An Annoying Practice Strategy That Will Help You Learn Faster

You sit down to practice a new scale. It's a tricky one, with some awkward fingerings, maybe a note or two with squirrely intonation, or some other challenge. You figure it out and get it working slowly, then gradually speed it up. By the time you finish, you've played through this thing 100 times and you OWN it! Then, the next day, at your lesson (of course), it's as though you've never seen it before. NOTHING from the previous day's practice session has stuck.

​I think it's pretty safe to say we've all been in the above situation once or twice (or 1000 times) in our lives. I certainly have. And if I had a dollar for every time this happened to one of my students, well, I'd probably be in the Bahamas right now.

It's a frustrating situation, and it's entirely preventable. In fact, thanks to about 4 decades' worth of research, we now know exactly how to avoid this unpleasant experience.

Interleaved Practice, also known as Randomized Practice, is a tried and true method of making sure what you do in the practice room sticks. In a nutshell, Interleaving means practicing a bunch of small things mixed up in a more or less random order. Here's a classic example:

​Let's say you're working on your melodic minor scales, and they're giving you a ton of trouble. The way most students approach this is to pick one, let's say A-flat as an example, and practice it over and over and over and over until it's becoming easier and easier and it seems like you can't possibly miss even a single note. Then you are done with A-flat for the day, and move on to something else. This feels like progress! But, as often as not, the next day it feels like starting from scratch.

An interleaved approach​ is a little different. In this method, you pick a few things to work on... maybe the A-flat and C-sharp melodic minor scales, a double-tonguing exercise, an arpeggio exercise, and a short flow study. You practice each one for 2-3 minutes, with the goal of improving some specific aspect. In that short time, you might get a little improvement, but it isn't going to start feeling easy, and you're not going to go super fast. But, you move on to the next thing on the list anyway. You go through the list a few times, so each individual item might get 10-15 full minutes of practicing, just like with the traditional approach, but it's broken up.

Interleaved Practice For the Win!

Practicing this way is harder. Each time you switch from one thing to another you have what is called "Task Switching Cost" - your brain has to struggle to recall what you were doing when you left off. At the end of the session, you're maybe doing a little better, but not as much as you would have if you'd just done it all in one block. BUT, the next day, you pull out your A-flat scale and, shockingly, it's about where it was when you left off yesterday. You're retaining what you learned. ​After a few days of interleaved practice, you're way ahead of where you were when you started. You can't wait to get to your lesson to show off your skills! And, when you play the scale at your lesson, you NAIL it! Nice!

​Why does this work? Well, it seems that the harder the brain has to work to do something, the more likely it is to put that thing into a "more accessible" part of long-term memory for later use. Think of it this way. If you do something over and over again for a while, that task can stay in short-term memory until you're done. Then, after a little while, it gets flushed to make room for more pressing needs, and tomorrow you're right back to square one.

With interleaving​, you come back and try again fairly quickly. At this point, some of the task is still floating around in short term memory, but some has likely already been flushed. Your brain has to work hard to do the task all over again. Brains hate having to work hard at the same thing twice, so this time it puts some of the task into longer term memory, just in case.

Then, you come back a third time. Now your brain has more of what it needs to get the job done, but it turns out it still has some missing pieces. It says to itself, "Self, this is clearly an important task, and it looks like I need to remember how to do it. I don't want to have to struggle like this again. I hate struggling. This is going in a prominent place in memory, and I'm putting a sign up so I can remember where I put it next time."

​OK, I may have gotten a little carried away anthropomorphizing the internal workings of the brain, but I think it's a fun way to think about what may be happening "under the hood."

Have you ever tried interleaved practice? Tell us about it in the comments!!​

Become a World-Class Musician One Percent at a Time

Quite a few years ago I heard a story about John Hagstrom. Mr. Hagstrom has been a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s trumpet section since 1996. I have no idea whether this story is true, and I don’t remember who I heard it from, but the point it makes is valid regardless of the details:

​When John was a student at the Eastman School of Music, he was known as kind of a “middle of the road” player; a player who would probably do well, but not likely to be “world-class.” What set him apart, and propelled him to the amazing and unambiguously world-class career he’s had so far, was the approach he took to the practice room:

Every day, try to improve your playing by one percent.

​In the story, he said “If you improve by one percent every day, then every 100 days you will be a 100% better musician.” Being the slightly OCD person I am, I actually did the math, and thanks to the principle of compounding, it actually only takes 71 days to improve by 100 percent at the rate of one percent per day. But, the idea is the same. Just get a little better every day and over time you will see huge gains.

​Again, I do not know if this is a true story. But for at least 15 years, I have kept this idea in the back of my mind and tried to use it in my own practicing and teaching. I see the opposite of this in my students all the time, in the form of overly long and ultimately fruitless sessions hammering away at one measure of music. I’ve done this myself, for sure. It’s so pervasive that it’s almost a badge of honor to talk about spending hours and hours on one small passage, as though that proves our supreme dedication to the art. But the fact is, this is not an effective strategy.

​Let’s say you’ve got a short passage of music that you just can’t seem to crack easily. You’ve played it 20 times, worked it slowly, tried everything you can think of, but it’s not getting any better. You could just double down and “woodshed” the heck out of it for an hour, and you might even be able to play it decently well a few times by the end of the hour. But tomorrow you get the pleasure of starting over from scratch again. Frustrating.

​But what if, instead, you look at the passage and analyze what, exactly, is making it so difficult? Is it an aspect of your technique that isn’t quite up to par? Could you come up with an exercise to work on that specific aspect of your playing? What if you spent five minutes working on improving that part of your game just a little bit (one percent), then just move on and try this again tomorrow. I suspect you would make more progress, more quickly, this way rather than the brute force method we usually take.

​Research bears this out. As luck would have it, one of my favorite podcasts, “Freakonomics,” ran an episode last Fall titled “In Praise of Incrementalism.” In their words:

“What do Renaissance painting, civil-rights movements, and Olympic cycling have in common? In each case, huge breakthroughs came from taking tiny steps. In a world where everyone is looking for the next moonshot, we shouldn’t ignore the power of incrementalism.”

I highly recommend listening to this episode if the subject interests you. It’s fascinating. Click here to listen now.

One of the stories they use to illustrate the power of incrementalism in the Freakonomics podcast has been showing up all over the interwebs, and it’s an incredibly interesting and inspiring story. The British cycling organization, Team Sky, was founded in 2010, and by 2012 they became the first British team ever to win the Tour de France. They won it again in 2013, 2015, and 2016. There are, of course, may reasons for their success, but one of the most important is their relentless application of the “Aggregation of Marginal Gains.”

If you’d like to read more about Team Sky and the Aggregation of Marginal Gains applied to learning music, check out this post from the Bulletproof Musician Blog.

​I’ve been doing my own unscientific experiment with marginal gains since May of last year. Like most trumpet players, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with high notes. It’s a fact that there is nothing quite like the feeling of laying down a screaming high note that cuts through the orchestra and echoes off the back wall of the auditorium loud and clear. It’s a hard thing to do, and once you get it figured out, it is a source of enormous satisfaction. That’s one reason we trumpet players get a bad reputation… sometimes we get a little carried away and overdo those high notes because, well, we can.

​Anyway, as a symphonic trumpeter, my need for the extreme high register is not huge. But the allure is there for sure, and over the years I’ve played my share of pops concerts and broadway shows that pushed me to my limit in that department. Last May, I was feeling frustrated with my high range, and decided to spend just a little time working on it every day. I added an exercise to the end of my warm-up that forces me to spend a little time pushing myself to play as high as I can each day. I spend less than 5 minutes on this, and I only do it if my chops are feeling reasonably strong.

​During the 303 days since I began the experiment, I’ve practiced my high range exercise 241 times, or about 80% of the time. It’s sort of faded into the background for me mentally now. It’s just a thing I do, and I hadn’t given it a great deal of extra thought until recently.

​A few weeks ago the Flint Symphony performed a program with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Suite, and Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige Suite. This program was a serious workout for trumpet, and especially the Bernstein contains plenty of opportunities to flex your high note chops.

​I’ve performed the Bernstien a few times over the years, and each time I’ve been frustrated that I couldn’t punch the high passages out over the orchestra the way I know they should be done. As soon as I got the music for the concert, I put it on my stand and started playing through it to see where I stood. I was amazed. The high passages that had so vexed me in past years were coming out loud and clear, without feeling overly difficult. Until that moment I did not realize how much progress I’d made on my high range. It was very gratifying!

​Have you ever applied the concept of Aggregation of Marginal Gains to your practicing? If you have, tell us about it in the comments, below. If not, try it! You’ll be glad you did!

The Tyranny of the Streak

Practice streaks can be motivating, but they have a dark side too.

Streaks are everywhere, including the Structured Practice Method. As I write this post, I'm at the end of a streak of 367 consecutive practice days. That streak ends today, and I have mixed feelings about it, so I decided a post on the subject might be a good idea.

​Back in 2013 I realized that my concert clothes were getting harder and harder to fit into, and I was getting close to having to decide between taking a full breath or zipping up my pants. I knew I had to do something, so naturally I turned to Google. I found an app called MyFitnessPal, which I could use to track everything I ate and make sure I stayed within calorie and nutrition goals to lose weight. As you might imagine for the creator of the Structured Practice Method, this kind of thing appeals to me, so I signed up.

I struggled for a couple of months while building the habit of logging all my food. Believe me, this is not easy, but I was determined, and I eventually got it worked into my normal day-to-day activities. The weight started to come off, and over several months I watched as I steadily progressed toward my goal. By the time I was within just a few pounds of where I wanted to be, I had a streak of around 230 days of logging my food, which I was really proud of. Keeping that streak going was the only thing that kept me on track more than once during that time, for sure!

Losing that streak completely killed my motivation

But one day, I didn't get around to logging any food until pretty late in the day. In fact, it was past midnight, and the next day, when I went to log my breakfast, my streak was gone!! And I hadn't even really missed a day!! I was furious!! And, it turns out, really discouraged. All that effort to maintain my perfect streak, and it was gone in the blink of an eye. In that one instant I completely lost my motivation​, and I have struggled to get back on track ever since.

​I think the worst thing about it for me was the fact that I hadn't really missed. I felt betrayed by the app. What was the point if it could take away my streak on a whim?

Of course, if I'd simply shrugged it off and gotten back on track the next day, I would have been perfectly fine, and that's the thing. A streak is great, but shooting for that perfect, uninterrupted run is ultimately not realistic. And even if we only hit 70%, we're still way ahead.

​For me, this was a case of letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.

The story above is one reason that I actually resisted putting the streak statistic in the Structured Practice Method. I was worried that it could demotivate just as easily as motivate. But in the end I couldn't resist. And I do enjoy getting a good streak going, as with the one I'm breaking today.

​And this streak has actually been very motivating for me. It's gotten me through some busy weeks where I would very likely have dropped off if not for the desire to post that elusive full year.

But today I'm letting it go. We're in the midst of a huge week for me in the Flint Symphony. We're doing a program of American music: Bernstein - Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Gershwin - Porgy and Bess Suite, and Ellington - Black Brown and Beige Suite. I simply don't have the chops to practice even a little bit and also get through all our rehearsals and concert on this program, so the streak has to go.

I'm also taking a vacation immediately following the concert, so it was​ on the way out anyway. I'm really looking forward to taking a few days to just hang out with the family and not be a worker bee, but I am also really excited about not having this streak hanging over my head. I've been really proud of the accomplishment of getting a full uninterrupted year of practicing in, but it's also become a burden that I'll be quite happy to be done with.

Over the past few months, I've come to feel that practicing every single day over an extended period of time might not even be something all that desirable. Arnold Jacobs, one of the greatest brass pedagogues of the twentieth century, is quoted as having said "Sometimes just sitting under a tree is the best way to become a better musician," or something along those lines. I think he was onto something. As humans, we need breaks. As a trumpet player, sometimes my face needs a break even before my brain does. As long as the overall trend is one of practicing most days, I don't think it's so bad to have the occasional day off.

As I design SPM Version 2.0, I expect the streaks feature will change to reflect this understanding. I already have some ideas. I'd be interested to hear what your thoughts are. Do streaks motivate or demotivate you? How to you handle the inevitable missed day? As always, let us all know in the comments below!​

Happy practicing!​

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