As a musician, you desperately want to excel at playing an instrument. You put in hours in the practice room, working your fingers (or lips) until they’re raw. And by the end of the day, you feel like you’ve made progress. But then, you come back the next day, and you stumble over lines you previously nailed. It’s almost as if your brain has forgotten everything you learned.
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This probably drives you nuts, and maybe even makes you want to set your instrument on fire, Jimi Hendrix style. We’ve got some good news, though: the problem isn’t you. It’s the way you (and most musicians) practice.
Are you ready to play your instrument like the rock star you really are? In this post, we’re sharing a better, different way to practice that will produce more measurable results and prevent you from losing so much progress. Plus, we’ll give you a few other suggestions to optimize your practice time and give you maximum forward momentum.
Hit 100 fastballs. Shoot 100 free throws. Practice that scale 100 times. Play that piece 10 times without making a mistake. In almost every discipline, practice is all about repetition. This repetition is called “blocked practice,” and it’s the most commonly accepted method of practicing.
On the surface, blocked practice makes sense. After all, the more you do something, the more you hammer it into your muscle memory. The more you repeat something, the more you should memorize it and be able to repeat it without thought. And, the more you practice a piece of music, the more comfortable you feel with it during a given session.
Except, when you come back to practice the next day, it’s often as if 90% of your progress leaked out during the night.
Blocked practice leads to quick improvement during a training session, but slow improvement overall. Why? Because the more comfortable you feel with a piece, the less engaged your brain is.
Numerous studies have shown that there is progressively less brain activation when stimuli are repeated. New information is processed more than the information that is repeated. In other words, constant repetition bores our brain, and we become less engaged than when receiving new information.
You’re not imagining things. You really are losing a lot of progress when you use blocked practice.
It turns out that there’s a better, more efficient way of becoming more musical and learning an instrument.
Let’s talk about random practice schedules, or “interleaved practice.” Interleaved practice means breaking down the practice session into much smaller segments, and then alternating between those parts during the entire length of the practice.
For example, let’s say you’re working on learning three scales in the key of G. Normally, you would spend the practice repeating a single scale over and over until you felt comfortable with it, then you would move to the next scale without ever returning to the first. With interleaved practice, you switch between the different scales every few minutes, forcing your brain to restart the learning process with each task.
This method of practice is actually quite uncomfortable. You can’t really develop the smooth rhythm you can when using blocked practice schedules. But – and this is crucial – when you leave a task and then return to it, your brain is forced to reengage and create a new action plan for the task at hand.
During this reengagement period, the brain is highly active, which leads to greater long-term learning. This is called the “contextual interference effect.”
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Writing in Scientific American, Steven C. Pan says:
With blocking, once you know what solution to use, or movement to execute, the hard part is over. With interleaving, each practice attempt is different from the last, so rote responses don’t work. Instead, your brain must continuously focus on searching for different solutions. That process can improve your ability to learn critical features of skills and concepts, which then better enables you to select and execute the correct response.
Yes, it’s frustrating to have to switch between tasks repeatedly. It’s annoying that you can’t develop the smooth flow that comes with blocked practice. But interleaved practice really is a more effective method of learning.
Dr. Christine Carter, an instructor at the Manhattan School of Music says:
…my preliminary research at the Brain and Mind Institute in Canada provides empirical support for the use of a random practice schedule in music. Not only does this research suggest that a random practice schedule is more effective than a blocked schedule for practicing musical passages, [but] participant interviews also reveal that random practice has positive effects on factors such as goal setting and focus.
Studies of the contextual interference effect have also been performed on athletes, medical students, and college students. The research has shown that these people learn much more effectively when using interleaved practice.
In this short video, Robert Bjork discusses the key benefits of interleaved practice:
The subject of interleaved practice ties in perfectly with the concept of “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is the idea that, contrary to popular belief, most highly successful people did not become successful thanks to their inherent talent. Outstanding musicians are not primarily the result of being prodigies. Instead, greatness comes from deliberate practice.
Researcher K. Anders Ericsson puts it this way:
We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance, and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from, or at least outside the range of, those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable; that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.
The point is this: greatness is learned through hard work and deliberate effort.
To be even more specific, greatness comes through being very intentional about the way you practice your craft. No more wandering through practice, touching a little on this and a bit on that.
You need to have a plan and work on it.
So, how should you implement interleaved practice into your own practice sessions? Instead of spending long sessions working on a single task or musical excerpt, choose several different ones to focus on and then alternate between them.
For example, if you choose part A, B and C, you can spend 4 minutes on A, then 4 minutes on B, then 4 minutes on C, and then repeat. The key is simply finding what works for you. Experiment with the length of your practice session as well as how long you spend on each section.
G Major Scale || 4 minutes
G Natural Minor Scale || 4 minutes
G Major Blues || 4 minutes
G Major Scale || 4 minutes
G Natural Minor Scale || 4 minutes
G Major Blues || 4 minutes
You can also mix and match your practice items, interspersing musical excerpts, scales, arpeggios, etc. The goal is to force your brain to be engaged during the entire practice. You know the feeling of slipping into “flow state” when you’re practicing. Although that flow state feels great, it’s not helping you make quick progress. In fact, it’s actually hindering your practice.
Keep mixing things up, forcing yourself to constantly work through different musical pieces.
In addition to implementing interleaved practice, here are five other suggestions for upping your performance during practice sessions.
Set A Goal For Each Practice Session
Don’t simply sit down, play your music and call it quits. Go into each session with a specific goal. What do you want to achieve? How will you achieve it? How will today’s practice help you reach your long-term goal? This type of thinking will keep you thinking about the big picture and help you avoid burning yourself out.
Map Out Your Practice Sessions
Just as athletes map out workouts beforehand, you should map out what your practice time will look like. Write out your warm up exercises, what you will focus on during the meat of the practice, and how you will cool down. This map will keep you on track during the session and will discourage you from quitting early. Practice maps also fit in well with interleaved practice.
Add In Physical Challenges
Just as interleaved practice engages the brain, so does adding in physical challenges. This may sound odd, but some researchers have suggested that simply balancing on one leg while playing a piece of music can carve out new neural pathways in your brain and improve your overall performance.
Keep Your Supplies Nearby
Cellist David Finckel, creator of “Cello Talks,” recommends keeping all your supplies handy in your practice space. This obvious, yet often overlooked advice, keeps every practice session flowing smoothly and free of interruptions.
Practice is hard work – and it’s supposed to be. By the end, you should feel a bit drained, mentally and physically. And if you’re using interleaved practice, you’ll feel even more drained since you refused to let your brain enter flow state. After practice, give yourself a reward. You’ve earned it! Ice cream, candy, a nap – whatever will motivate you to power through practice (and do it all over again the next day).
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When it comes to learning an instrument, practicing harder isn’t the same thing as practicing smarter. After all, what’s the good of practicing hard if you lose 90% of that practice afterward?
Interleaved practice is both harder and smarter. You won’t feel as comfortable while you’re doing it, but you may be amazed by the results.
Now what are you waiting for? Pick up that instrument and go!
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