Why the Way We Usually Practice Makes Us Think We’re Better Prepared than We Really Are

When I was in high school, “studying” meant reviewing my textbook and notes into the wee hours of the night.

I thought I was being pretty hard-core, and it seemed to work pretty well, so I stuck with it.

Then I went to college, and quickly discovered that just because everything in the readings made sense and seemed increasingly familiar the more I re-read it, didn’t mean I could actually retrieve or use that knowledge when put on the spot.

This is an instance of how familiarity can play tricks on us. We think we know something, because it’s fresh and easily retrievable in that moment with the book in front of us. Take the book away however, and we discover that we’re toast, as the information hasn’t sunk in as deeply as we thought.

A similar thing happens in the practice room.

The way we practice most of the time sets us up for the same sort of unpleasant surprise when we walk out on stage, and discover that the awesome version of ourselves we heard in the practice room just…isn’t…happening.

How we practice

Most of us practice a bit like this:

Play something. (Wrinkle our nose in dissatisfaction.)
Play it again…slightly better this time.
And again.
And again, and again…until we get it right a few times in a row, and it feels pretty good.
Then we move onto the next thing.

Known as “blocked” practice, this format makes logical sense, and even appears to work pretty well. After all, on a good day, we can hear and feel ourselves getting progressively better as we work through a piece. Going from “meh” on our first try to “hmm…not bad!” by the end of a practice session.

The problem, of course, is that there is an underlying illusion at work that deceives us into believing our chops are more secure than they really are.

Judgment of Learning

How do we know when we’ve learned something well enough that we can move on to the next thing? Where it is etched deeply enough in our memory that we will reliably be able to reproduce or retrieve it later when we need to?

Easy. We simply make a subjective judgment call about how well we’ve learned something – known as “judgment of learning”.

But as it turns out, these subjective appraisals (a.k.a. JOL’s) are often quite unreliable.

Since our estimation of how well we’ve learned something is based on how easily something comes to us at that moment, it can lead to what some researchers have called “illusions of competence.” Where we are fooled into believing we have a passage better learned than we really do.

After all, how well we can play something at the end of a practice session (when it’s been enhanced by multiple warm-up/adjustment repetitions), is very different than playing it cold when we come back to our instrument the next day.

So the danger in practicing as we normally do is that we are prone to misjudging how well we are likely to play when the moment of truth arrives.

Why is that a problem? Well, confidence is one thing, but overconfidence could easily lead us to gloss over and neglect areas of our repertoire that actually need more work.

A second benefit of random practice

A number of studies have already established that random practice leads to superior performance when tested after training than blocked practice (which leads to better performance during training, but worse performance after training).

A 2001 study reveals a second important benefit of random practice. It seems that random practice schedules also lead to significantly more accurate predictions of future performance than blocked practice schedules.

Meaning, participants who practiced utilizing a random schedule were better judges of how much “real” learning had taken place.

We don’t know what’s good for us

Unfortunately, like turning our nose down at brussels sprouts and tofu, we don’t always know what’s good for us.

A 1978 study of postal workers undergoing typing training evaluated a few different practice schedules, some with shorter sessions spaced further apart, and others spaced closer together.

As it turns out, the participants in the spaced out condition that was best for maximizing learning, were the least satisfied with the schedule. In fact, some of them said that they would rather drop out and quit, than continue on that schedule.

Meanwhile, those in the most compressed training schedule reported the greatest level of satisfaction – even though this schedule resulted in the worst performance and learning.

Take action

We like practicing in such a way that leads to immediate gains in performance. It feels good. But easy come, easy go. Sometimes it’s better to struggle in the short term, if it leads to better performance in the long term.

So be wary of the trap of simply practicing something over and over until it sounds better and calling it a day. Throw in some random practice, test yourself, and make sure you really can do what you think you can – without having to warm up into it first.

And when you introduce different practice schedules like random practice to your students, know that they may not necessarily adopt the new practice wholeheartedly at first – even if it is working really well. Preparing them for the possibility that it may not feel as if it’s working in the immediate present could help them focus more on the long term day-to-day, week-to-week benefits.

photo credit: Mohammed Alnaser via photopin cc

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15 Responses

  1. I could use a little more explanation of the fix we are supposed to make. “Insert random practice” does not really tell me what I need to know.

    A little help? I hope I am not the only one feeling a little lost at the end of this article.


  2. I tried Christine Carter’s random practice when I first read about it in the Bulletproof Musician blog – thank you so much! I’ve used the random practice framework for about 6 months and it works! The schedule prevents boredom with repeating a 4-5 bar segment over and over as you’re constantly moving on to the next segment. It’s challenging as I find myself playing different segments at different tempos throughout a 30 minute concentrated practice – and the bonus is, I think, it helps improve memory retention. Thanks so much for all your advice, Dr. Kageyama!

  3. If I practice a lot what i already know and a little what I don’t know, what will it lead to ? So should I practice that way ?

      1. idea : to learn something (this thing is an hypothesis at the beginning) and to test it always once more on a new section to see if it really works, only coming back to the real passage after a while.

  4. Dear Dr. Noa

    Good day, thanks for useful information. I practice every day for 4 years. Now im just reviewing first books. Amazingly they are hard to play although i can play the much more advanced etudes easier. Can you please help?


    1. Hi
      I’m not Noa but that’s really weird you say the neginners pieces are not easier. Is that what you say ? If yes, what I recommend is that you play them from times to times to strenghten your fundamentals. I suggest that you take violin lessons. You can look at Yehudi Menuhin Violin Tutorial too if it is useful for you.

  5. It seems to me that becoming proficient as a musician (or with any other skill or ability) means we don’t have to think of how we are doing it, but only look to the result we are intending.

    When we do anything automatically, and this includes tons of actions we learn in order to live effectively (as walking, talking, writing, even texting), do we think of HOW we are doing things, or just think of the RESULT we intend? (Of course, when we don’t get the results we want, then we have to revise our actions to correct this problem, don’t we?)

    Developing skills at any level, from elementary to virtuosic all work well when we only aim at doing something we want, rather than being concerned with how. Great athletes are prime examples of this; virtuoso musicians ditto. Does what you present for students aim at automatic actions? I’d not be at all surprised if they do, Noa. Doing anything well without thinking about anything except the result demystifies practicing, I believe.

  6. Interesting article, I think it’s so true that we as students need to be constantly proving to ourselves that we are performance ready. I think this often means getting creative with the final weeks and days leading up to a concert. Playing for family, recording a backing track on garageband, posting a YouTube cover, even jamming on Bandhub (which is something I have been recently geeking out about). The more angles you can approach a song from the more you will have truly mastered it.

  7. I think random practice will especially help my metronome work. I tend to get impatient when I’m moving the metronome up a tick at a time. So I could do it for a shorter period of time, go to something else, then come back to it later. Thanks for the advice!

  8. Speaking from the relatively unusual perspective of a pianist with a small repertoire but a huge output of recorded improvisation, the random way is nothing new to me and I couldn’t imagine playing without it. I have a Virgil Practice Clavier, which I have used for forty years, a few minutes night and morning. I do the small amount of repetitious stuff on that. Once at the instrument all is music and creation. For an improviser it seems to me that “practice” has little meaning, aside of course from the purely physical and the constant discovery of new keyboard figurations. The word “practice” implies the existence of something else which is the “real thing”. For an interpreter or a performer this dichotomy is valid, but for creative playing we are constantly reaching out, taking every risk, using each idea as a springboard to the next, always dynamic, never static.

    So I am no stranger to this function. In fact, if I had to execute repetitious movements and thoughts day in and day out, quite frankly I would sooner work in the garden. I am not a dead loss at performing pieces, I just don’t like it and find it dull. Therefore the random – well, not strictly random but dynamic, way is dead right for me.

  9. I love this statement: “Sometimes it’s better to struggle in the short term, if it leads to better performance in the long term.”

    It perfectly explains one of the biggest challenges when it comes to practicing effectively, which is stopping ourselves from doing what is fun/makes us feel good and focusing on doing the things that will really make a difference to our playing.

    Thanks for the great article!

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