Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight – PART 2

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

Subscribe to the weekly “audio edition” via iTunes

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.

Quick Review

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.

Who?

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.)

What?

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.

When?

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.

Where?

Anywhere!

Why?

See above.

How?

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.

* * *

The original article

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

About Christine

Photo credit: Mike Meyer

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.

Comments

13 Responses

  1. Great Article!
    I have been using Random Practice, which I will now think of as Interleaved Practice, with my students (12 piano students) ever since article one was first presented. Thanks so much for this follow-up article.
    Random Practice, I love it! My students, not so much!
    This article will really help me as my students are very young and this is an advance concept hard even for mature individuals to wrap their head around. This article will help me have my students focus on the challenge aspect of learning as opposed to the “Warm Fuzzy” feeling experienced after several repetitions (The remembering of the solution.)
    My students have really enjoyed playing selections that they have memorized (Remembering the solution.) I think I will be now be able to better focus on the difference between learning a selection (Practice) and the actual enjoyment of playing of a selection from memory. Thanks again, David

    1. Yes! And sometimes it’s nice to just play and remember that making music is fundamentally supposed to be fun too, as that’s so easy to forget when we’re neck deep in etudes and scales…

  2. Noa, My Lesson Plan for each students reads – Play Every Day – I emphasize the word Play – It’s why we love music – it should be because we are “Playing” as opposed to working. Sure we strive to get better (Practice) but why get better? Well if it’s our lively hood we must reach a “Certain level” and the higher the level the greater the pay. I thinking here though playing for fun. – (Making music for fun) – I once had a great player say to me, “I play as well as I want to.” He had achieved what I am still striving for and that is to play as well as I want to. Now while I can play certain selections for fun, as well as I want to, it has always been my passion to improve and that’s one thing I like about making music – There’s always room for improvement. I am constantly suggesting to my students that they play music (Make music) for fun and that they practice music to improve. I insist on a balance between the two. When they are older I hope they remember, as you point out, “… making music is fundamentally supposed to be fun… !!!) David

  3. This makes SO much sense from a biological perspective, and it offers a way around my biggest obstacles to practicing (boredom.) I’ve been in a bad place mentally, totally neglecting my harps despite all the pandemic-induced downtime. I’m going to try this today. Thanks both of you for posting!

  4. I’m happy to see this practice technique explained so well (and named!). I randomly discovered the benefits of such a technique in my own practice about a decade ago when I was preparing to record a series of bowing technique videos for Strings magazine. Time would be limited at the Strings recording studio so I needed to make sure I didn’t waste anyone’s time and could play the demos and excerpts in any order, on demand. I started practicing through them all once through, then all again, and again, mixing up the order, coming back a few times throughout the day, and often interspersed with other things I had to practice. I found myself quickly able to perform the more demanding and less frequently encountered bow strokes without the period of warmup I’d needed previously and the eventual video recording process was quick and painless.

    After that success, I started sharing the idea with my violin and viola students, calling it “round robin” practicing. With the younger ones, particularly those with attention spans that aren’t the longest anyway, I can easily make it into a game we play in a lesson and that they will hopefully take home, but with the older ones and adults it requires some explanation. Almost all have been skeptical at first, and some quite resistant to trying it, for all the reasons mentioned above, particularly the comfort of familiarity and the concern that they couldn’t possibly focus on something without spending a long time repeating it. It can be psychologically quite difficult to move on before the feeling of “getting it perfect” arrives.

    For those who do try it, many soon see how after cycling through the tough passages or different techniques we’re trying to master a few times, the learning really does start to stick better. The brain doesn’t have the chance to become complacent in repetition and it seems to stimulate a deeper memory process that helps give us the edge we need to overcome the variety of challenges we encounter one after the other when we perform a piece. The idea mentioned here of “cueing up” the response when we practice repetitively especially resonated with me, and helps makes sense of why solely repetitive practice often doesn’t translate well to audition and performance situations. We’ll never have the chance to go out on stage and play a passage again and again until we get it right!

    Thanks so much for offering these insights!

  5. I know I am late to the party, hopefully not everybody has left yet, though. This is very good. I am surprised nobody has mentioned the fantastic book “Make It Stick” by Peter Brown et al. It mentions interleaving and many other things, in the context of memory, which is basically everything (you have to remember how to read music, how to move your fingers and body parts, how the music sounds etc). I am applying that to my life since I discovered it, with great benefit. There is also a good app (for both phones and computers) called Anki which is somewhat based on the research summarized in the book and helps tracking things that you need to review now, vs things that you need to let “cook” in your mind for a while before reviewing. Anki is really helping to make the most of the limited available time (I suggest to make your own “decks” rather than using the premade ones, because the effort of making them becomes part of the learning experience)

    Yet, it’s not all easy. There are a few music cases in which I am not sure how to proceed with interleaving and I hope someone have suggestions. One of these is “gaining speed”. I am still doing it “the old way” (this is on the piano, but I guess it’s the same for other instruments). I start at an easy speed (say MM=60) and if done perfectly in any regard I increase the speed by 4. If done imperfectly I try again, and if it’s imperfect twice in a row, I’m done for the day, that’s my top speed (I often do a slower repeat just to make sure my last run is still good rather than bad: the brain tend to remember the last thing more than the second-to-last). I usually arrive to 68-72 on the first day. Next day I start again from a very easy speed which is nowhere close to the highest of the previous day. In a week I reach a comfortable high speed of MM=88-92 and a comfortable easy (starting) speed of MM=72. This is ok, but I am obviously eager to see if there is anything I can do to be more efficient. Trying interleaved practice here did not help in that I remain stuck at MM=60 and cannot process a faster speed. Ideas?

      1. Thanks. In fact I knew this from some time ago, but I did not connect the dots. With the (little) more experience than I have now compared to when I learned about this thing earlier, I’d say that the one-note-at-time practice is useful only when you reach a certain level of fluency, which may well be after a bit of slow practice.
        For example, I am a poor reader, so if I have not decently memorized the passage, there is no way that I can play it, even if I learn the technique. I’ve found that some slow, correct repetition helps memorization and I am now using both strategies (slow->fast and fast->add-a-note)
        Thanks!

  6. I remember reading the 1st part years and years ago. Ever since then the at which I learn music has been exponentially increased. With that said, I think it’s important to “blocked” interleaving practice in the early stages, however not to do huge blocks. This blog touched upon it, however I think it is especially important to think about it.

    For example, I allocated 30 minutes to learning a new piece. I won’t do all 30 minutes in one sitting. I’ll do, maybe, 10 minutes then do something else then another 10 and so on. Once I have it pretty well then I’ll actually do 2 minute intervals really focusing on a phrase or even just 2 notes. It really depends.

    Interleaving has really helped my practicing and creates more mental exhaustion because it’s so intense, but it’s well worth it. I see people who say they “practice” 6 to 8 hours a day and it’s obviously wasted practice time. 4 hours for me is the absolute max and even then it’s stretching it. It’s more like 3 hours.

    Especially in my cognitive psych class, it was quite eye opening to me the importance of spaced repetition and the concepts of primacy, and recency.

    Anyway, I’m glad I re-read this article it has given me one new idea I hadn’t thought about before which is: start with larger interleaving chunks then progressively decrease those chunks overtime.

  7. Woooow, so helpful! Now i wont get into autopilot mode, since I don’t have the time to get bored.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get the (Free) Practice Hacks Guide

Learn the #1 thing that top practicers do differently, plus 7 other strategies for practice that sticks.

Do you know your mental strengths and weaknesses?

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice hacks that could help you level up.

Share512
Tweet
Email