The art of practicing: Broad principles
Have you ever thought that, from a young student's viewpoint, practicing is counterintuitive? Think about other skills you learned as a child: tying your shoes, for example. An adult shows you how to do it (I used the "Bunny Rabbit Ears" method with my nephews), you practice clumsily at first, then with increasing mastery, until finally there is no need to practice at all: you know how to tie your shoes. The need for practice has faded.
Playing the piano doesn't fit this model. There are too many variables and too many types of physicality required in even the simplest piano piece for performing to ever become automatic. A good pianist makes playing the piano look natural, but we teachers know that true spontaneity is only possible after many hours of repetitious, highly organized practice.
There has been a wealth of inquiry in the last thirty years about the "best practices" of practicing. Much of this is based on sports models, which is not surprising when you consider how much more money sports organizations have to spend on research than music teachers. The far-reaching principles, though, are applicable to any activity that requires hard work, dedication and persistence.
Why do we practice?
I can answer in one word: technique. The word is often used in a narrow sense to describe the ability to play fast, loud, and fluently, but I have a broader definition: technique is the ability to express physically the ideas one conceives mentally. Practicing ensures that the proper physical motions are executed at precisely the right time, in the right place, and with the correct attack and release, all in service of musical imagination.
Good practice habits make playing the piano more fun, even easier. We perform a movement with less brainpower when we have correctly repeated it enough times. Done appropriately, practice encodes success, over and over, enabling motions that took thought in the early stages to become almost automatic.
Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia has written several books on learning.1 He says that the brain learns best in manageable leaps, based on simple explanations and working on one new task at a time. The key is mindfulness: planning what is to be done, aurally and physically, and carefully assessing the result.
It's important to avoid something psychologists call "random adaptations," accidentally getting a good result without understanding the reasons why. I've heard this haphazard work method called "piñata practice." It's a good analogy: a blindfolded little kid whacking wildly at a papier-mâché animal, hoping for a success without having a clue about which motion is correct. Eventually, someone at the birthday party accurately hits the piñata and everyone gets candy. But the happy ending doesn't make it a learning experience.
If you say the slogan "Plan-Do-Review" to your students, you may see a light bulb ignite above their heads. Originally developed by the HighScope Early Childhood Curriculum, this working method is widely used across the United States. A child is given a task and uses the "Plan-Do-Review" method to complete it.
Let's say, for instance, that I assign the first work from Robert Schumann's Album for the Young, Op. 68, "Melodie," to a young student. The chart below shows a model plan I might use in the early stages of practice.
Psychologists have a name for this process: metacognition. The word means, simply, "thinking about one's thinking."2 A recent study of beginning music students found that those who used a metacognitive approach outperformed those who learned traditionally (the students learn the piece in their own way, the teacher corrects mistakes and models a good performance, the students continue to practice until an acceptable performance is achieved or they run out of time).3 And the results of metacognitive practice lasted longer, too.
Nikolai Aleksandrovitsch Bernstein (1896–1966) was a Russian neurophysiologist much interested in learning and in music.4 He noted that musicians have a strong faith in repetition, practicing a work repeatedly in exactly the same way, perfect each time and often slowly. Many teachers deliberately assign their students to learn only a small number of works per year, thinking that having less to practice leads to an increased number of perfect repetitions for each piece, resulting in a more solid performance.
Bernstein agreed that repetition of this type is an important step in musical learning. But in his thinking, it's only the first stage. His research demonstrated that there are so many variables in even simple motions that playing in a new environment would require different patterns of neural impulses for each performance. The body would have to adapt to concertizing on a different piano, with different lighting and in front of an audience; the performer herself might be tired, distracted, or differently inspired. Bernstein said that simple, slow repetition by itself only results in a fine performance if the situation is exactly the same each time.
Bernstein also believed that the "repetition" model does not fully account for learning in the daily world. I remember when I taught my nephew Robby to ride a bike. His initial tries were inept. Fortunately, I insisted he wear a helmet: his balance was so shaky that he ran into a tree, a parked car (no damage, luckily), and fell several times. But suddenly, after tipping one more time, he somehow "got it," first a bit wobbly, then gradually with more confidence: he knew how to ride his bike. He did indeed learn through repetition, but the early repetitions were far from perfect and none of them were slow. To Bernstein, practicing an instrument slowly is a completely different task from playing "in tempo;" Robby feels the same about riding a bike.
Chemist and social scientist Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) believed that learning has an emotional component, and that personal commitment and courage is key. To him, learning is a method of self-discovery, and there are always hard-to-explain vaults over gaps leading to mastery, inexplicable using traditional models of repetition and step-by-step learning. He called these "heuristic gaps."
I tried to get my student Christina to use Bernsteinian principles in her preparation two weeks before her recital. "Play the program through at 8 a.m.," I directed. "I can't," she replied, "I'm not a morning person." "Perform it at church," I suggested. "No way," was her answer. "The piano there is terrible." "Invite some friends and go straight through the program in a different practice room." "Oh, no," was the answer. "The room is too small."
I wasn't getting my message across. The whole purpose of Bernsteinian practice is to vary the method and environment in your preparation, so that your brain and nervous system learn to adjust. If the situation is less than ideal, all the better: playing the recital in better conditions will seem easy.
Bernsteinian practice can also be used in daily work. Use a variety of practice devices: different tempi, articulation, starting points, and rhythmic patterns, so that your brain adapts to new conditions.
something wrong" —unknown piano student
Clarinetist Christine Carter would agree.5 She is an active performer and teacher, but has an interesting sideline: she researches effective practice strategies at the Wesleyan University Brain and Mind Institute. She has published articles in The Strad magazine and on The Bulletproof Musician website.
She believes, to summarize, that one important aspect of practicing is "keeping it new;" that if you think you sound great, you are probably doing the same thing over and over and not challenging yourself to practice creatively.
Dr. Carter observes that the human brain is drawn to novelty and that repetition without variation leads to what psychologists call a "hedonic adaptation"—we become habituated to positive things and take them for granted.
She recommends an Interleaved, or Random, Practice Routine. Here, in simple form, is how it works:
• Practice initially in small sections. Don't shorten the total amount of practice time, but instead of practicing an Allegro from a Beethoven Sonata straight through five times, divide the movement into smaller parts and practice them randomly. The goal is to force the brain to "begin again" multiple times, reinforcing learning.
• Practice in precisely timed intervals. If using practice devices, use only one device per interval.
- Dotted rhythm—three minutes
- Something else—three minutes
- Scotch snap rhythm—three minutes
Other research has suggested that pausing up to five seconds between repetitions seems to increase learning. The goal? To continuously interest your brain by changing up the routine.
The amount of helpful research on practicing and learning seems to increase every year. But some of the best ideas are experiential and not new. The legendary British conductor Sir Adrian Boult (1889–1983) said performance preparation had two components, rehearsal practice and performance practice. In rehearsal, you think backward; in performance, you think forward. It makes sense: we think backward during practice to assess and plan improvement; we think forward for flow and pacing. I wish you much success in each!
1I learned a lot from Why Don't Students Like School? Jossey-Bass, 2009.
2Chick, N. "Metacognition: Thinking about One's Thinking," Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/metacognition/. This useful page has an excellent overview of the background and important research about metacognition.
3Bathgate, M., Sims-Knight, J. and Schunn, C. "Thoughts on Thinking: Engaging Novice Music Students in Metacognition," Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26: 403–409 (2012). I first learned about this study reading Noa Kageyama's blog The Bulletproof Musician, "Metacognitive Instruction," goo.gl/uZZmR6.
4Ito, J.P. "Repetition without Repetition: Bernsteinian Perspectives on Motor Learning for Musicians". College Music Symposium. 10/1/2011.