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…

1 comment:

  1. So I am playing in my student recital this weekend and have been spacing my practice 20 min. in the morning and 20 min. in the afternoon before i start teaching. I have some difficult runs and repetitive 16th note passages which are as yet on Tues. inconsistent. I am also doing random practicing in the piece itself. Sometimes I start right into the difficult measures with no warm-up and sometimes i start at the beginning and go straight through it. It is interesting to see my progress especially when I relax and ignore the pressure. 50% of the time the difficult measures flow with ease and the other 50% I am a mess. We will see, and thanks-you for keeping us thinking.