Tuesday 29 November 2011

Choice as a motivator

Practice, memory, intelligence, talent… we can discuss these as much as we want, but I think that the most important element of musical training is motivation.  People who are motivated to play music will practice regularly and get better at playing.  If you’re good at playing, you’re going to want to do it more, which results in more practice.  It’s a positive feedback loop.  On the other hand, if you’re not motivated to play music, you won’t practice very much, and you won’t be good at it.  This will not make you want to play more, and sets up a negative feedback loop.

External rewards
Practicing music is hard work for everyone, and we could all use external motivators from time to time.  This is especially true for children.  Getting “good” at playing music is a long-term reward and children do not have the self-discipline required for that kind of delayed gratification.  So parents and music teachers offer incentives and rewards for practice:  a sticker for a certain number of days or minutes of practice, a trip to a concert for a certain number of weeks of good practice.  In my house, your daily piano practice will earn you 15 minutes of coveted computer play-time.

But it’s interesting and useful to consider what leads to motivation and why. 

Reward centres in the brain
Rewards lead to activation in certain regions of the brain:  there are reward centres in the midbrain, nucleus accumbens, caudate nucleus, and orbitofrontal cortex. These areas are activated by pleasurable stimuli:  good food, money, sex, rewarding exercise, and listening to music we enjoy, among many others.  These types of pleasures lead to the release of endorphins and other endogenous opiates, which activate the reward circuitry of the brain.  These natural brain chemicals are related to drugs such as morphine, which explains why narcotic drugs also activate the pleasure centres of the brain.

Choice is a reward
A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science  (Leotti & Delgado, 2011) reports that the ability to choose is a reward in itself.  The anticipation of getting to choose something activates parts of the brain that are involved in the reward and motivation pathway.  This study used a simple key-press experiment in which the participants sometimes got to choose which key to press, and sometimes were told by the computer which key to press.  Pressing the key led to a random monetary reward, with the “choice” key-presses and “no-choice” key-presses leading to the same overall reward.  However, the participants felt as if they were more rewarded when they got to choose which key to press.  The researchers looked at which areas of the brain were activated during the key-presses and found that areas of the brain associated with reward were more activated when the participants got to choose which key to press. 

The implication is that people see activities where they get to choose something as inherently more valuable than activities where they do not get to choose.  We all like to feel we have control over our lives, as much as possible, and having that control activates the pleasure centres of our brain.

Choice increases the perceived value of whatever is chosen
Having a choice is motivating, but here’s a second point about choice that’s worth noticing:  when we choose between two things that are similar, we are more likely to think that what we chose is even better than we first thought.  This was first shown in the 1950’s by a researcher who asked housewives to rate kitchen appliances, and then choose between a pair of them.  When later asked to rate the appliances again, the housewives had increased their preference for the appliance they selected, and decreased their rating for the appliance they didn't select.

This “choice-induced re-evaluation” has been shown repeatedly in different studies.  In 2009, Sharot et al. showed that after people had chosen something (in this study it was a hypothetical choice of vacation destination), there was an increase in activity in the caudate nucleus, an area of the brain implicated in motivation and reward.  This meant that after choosing something, they derived even more pleasure from it. 

How can we apply the power of choice in musical training?  Motivation is a critical element of musical training.  Any way we can increase motivation, we should take advantage of it! 

Use the power of choice
As teachers and parents, we can take advantage of the power of choice to increase students’ motivation.  Parents can give students the option of when to practice, and in what order.  Teachers can let students choose from a list of two or three pieces when selecting repertoire.  This opportunity to choose is a reward in itself and also will make the students like the chosen piece more.  As we have seen, it will be natural for them to re-evaluate the piece as more pleasurable once they have chosen it.  If students start out liking the piece more, they will practice it more. The more they practice, the better they get at playing it, and this makes them like it more, setting up the positive feedback loop that we’re looking for.

After musing and reading about choice as a motivator this week, I realized that this is actually a fairly common tool in a parent’s arsenal.  Right now my 6-year-old is going through a phase of aggressive rebellion (at least, let’s hope it’s a phase).  Recently, I convinced him to get into the bath but when the time came to wash his hair, he absolutely refused.  “I got wet all over and that’s good enough”, he insisted.  Instead of fighting, I played the “choice” card: “Would you like Mummy’s shampoo, or Daddy’s, or here’s a new kind that’s passionfruit flavour. Mmmm, it smells good”.  It worked like a charm to defuse the power struggle.  He was happy because he got to choose, and he liked the fruity shampoo even more once he had chosen it.

This week, I'll offer him a choice in his piano repertoire and I’m willing to bet he’ll like to play whichever piece he chooses.  I can almost see his caudate nucleus lighting up.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Mixing It Up (Part 2)

Imagine 41 beginner clarinet students, about 11 years old.  Their task:  learning three new short melodies over three days.  Half of the kids practice one melody every day, turning to a new melody the next day (“blocked practice”).  The other half of the kids practice all three melodies every day, in a random fashion.  The researcher records their practice sessions, and also has them come back 24 hours later to test how well they have learned the melodies.  What do you think?  Which group learns the melodies better?

Contextual Interference
As I discussed in my last post, studies have shown that practicing motor tasks in a blocked fashion leads to better performance during the practice sessions, compared to random practice.  However, retention is better when tasks are practiced in a random fashion.  What this means is that our long-term memory is better for tasks practiced in a random fashion.  This is known as the contextual interference effect.

However, most of the research that has looked at this effect is based on simple laboratory tasks.  In real life, tasks involve complex sensorimotor feedback and have multiple components that we have to control at the same time.  This is particularly true in music practice.  Practicing music involves visual cues from the music we’re reading, somatosensory feedback from the positions and actions of our joints and muscles, and auditory feedback from the sounds we’re creating.  We have to pay attention to pitch, rhythm, tone quality, evenness, dynamics and articulation.  In a complex task like this, does the contextual interference effect still apply?  Is it stronger or weaker?

The Clarinetist Study:  Stambaugh (2011)
For the clarinetists discussed above, the contextual interference effect seemed to be slightly weaker.  The researcher, Laura Stambaugh, found that both groups made about the same amount of mistakes, but the speed at which the two groups played the melodies differed.  During the first half of the trials of each melody, the group practicing in a blocked fashion was able to play faster than those practicing in a random fashion.  For the second half of the trials of each melody, the random group was able to play faster.  And when tested 24 hours after the end of practice, the random practice group played significantly faster than the blocked group.

From Stambaugh (2011). Journal of Research in Music Education 58:368

In other words, the blocked group initially seemed to learn better, since they were able to play faster, but the advantages of practicing in a random fashion became apparent even before the end of the practice sessions.  In the classic contextual interference studies, random practice led to worse performance throughout practice, so Stambaugh's result is a little different.  There are a couple of possibilities for this difference:  it could be just because the practice was split over three days, or it could be because in this study the participants are children rather than adults.  Other studies using children have found that the contextual interference effect is not necessarily the same for children. Some studies have found that children do not necessarily perform better while practicing in a blocked fashion compared to a random fashion.  It's a good reminder:  We need to be cautious in applying the results of psychological studies done on adults.  Because children’s brains are still developing, they may not operate in the same way, and so the lessons learned from adults may not apply.

Worth the Effort
In any case:  Stambaugh’s clarinetists confirm that mixing up the order of our practice sessions may be worth the effort.  I think this is particularly true for certain types of practice.  When students are preparing for exams and have to be able to play scales in a number of different keys, practicing these in a random fashion is definitely effective.  It can be hard to convince our brains to change between key signatures, so practicing making this switch would certainly help. 

When students play for me during lessons or classes, they (or their parents) will often say that they “played it better at home”.  And I’m sure it’s true.  Partly this is due to nerves at the lesson, but I also think a large part of the reason students play worse in class is because at home, they play the piece several times, not just once like they do in the lesson.  Probably the first time they play the piece in a practice session at home, it’s not a lot better than what they play for me.  By the third or fourth time playing the song through at home, it’s pretty good.  But at the lesson, they only get to play once.  And this is true for exams and performances as well.  If students practiced more in a random fashion, they would play better the first time.  Performance, whether at an exam, recital or a lesson, is always in a random fashion, and we need to be ready for that.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Mixing it Up!

I’ve enjoyed the comments and feedback generated by my last post about spacing of practice sessions.  I think the most valid point was that students are pretty much going to practice at times that best fit their schedule, no matter what the teacher suggests.  And this is okay; the best practice plan is the one that the student will actually stick to. Another comment that’s worth relaying is that many advanced musicians, especially string players, need a long warm-up to get their bodies ready to practice the hard passages, which makes it more time-consuming and less practical to split practice sessions up.

Target Practice
Still, for my young students, I think I’m going to try instituting something I’ll call “Target Practice”.  I’ll give them a couple of sticky-notes with bulls-eye stickers on them.  Each day in their practice they will pick the two most difficult bits of their songs (a bar or two, say), and label them with the sticky-notes.  Then, they should come back for a second mini-practice session at a different time of day, and play just those labeled bars 5 times each.  I’ll let you know how this goes and whether they actually do it.  And I’m going to try it myself.  I’ve been practicing the flute a lot lately, for an upcoming show, and there are a couple of almost unplayably hard bars that could really use some extra work. 

Here’s something else to think about:
While researching the spacing effect, I ran across a most interesting study about organization of practice sessions.  In this classic 1979 study (by Shea and Morgan in 1979) participants learned three similar motor tasks, which consisted of using their hands to knock over targets in a certain order.  There were two groups:  Group A practiced each motor task in a block, then moved onto the next task, while Group B practiced the tasks in a random order, with the three tasks all mixed up, something like this:

As you might imagine, Group B made more errors while practicing than did Group A.  The surprise result came when the two groups came back to be tested on the tasks 10 days later.  Group B, who had practiced a in a random order, performed better than Group A, who had practiced in a blocked order.  In other words, random organization of practice material led to worse performance during the practice session, but better learning overall.

Contexual interference
Researchers believe that this is because mixing up the tasks during learning makes the learning harder; psychologists call this contextual interference. It improves learning because when we practice in a random fashion, we have to use alternate cognitive strategies to learn the tasks.  In other words, we have to think harder, and that makes us learn better.  Random-ordered practice is harder, requires more neural processing and therefore recruits more brain areas.  This leads to stronger retention.

What does this mean for music practice?
These contextual interference studies lead to some interesting conclusions about how we might structure our music practice sessions.  The standard practice method is for us to practice our scales, then move on to arpeggios and other technical exercises, and then practice our pieces in a blocked fashion, meaning we practice one piece until we’re done with it for the day and then move on the next piece.  And while this way of organizing our practice leads to better performance during our practice session, it may not be the most effective for overall learning.  For maximal learning, it seems we should mix up our practice material:  practice one piece for a short time, then our scale, then another piece, then the arpeggios, then back to the scale… etc.  This is a bit of a revolutionary idea, because it is not how we normally practice.

Before we change all our practice schedules…
The downside to random practice is that it might not be as satisfying to practice this way, because our performance during the practice session would be worse.  Therefore, I certainly would not recommend this for students who are struggling or already disheartened by their level of achievement.  It might work well to start the week out practicing in a blocked fashion, to gain a sense of mastery over new pieces, and as the week goes on, transition to a random organization of practice material.

As a teacher and as a musician, I want to know:  is it really worth the effort to reorganize all our practice material?  Just how much benefit would there be to practicing in a random order rather than blocked?  Are there any studies that show the effects of random organization of musical practice?  In fact, there is a recent study looking at exactly this, and that is what I’ll blog about next time…

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Spacing Effect

Which do you think would lead to better piano playing:  practicing one day a week for three hours or practicing 6 days a week for half an hour a day?  In both cases the total time spent practicing per week is the same (3 hours).  For most people, this is a no-brainer: we always suggest once-a-day practice.  It seems most logical to space out the practice sessions to once a day to promote better learning.  We know from experience that this works.

The Spacing Effect
There is a well-known psychological phenomenon called the Spacing Effect, where people learn better if learning sessions are distributed across time, compared to learning in one big massed session.  This was first shown in the late 1900’s, and has been extensively studied since then.

But why does it work? Why isn’t it just the total number of hours you spend learning something that determines how well you learn it?  There are a couple of different answers to this question.  The first is that fatigue and attention span limit the useful length of a practice session.  It’s just not reasonable to expect someone to practice for three hours solid and expect them to be putting in the same amount of mental and physical effort at the end that they were putting in at the beginning.  Also, there is evidence that when we are repeating something right away, we naturally do not pay as much attention the second time.  And, as I’ve discussed, attention is critical for learning

Spacing of Practice Promotes Synaptic Plasticity
The second, and perhaps more scientifically interesting answer, is that the physical processes in the brain that lead to learning seem more activated by spaced training sessions.  When we learn something, the connections between neurons, known as synapses, get stronger, making certain patterns of neuronal firing more likely to happen.  This synaptic plasticity involves cascades of chemical interactions between molecules in the synapse.  When we interrupt practice sessions with gaps, the chemical interactions are more strongly activated, making the synapse stronger.  From a psychological standpoint, the spacing effect works because retrieving a memory makes the memory stronger.

Optimal Spacing of Practice Sessions
Practicing once a day for 30 minutes definitely makes more sense than practicing once a week for 3 hours.  But would it be even better to practice twice a day for 15 minutes?  Or three times a day for 10 minutes each time?  What is the optimal spacing of our practice sessions?  I’m personally very curious about this, but there are no clear answers to these questions. However, it seems to me that the optimal length and spacing of practice sessions will be determined by the material that needs to be practiced.  A beginner student might benefit by practicing her short pieces in two-minute sessions, while an advanced student needs to spend more time at each practice session in order to really “get into” the practice and make some improvements. 

Rubin-Rabson (1940)
But I’d still really like to know if practicing twice a day would benefit musicians more than practicing once a day, even if the total time spent practicing were the same.  Is it better to have a night’s sleep between practice sessions, so sleep-dependent consolidation of the memory can occur? Or would it be better to practice in two or more sessions per day to try to maximize the spacing effect?  The only research paper I could find on this particular question was a study from 1940 by Rubin-Rabson.  In her study on memorization, experienced pianists practiced some pieces, either in one practice session, in two shorter practice sessions within one day, or in two short practice sessions over two days.  Which practice regimen led to better learning?  She tested this by having the pianists come back two weeks later and relearn the pieces.  Those who had practiced on two separate days had the easiest time relearning the pieces, those who practiced two sessions on one day were in the middle, and those who had used one massed practice session had the hardest time relearning.  The conclusion was that spacing out the practice sessions promoted better learning.

The spacing effect in daily practice
The problem with this study is that it is hard to apply the results to our regular daily practice.  How often do we learn a piece in one practice session and then have to play it two weeks later with no practice in between?  What I really want to know is if I should suggest to my students that they split their practice into two sessions per day, practicing each piece in both sessions.  My guess would be that their performance would improve more quickly.  Has anyone tried this?  I’d love to hear your comments.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Music Training and Executive Function

I’m going to take a break here from the neuroscience of practicing to discuss a new paper published this month in the journal Psychological Science.  But before I get to the paper, I’d like to tell you about one of my students.

Meet Ellis

Ellis, a scraggly-headed 6-year-old with intelligent brown eyes, is sitting on my piano bench for "solo time" during his weekly piano class.  He’s a smart little guy, and I’ve been teaching him since he was three and a half.  He plays very well for his age, and seems to like piano, despite a tendency to try to distract me into chatting instead of listening to him play.

We’ve just started learning the key of F major, and he struggles to remember that in his new songs, every B should be B flat.  It’s remarkable to me that as he plays, I have to remind him at every single B.  “B FLAT!”, “No, that should be flat”, “FLAT! FLAT!”  Why can’t he get this in his head?  The next week, Ellis gets most of the B’s right, but a few B naturals still sneak in.  His mother shrugs and shakes her head.  Then I hear him play a piece he’s been working on for several weeks, in C major, and I am stunned to hear him adding in B flats!  What is going on here?

Ellis is having a hard time with rule switching.  Ever since he started playing the piano, the rule was that when he saw a B on the page, he played a B on the keyboard.  Simple.  Now we’ve changed that rule.  In F major, when we see a B in the music, we have to play a B flat.  And then when we change back to a song in C major, B means B natural again.  The rule keeps switching. 

Executive Function
Rule switching is one of group of higher cognitive skills collectively known as executive function or cognitive control, and which reside in the prefrontal cortex, right behind your forehead.  Executive function includes three main skills:  working memory, which is keeping things in mind in the short-term, inhibition (i.e. self-control), and cognitive flexibility, which includes rule-switching.  The prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to fully develop in children, which explains why kids have a hard time controlling their behaviour (they’re still developing that self-control), and also explains Ellis’s problems with rule-switching.  Executive function in children is a predictor of success in school, even more so than IQ.  

Musical Training improves Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function
In a paper published this month, researchers at York University led by Sylvain Moreno compared the effects of music training and visual arts training on verbal intelligence, spatial intelligence, and executive function.  They ran a summer camp for two groups of 4- to 6-year-olds, with one group receiving two hours a day of music training, and the second group receiving two hours of visual arts training.  The music curriculum included instruction on pitch, rhythm, melody, singing and music theory including note-reading.  The visual arts curriculum included instruction on shape, colour, line, dimension, and perspective.  The researchers figured that music training might enhance language skills, while visual arts training might enhance spatial skills.  What they found was that only the music training led to improvements in verbal skills and executive function, and neither training enhanced spatial skills.

Why does music training improve executive function?
I’ll talk about the effect of music training on verbal skills another day.  It’s interesting and relevant, but today I’m more interested in the effect of music training on executive function.  The task used to probe executive function in these children tested both working memory and inhibition.  The researchers suggest that music training uses parts of the brain that control executive function, and this is why the training improves these skills.  Studying music requires concentration, memorization, and attention, and enhances these skills in children.  That enhancement can then transfer to executive function in general. 

I’ve long thought that music training must improve executive function, simply because it requires the use of executive function.  This study looked at the effects of short-term, beginner music training in a classroom setting. Just imagine how much executive function improvement results from daily instrumental music practice!  Children learn self-discipline, use focused attention, working memory, and, as we have seen, rule-switching.  Music study constantly stretches the limits of these brain functions, making them stronger and more capable.  And these cognitive abilities are useful for a huge variety of life-tasks, including schoolwork.

Ellis will eventually get the hang of switching between key signatures, and by doing so, will increase his general ability to rule-switch.  This strengthening of neural circuits in his prefrontal cortex will give him an advantage in many aspects of life.