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Guest Post: Making Piano Practice Stick

I am very happy to publish this informative and detailed guest post from fellow blogger Tim Topham. I hope you enjoy it!

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Making Piano Practice Stick

Tim Topham

There is an old adage in sport that says:

“Practice like you play and you will play like you practice.”

Never more true is this than in piano practice and performance.

One of the most important roles of a piano teacher is to help our students understand not just what, but how to practice. In fact, I would argue that this is almost the most important thing that we can teach our students.

In this article, I’d like to share my thoughts on what the research says about making practice stick.

Whether you’re a pianist, piano student or piano teacher, let me show you the evidence-based research about how to make your practice time (or that of your students) as effective as possible.

As students only get busier and more time-poor, a relentless focus on efficiency of practice becomes all the more important. Students these days simply don’t have time to waste.

Let’s make it stick!

What the Research Says

In my never-ending pursuit of helping students practice more effectively, I’m always interested in what the research says about learning.

While there are many ways you can make practice more effective (that’s why you’re reading Graham’s blog, right?), today’s article will focus on the research presented in Peter Brown’s excellent book, Make It Stick.

While not specifically about music, this book explains the results of a number of studies into learning which I’ll break down into five key tactics:

  1. Spaced Practice
  2. Interleaved Practice
  3. Reflection
  4. Quizzing

Let’s take a look at how these work in music practice. Please note that all quotes herein are from this book.

Spaced Practice

I love reminding my students that “cramming” doesn’t work in piano practice. The idea that you can spend hours the night before an exam or recital practising for an effective performance doesn’t work.

Or does it?

“Cramming”, known by researchers as massed practice, involves a relentless focus on one skill, topic, section of music or whole piece, over a short but intense period of time and it can be effective for short-term results.

However, this kind of practice will never remain in long-term memory. This is why we might see students getting reasonable marks for an exam, but not making on-going progress weeks down the track (or worse, no longer being able to play the pieces they presented at exam!).

To illustrate this point, Brown detailed a simple experiment involving medical students practising microsurgery on the blood vessels of rats:

“[A group of 38 surgical residents] took a series of four short lessons in microsurgery. Each lesson included some instruction followed by some practice. Half the students completed all four lessons in a single day, which is the normal in-service schedule. The others completed the same four lessons but with a week’s interval between them.

In a test given a month after their last session, those whose lessons had been spaced a week apart outperformed their colleagues in all areas. The residents who had taken all four sessions in a single day not only scored lower on all measures, but 16 percent of them damaged the rats’ vessels beyond repair and were unable to complete their surgeries.”

So why is spaced learning and practice so effective?

Curiously, it all comes down to forgetting!

Spacing out practice is effective because, over time, you start forgetting things. This means that when you return to practice, your brain has to work harder to remember what you were doing.

It’s this retrieval that strengthens the memory.

Here’s a YouTube video that explains Spaced Practice in less than 5 minutes.

The downside (and the reason that students don’t tend to like using this method) is that the forgetting makes practice feel harder and seem much slower. As Brown says:

“Spacing out your practice feels less productive for the very reason that some forgetting has set in and you’ve got to work harder to recall the concepts…The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.”

So how does this look in music practice?

If you want your practice to be effective and long-lasting, you must space it out over the course of weeks and months. What’s the right amount of spacing?

“The simple answer: enough so that practice doesn’t become a mindless repetition. At a minimum, enough time so that a little forgetting has set in. A little forgetting between practice sessions can be a good thing, if it leads to more effort in practice, but you do not want so much forgetting that retrieval essentially involves relearning the material.”

Action Steps:

So what’s the take-away from this section? If you’re a teacher, you need to let your students know about the importance of spaced practice. Help them start preparing for exams and recitals early and make sure they don’t cram as the last-minute learning will wear off.

If you’re a student, don’t fall into the massed-practice trap. Even if you’re incredibly busy and have little time to practice, aim for regular, short practices broken up by other tasks rather than spending eight hours cramming on a weekend. The results will be much more reliable.

Interleaved Practice

Just as spacing your practice out over time will help with long-term retention, so will mixing up your work within a practice section.

This concept is called interleaving, and in music practice it involves regularly changing the passage/chunk you’re working on. Graham mentioned this practice concept in his article, There’s a Hole in My Bucket.

The best time to change “chunks” is just before you start feeling like you’re getting it. When I guide students through this practice method in lessons, they tend to find it incredibly frustrating as they never get to play the chunk enough to quite “get it” before I force them to move onto another chunk.

Here’s the research behind this:

“The learning from interleaved practice feels slower than learning from massed practice. Teachers and students sense the difference. They can see that their grasp of each element is coming more slowly, and the compensating long-term advantage is not apparent to them. As a result, interleaving is unpopular and seldom used.

Teachers dislike it because it feels sluggish. Students find it confusing: they’re just starting to get a handle on new material and don’t feel on top of it yet when they are forced to switch. But the research shows unequivocally that mastery and long-term retention are much better if you interleave practice than if you mass it.”

Dr Noa Kageyama, aka The Bulletproof Musician, also discusses the importance of this tactic on on his blog post here.

Let’s look at interleaving in practice. This example is from one of my favourite etudes, Loeschhorn Op 136 No 20 (if you’ve never studied it, it’s a beautiful piece!).

L1A diligent student would likely break this passage into chunks, perhaps choosing a section like this to practice repeatedly until it flowed smoothly, time after time:

L2

Once they could do it smoothly and confidently, they’d move onto the next section, which might be the next bar:

L3

Again, they’d likely repeat this bar until is perfect (because that feels good and makes you feel like you’re progressing).

Many teachers also encourage this kind of practice, suggesting that students should be able to play something “6 times in a row without a mistake” before moving on.

Indeed, I used to advocate this method (and I still use it if the student needs to learn how to concentrate and slow down) until I realised that it wasn’t as effective as interleaving “non-perfect” practice.

While at first glance this might seem like effective practice (and, let’s face it, it’s better than 90% of what many students do when they practice!), interleaved practice has two crucial differences if it is to be effective:

You only repeat the section until you’re feeling like you’re just getting it (not until it’s automatic)
You need to jumble-up the sections more (jump around the music)
Better interleaved sections might involve working on these bars:

L4
Bar 1
Bar 13 LH
Bar 13 LH
Bar 21
Bar 21

The most crucial point here is to not practice them until they are perfect and automatic before moving onto the next section. Better that they are almost there before you move on.

When you return to a section that you didn’t quite master last time, your brain has a harder time recalling how to do it. It is practising retrieval. Retrieval takes much more effort, but that’s precisely the reason that this is such an effective practice technique:

“To be most effective, retrieval must be repeated again and again, in spaced out sessions so that the recall, rather than becoming a mindless recitation, requires some cognitive effort.”

Remember that the length of the ‘leaves’ that you are interleaving will depend on the level of difficulty of the material, the tempo, etc. However, what’s important is that the material is regularly broken up so that the brain doesn’t really have time to fully assimilate the material before you challenge it to a different task.

Action Steps:

Remember that learning that requires the most concentration is likely to stick around the longest. That’s why practising sections until they are fully automatic (and therefore slightly mindless), might not be the most effective for long-term learning.

Instead, keep changing the material that you’re working on so that your brain really has to struggle to keep up. You’ll stay more focussed and the practice that you do will have a more lasting effect:

“Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow. We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.”

Helping students reflect

Another big mistake I see students make in their practice is to instantly repeat something again (especially if they made a mistake) before thinking about what went wrong.

Reflecting on your practice is vital for ensuring effectiveness:

“Reflection is a form of retrieval practice (What happened? What did I do? How did it work out?), enhanced with elaboration (What would I do differently next time?).”

If you’re a teacher, you’ll need to help your students become more reflective by:

  • Ensuring they stop and think between repetitions of a passage they are working on
  • Asking them questions about what happened before giving your own viewpoint

Action Steps:

The idea of asking more questions and encouraging students to think is discussed in more detail in my article: What I’ve learnt from asking more questions in piano lessons. Let’s face it, most teachers already talk far too much. Try asking more questions in the coming week and compare the results.

Getting students to reflect and think by asking more questions has a big effect on their playing and practice.

“When [students are allowed] to struggle with solving a problem before being shown how to solve it, the subsequent solution is better learned and more durably remembered.”

So, let your students struggle!

If you’re a student, remember that struggle is what forges the most important changes in your learning. Give yourself the chance to try and solve problems before your teacher shows you how to do it. You’ll learn much more by trying and reflecting than by being told the answer.

The Value of Quizzing

While classroom teachers regularly assess student achievement through the use of tests, most studio teachers are far less likely to operate in the same way, preferring a single annual assessment of student progress in the form of an exam or recital.

“In virtually all areas of learning, you