegiate level, this is a technique that will keep the advanced musician who has already performed and auditioned with the same solos and excerpts numerous times, engaged allowing for an opportunity to reach a new and higher level. I also agree with Florian, and I quote because it is worth repeating… “So if you practice something and need 24 failed attempts to get it right you will have reinforced the wrong neural circuits 24 times.” (by Florian). Kudos to Dr. Carter for offering a method that will improve our performance quality and help us to justify why we spend those valuable hours in a practice room.

  6. Part of the problem is that we continue to use the word Practice.
    By definition it is telling us to do the wrong thing.
    —–perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.

    I use the words Rehearse Play Review and avoid the word practice as much as possible. It is so loaded and toxic in my opinion.

    1. It’s a good word because to get better, we have to confront negatives and negativity daily, head on, and maintain a positive attitude.

    2. In brazilian portuguese, we use the word “study” instead of “practice/rehearsal”.

      I try to make it reflect on my way to practice too, by exploring something from many perspectives. I often spend 100% of my study time exploring a passage in every conceivable way. All but the original. Then I do the intended for the first time on a lesson, or rehearsal, and I’ve even done that on concert. It worked.

      My parents often referred to my study as rehearsal, and I insisted that they used the correct word: study.
      I replied that “Rehearsal is what i do with the orchestra. Practice or training is what I’m doing anytime I play. At home I study”.

      1. Not so satisfying for us in the USA, in a culture with a strong industrial work ethic. The forced, concentrated aspect of training and drill help to elevate the worthiness and importance of our art. Like all art in an industrial culture, it is frivolous without something hard and unforgiving at the core.

  7. Take one idea or technique and apply it to a real song

    Don’t dwell on being the master of all.

    Or u will
    Be the master of
    None

    Don’t memorize by hand. Memorize by ear and your hand will eventually follow.

    Spend 10mins in technique and 45 on application and be the master of one

  8. Pingback: Blah | Wheeee
  9. From what I’m seeing in research articles (in just a brief search), this is highly theoretical and there is no consensus on whether it is beneficial or generalizable to all forms of learning. I think it would be very difficult to show that this method is any more valuable than repetitive practice. How could it even be studied in the musical realm? First you would have to pick 2 equally difficult passages to learn (how could one say this passage is the same difficulty as another passage?) Then you would have to have the person learn each passage in the 2 different methods. Finally, you would have to measure the progress of one passage vs. the other passage. Too many confounding variables. Everyone learns differently and to say this method is better than the other is nonsense. It should be portrayed as another way to practice, not a better way to practice. There are some great comments on here. I hope that after reading the article, people read the comments too.

  10. This was very informative and now has my curiosity juices flowing. I’ve given piano lessons for 35 years and teach at a nearby college, but have never heard of the random method, however, I find I do use it myself to a limited extent. Never knew there was science behind it. I am anxious to dig into it deeper and see how I could incorporate it into my piano students’ learning processes. Thank you for the great article!

  11. Both my 7.5 year old daughter and I are in our 3rd year of Suzuki violin and I will be trying this alternate method…ie Random Schedule. With my 7.5 year old it would definitely help engage her more as she has little love for doing 10 of this or 10 of that in terms of repetitions. Therefore by intelligently adding variety or mixing up the repetitions even if the total amount of repetitions for the daily lesson still add up to the same numbers, it will definitely help her find the practice times more enjoyable and less tedious.
    Plus as an adult and learning in tandem with my daughter I find it does take me 3-4 times more practice than her to “get it”, it will be interesting to see how this affects my long term retention and muscle memory.

    Great article Noa. Thanks for giving the music community such great and thought provoking articles!

  12. I like Dr. Carter’s approach for a few reasons. One reason is that the old school thought of practice making permanent still applies. Not only do you repeat the practice of a particular skill for certain periods of time, you repeat the practice of more than one skill several times in varying order. The research has shown that it is easier for many people to focus when there’s variance as opposed to monotony. Sure, if one wishes to exercise their brain power to help them overcome the challenge of monotony, so be it. The research did not indicate that 100% of people who use Dr. Carter’s approach would benefit. But I think for those who benefit from Dr. Carter’s approach, they would feel that the lack of monotony keeps them interested, more easily focused, and increase their chances of success.

  13. As a woodwind player, I completely agree with Maestro:

    “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.”

    I feel this circuit training approach develops flexibility, so when you perform you don’t have to rely on perfect conditions.

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