A New Practice Strategy to Try

A New Practice Strategy 

Does this scenario seem familiar to you? You’ve practiced diligently for an hour or so each day on a technical chunk of new repertoire. You are confident that you’ve got it down when you leave your practice room. When you start again on this section the next day, you are disappointed because you’ve lost most of what you gained the previous day. The work doesn’t seem to stick. And so you start over with the diligent cycle of long chunks of practice and lots of repetition. Draw a target on the wall with a little sign that says “Bang Head Here.” Maybe it’s time for a new strategy!

The new strategy is called interleaving practice and it’s not something that I came up with on my own. I learned it first from Noa Kageyama and his Performance Psychology Essentials for Educators course and then again when he was one of the keynote speakers for the Association of Body Mapping Education’s virtual conference this summer. There is quite a bit of information about this technique in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning1, which is one of the books that Noa Kageyama recommended.

Massed vs. Interleaving Practice

Massed practice is doing the same thing for a chunk of time. Interleaving is combining two or more subjects or skills into a practice session. The following study (cited in Make It Stick, p. 49) is a great example. Two groups of college students were taught to find the volume of various geometric shapes (wedge, spheroid, spherical cone and half cone). One group worked practice problems clustered by type (all wedge, then all spheroid, etc). The other group worked the same problems but in a mixed sequence, rather than clustered with problems of the same type. During the practice, the massed group (clusters) averaged 89% correct compared to only 60% for the interleaving group (mixed). In the final test given a week later, the massed group averaged only 20% correct compared to 63% for the interleaving group. The mixed grouping boosted the final test performance by 215% and also impeded performance during initial learning.2

Practicing for Musicians

What we tend to do as musicians is massed practice. We practice the same thing over and over and over again. At the end of the practice time, we are tricked into believing that we’ve made significant progress. We’ve actually just played it a bunch of times in row. An example of massed practice would be a 45 minute practice session in which you spend 15 minutes on each section, excerpt or piece. Section A for 15 minutes, followed by Section B for 15 minutes and then Section C for 15 minutes. 

Interleaving practice is different, as it involves combining different skills or sections of music. Using the same practice scenario (45 minutes total, 15 minutes on each of 3 pieces), the actual schedule would look like this:

Section A – 5 minutes, Section B – 5 minutes, Section C – 5 minutes

Section A – 5 minutes, Section B – 5 minutes, Section C – 5 minutes

Section A – 5 minutes, Section B – 5 minutes, Section C – 5 minutes

Why This Works

It’s the same total number of minutes but the structure is entirely different. The reason this works is that our brains have to work harder each time we start a new section. We have to really work to recall that fingering pattern or tricky rhythm spot. Before we master that, time’s up and we’re onto the next one. The benefit comes from the struggle to keep starting over! Students hate it, at first, because it feels like progress is so slow! Remember that the study cited earlier showed that interleaving practice impedes the initial learning. The payback comes in the retention and long term gains. I’ve been practicing tricky sections using this strategy and I am happy to report that I’ve made significant progress. Consider taking auditions – we know that we only have one chance to nail it, but we often practice Daphnis 20 times in a row! We need to know it so well that we can execute in one take, right out of the gate. Interleaving practice is tremendous for this type of thing. Give it a try and see what happens!

1. Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

2. D. Rohrer & K. Taylor, The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning, Instructional Science 35 (2007), 481-498.

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