Of all of the frustrating Greek myths out there, I think the story of Sisyphus is the one that I could always relate to the most.
In case it’s been a few years since your 6th grade Greek mythology unit, Sisyphus was the guy who was condemned to an eternity of pushing a huge boulder up a hill, that would always roll back down every time he got it close to the top.
I think we’ve all had to deal with this sort of frustrating, seemingly futile task at some point or another in our lives. Like trying to keep dandelions out of your yard. Or trying to keep your dog from getting mats in their hair.
But I think the reason why the story of Sisyphus always stuck with me, is because that’s how practicing often felt.
Sisyphus in the practice room
Like, if I had a good solid block of time, I could totally work all my repertoire up to a pretty decent level and feel ok about how it sounded. But I rarely bothered to practice this intently, because it all felt a little pointless.
In the sense that deep down, I knew that when I woke up and took my violin out of the case the next day, the boulder will have rolled most of the way back down the hill, and I’d be back to square 2. Or 1.5.
And ok, fine, I hear you Captain Arithmetic. =) Technically speaking, yes, if I’m starting from step 2, or even step 1.5 the next day, it’s not pointless. But you get the idea. This sort of daily muscle memory amnesia is super discouraging.
Enter Christine Carter
So when I met clarinetist Christine Carter some years back, and learned about her dissertation on “interleaved” (aka random) practice, I was intrigued.
And evidently, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Because when Christine wrote a guest post on this topic a few years back, the article exploded, and remains one of the most-shared things ever posted on this site with 61,000 Facebook shares and counting. Pretty epic. Even legendary, one might say.
The article led to a number of follow-up questions, so Christine generously agreed to write a follow-up article someday. And today, as it happens, is that day!
Take it away, Christine!
Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight - Part 2
by Christine Carter, DMA
It has been a number of years since I first wrote about “random practice” for Noa Kageyama’s Bulletproof Musician Blog. Since then, I have been excited to see the discussion, experimenting, and even controversy that has resulted. To this day, I continue to receive many messages about the article and random practice in general. I thought it might be time to write a follow-up to shed a little more light on the idea and to address some of the questions that I have been receiving. If you have not read the original article, you may wish to start HERE first. I will also provide a brief review at the beginning of the article.
Going forward, I will use the term “interleaved” rather than “random” practice. While much of the early literature uses the term “random” to describe this type of practice, “interleaving” more accurately represents what this strategy entails and is frequently used in more recent research.
Interleaved practice involves rotating between different tasks, rather than completing all work on one task in a block before moving on to subsequent tasks. If a swimmer wanted to work on three different strokes, each for 20 minutes, for example, they could divide the work on each stroke into smaller segments. Instead of completing 20 minutes on the first stroke, they could spend 5 minutes on each stroke, rotating through them until 20 minutes of practice are completed on each one.
This type of practice is more challenging than blocked practice. Restarting tasks requires more “effortful processing.” And after many years of practicing in a highly repetitive blocked schedule myself, I can attest to the fact that interleaving initially feels less comfortable. When we do something over and over again in a row, the feeling of comfort that arrives gives us the illusion that we are creating long-lasting learning. But it is precisely the more effortful processing required by interleaving that leads to enhanced long-term retention. Study after study has confirmed the advantages of interleaved practice over blocked practice across a wide variety of fields, including music (e.g., work by Laura Stambaugh, Branden Abushanab & Anthony Bishara, and me and Jessica Grahn).
Interleaving is one of a variety of strategies that UCLA researcher Robert Bjork has coined “desirable difficulties” – challenges introduced into the practice environment that consequently make practice more effective. Other related examples include spacing (e.g., spreading practice sessions throughout the day) and variability of practice (e.g., using different practice techniques to work on the same passage). With all of these desirable difficulties, it is important to assess learning after a delay has occurred. We cannot know what we have learned until we are faced with retrieving that learning. Too often, practice is structured to optimize in-the-moment performance, and research suggests that this is often inversely correlated with actual learning. We want to practice in a way that leads to resilient learning – learning that sticks and is there for us when we most need it on stage.
Practice as Problem-Solving
When first thinking about interleaving, it is easy to envision practice that randomly jumps between tasks without much else going on. Many people have asked me over the years how improvement will occur if you play through something once inaccurately and then move on. What is important to articulate here is that there is a difference between running through passages and doing the deep work of problem-solving. Whether you run through a passage 10 times or only once and return 10 times, neither approach will fix underlying problems if the problems themselves are not addressed. We have to listen to what we are doing, determine what needs to be improved, and then decide how we can work towards making these changes. Do we need to play with more musical intention? Does our legato need to be smoother? Does a technical passage need to be more even? Once we decide what we need to focus on, we can then address these issues through appropriate practice techniques. The structure of how we work on music, whether through blocked repetition or interleaving, does not replace the essential work of problem-solving.
It is rare that I play through something as it is written when I am woodshedding. I will gradually go through my full arsenal of practice techniques, getting to know each of the notes as though they were old friends. As I ask my students, are we are more likely to remember someone if we pass by them 10 times or if we stop and have a conversation with them, asking them about their life? We need to take the time to interact with the notes in interesting and varied ways. We can practice with different rhythmic variations, change the beat groupings, practice forwards and backwards, practice slowly, record, speak the notes or rhythms, sing, and remove notes from each beat (e.g., removing the first sixteenth of each group of four, followed by the 2nd, etc. – a technique my former student, Holly, has now brilliantly labelled “excavating”). We can look to jazz and use the metronome on off beats or odd beats (e.g., dotted quarters in 4/4), forcing us to feel a strong inner pulse, rather than having it supplied externally by a metronome that marks every beat. We can “skeletonize,” playing only the notes that fall on beats, or “chunk,” playing one beat’s worth of notes at a time – both techniques introduced to me by practice expert, Dr. Carol Aicher. The strategies are limitless and making up new ones can be a real source of creativity and challenge in the practice room.
So interleaving is not necessarily a standalone practice strategy, but a way to structure work that incorporates many practice techniques to solve the problems at hand. Rather than playing through something once “as is” and then moving on, we need to engage with the music through deliberate practice and problem-solving, then shifting to other tasks before returning to engage meaningfully once again. This looks very different than playing something once inaccurately and moving on.
Remembering a Solution is Different than Solving a Problem
One of the reasons interleaving is so effective is that it helps induce the conditions necessary for problem-solving. When we repeat something over and over again, we are not necessarily problem-solving at all, but remembering the solution.
I am going to ask you to solve the following math problem:
4 + 7 – 2 + 1 = ?
Okay, now I am going to ask you to solve the same math problem again:
4 + 7 – 2 + 1 = ?
Most likely you did not engage in the same mental processes that took place the first time you read the problem and instead remembered that the solution was 10. Likely you could not engage in the same problem-solving, even if you tried. The solution becomes a cued-up response. When we practice a passage the same way over and over again, we are also cuing up a response, significantly limiting our brain’s ability to engage in the effortful processing necessary to optimize learning. And when we remember a primed solution in practice, the feelings of fluency we experience following the ease of this remembering are often mistaken as evidence that we are learning.
Cognitive psychologist Larry Jacoby drives the point home in his article, “On Interpreting the Effects of Repetition: Solving a Problem Versus Remembering a Solution” (1978): “It is incorrect to conclude that because an event is repeated the processing of that event is also repeated. Rather, repetition of an event can result in the solution being remembered without the necessity of engaging in the activities that would otherwise be required to obtain that solution.”
Interleaving is a way to induce a level of forgetting that, far from problematic, is actually essential to long-term remembering. By moving on to other material and returning, we have the opportunity to problem-solve once more. Incorporating varied practice techniques is another way to induce more elaborate problem-solving processes. If I ask you to solve the above math problem backwards, you will once again have to engage in real problem-solving (especially since this problem does not have the same answer when solved backwards.)
A Question of Focus
Another common question I receive about interleaving relates to focus. If we are regularly switching between materials, won’t this interfere with the development of focus? This is a great question and one we can address by once again returning to our math problem above. Once you have read through this problem a couple of times, your focus will wane. You can try to force focus, but it won’t fundamentally alter the reduced processing taking place in your brain. When we are repeatedly shown the same stimulus (and that “we” applies to all ages of humans – from babies through adulthood), a process called habituation occurs, in which our response to the repeated stimulus gradually diminishes.
We seem to understand this more intuitively in other learning contexts. I couldn’t imagine telling my son to read the exact same book 10 times in a row before moving on to new material. When we provide variety and challenge, we create a learning environment that welcomes focus naturally. I remember my days of “play it perfectly 10 times in a row” and the mind-wandering that would ensue a few repetitions in. I would feel guilty for being distracted and berate myself to “focus!” But when I fundamentally changed the way I practiced, incorporating far more challenge and variety, the focus came easily. Time goes by so much faster now and I leave practice feeling like my brain has had a real workout. So often when people are feeling bored or distracted, it isn’t from a lack of focus at all, but from a lack of challenge.
Most importantly, the focus required in performance is very different than the focus often cultivated in the practice room. Performance provides a highly stimulating environment. Practicing in a very repetitive and unstimulating way does not prepare us to take on these additional challenges. We don’t have the luxury of starting 10 repetitions in when we are on stage in front of an audience.
Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How?
More than any other question on interleaving, I am often asked to articulate exactly how to use the strategy in practice. While there is no formula, and implementation is open to considerable experimentation, I will write a few thoughts on each “W” below.
Interleaving can be used by people of all ages and at all stages of development. Research suggests that interleaving is effective for beginners, including in music. When I was teaching clarinetists at a public elementary school in New York City, I frequently incorporated interleaving in our activities. Making the lessons more engaging, with interleaving as one of many tools, meant that I didn’t have to work to keep students’ attention. As with any new strategy or skill, however, we need to provide the scaffolding necessary for our students to implement these ideas on their own.
(As a side note: While numerous studies have shown that interleaving is effective for novices learning a variety of new skills, a few studies have found that progressively increasing the amount of interleaving used is beneficial to early skill learning. Once again, experimenting is key to find the challenge sweet spot for each musician and skill.)
Any type of repertoire or technical exercises can be practiced using interleaving. I have found the strategy particularly useful for developing technique, working on challenging sections in repertoire or excerpts that require significant woodshedding, and also for working on stylistic contrast. Even when I am warming up, I interleave the types of exercises that I do, building the flexibility required in performance.
In warm-ups pre-interleaving, I used to practice all of my long tones first, usually starting at the bottom of the instrument working my way up, followed by a long stretch of articulation work, etc. I found that, while a skill might have felt strong at the end of 20 minutes, I wasn’t necessarily noticing a huge improvement in that particular skill when it was embedded in a more complex environment in the repertoire. In my warm-ups these days, I alternate between long-tone work (and within that work I frequently change registers), articulation work, and technical work.
We have to decide when to use interleaving. There are of course still times when we need to focus on running through our repertoire from top to bottom. I generally do a lot of interleaving in the early stages of learning my repertoire, when there are many tricky spots that need substantial practice time. As the repertoire becomes more comfortable, I continue interleaving whichever sections still provide technical or musical challenges. I make a point of fitting in work on the most difficult spots numerous times throughout the day. If a particular scale or technical exercise in my warm-up poses challenges, I will also continue to come back to this over the course of my practice sessions.
Unfamiliar repertoire already presents certain challenges due to its newness, so the type of problem-solving in the early stages of learning a piece may look quite different than the problem-solving later on. Whichever problem-solving activities or tempi we choose across the learning process, we can incorporate interleaving as an umbrella structural technique.
Interleaving can also be incorporated when working with a recording device. Instead of recording one section or excerpt, working on it, and then recording again, you can record two or three in a row, work on the challenges you hear in each of them (and interleaved if you wish!), and then re-record.
Answering exactly how to use interleaving is the most challenging question, because the answer is infinitely variable. When I first started interleaving, I used a timer, switching between sections or excerpts every 10 minutes. This alone was challenging in the beginning, because I was so used to wanting to arrive at the “product” before moving on. It took time to accept that I wasn’t moving on for good, but just pressing pause (letting my mind continue to work on whatever I was leaving), and then returning minutes later. I eventually started using shorter stretches of time, again with the timer.
While I often recommend starting in this way, I have now abandoned the timer altogether in favour of a more fluid approach. Interleaving has become fundamental to the way I practice now, so I don’t need an external reminder to do this. I always have a few things on my stand at a time so that I can easily switch between them. I might engage in a few different practice techniques on one very short challenging passage (and this might not even take a minute) and then move on to some lyrical work that could take much longer, then coming back to that first short passage or moving on to a third section. I want my practice to be flexible and responsive to what I am hearing.
Ultimately, we need to continue exercising our self-assessment skills, deciding what needs the most attention in our music at any given time. A session that starts alternating between 3 passages (e.g., ABCABC) may evolve to alternate between only 2 once we see what needs the most work (e.g., ABABAB). Or perhaps we can spend more time on the two more challenging excerpts, while still incorporating a third, and eventually adding a fourth (e.g., ABCABABABDABCAB…) After a stretch of time on these, we may want to move on to another group of passages that need our attention.
My best advice is to experiment and to become comfortable going outside of the comfort zone. There is no one right way. Be mindful of your level of engagement when you are practicing, and if your mind is wandering, try increasing the challenge and variability. Engaging practice is effective practice and once this higher level of mental engagement becomes the norm, it is the previously “comfortable” practice that becomes uncomfortable.
(As another side note: For those wondering if it makes a difference whether a truly random schedule is used (e.g., BCAABC…) or a repeating serial schedule (e.g., ABCABC), the research suggests that it doesn’t. The benefits are from the non-repetition of events, not from the unpredictability of a random schedule. I generally rotate in a serial way because it’s easier for me to keep track of this mentally.)
A Final Note on Science, Music, and Experimentation
Research in sport psychology, cognitive psychology, and a variety of other fields provides such a rich source of ideas for us as musicians. While I feel strongly enough about the importance of empirical research to have run scientific experiments myself for over a decade, I can also say that no study can determine the exact conditions that work best for all people in all settings. We need to experiment and determine through trial and error what works best for each of us. As we do this, it is important to take a long view of our learning, remembering the potential trap of feelings of fluency in practice. Through the use of desirable difficulties, including interleaving, we can provide engaging sources of challenge, optimize problem-solving, and make practicing far more effective. A great side effect is that this type of practice is also a whole lot more interesting.
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The original article
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.