The Best Laid Plans of Mice and… Me

​The Only Constant is Change

Heraclitus, ~500BC​

In my last post, I spoke at length about my plans for the summer. I was chomping at the bit to get to work on version 2.0 of the Structured Practice Method application, and finally knew I had the luxury of plenty of time to focus on it in depth. I was excited.

Looking back over that article, I'm glad to see that I didn't make the mistake of setting specific goals for releases. I'm not sure if I found this article while I was writing, or shortly after, but it's really good advice for anyone who works at creating or making. In a nutshell, it says if you start making estimates about when something will be ready, that becomes a deadline in your mind. And deadlines are made to be missed, which makes you feel guilty, and bad. And then you procrastinate because thinking about the deadline makes you feel even more bad, and so on, and so on.

Anyway, within about an hour of when my "Summer Break" post went live, I got a text message from my wife. It said simply, "are u around?" ​On its own, this doesn't seem particularly ominous, but in our world, we generally only interact while at work if something important comes up. And it did. To make a very long story much, much shorter:

My wife received a big promotion at her job. A promotion that had been a major career goal for her since long before we met. One that I fully supported for her. And also one that meant a move from Michigan to Connecticut.

So, all of that time and focus I was planning to devote to working on the SPM over the summer? The vast majority of it went toward moving. It turns out moving is stressful, exhausting, and in a lot of ways all-consuming.

We're getting nicely settled into our new lives in the "Nutmeg State" now, and I'm happy to report that I've once again been getting my focus and time aimed at the Structured Practice Method. Much remains to be done, but I'm making really satisfying progress on a daily basis now.​

I expect to stick with my intermittent posting schedule here on the SPM Blog while I continue to work behind the scenes. More news to come as I have it!​

Summer Break

Time to Relax and Get Busy

​The academic year at both of the universities where I teach has come to an end, and now that the dust is settling a bit, it's time to start looking at my plans for the summer. I do, of course, realize what an incredible luxury this is. I know that most people do not get to take May through August off from their jobs every year. I'm stupid lucky, I get it. And I'm thankful.

​Not all of my jobs shut down for the summer. Actually, May is turning out to be one of the busiest months of the year for me. Between performing gigs and teaching, I have a grand total of one day off between April 24th and Memorial Day Weekend. But it is true that things are slowing down. After the middle of June, there will be only a very few gigs before the Fall season kicks off, and my summer teaching schedule at home generally works out to be about half what it is the rest of the year.

This “Summer Slowdown” has been a constant for most of my professional life, and I’ve found that it’s a great opportunity to tackle larger projects that require extended periods of concentration, or just large chunks of time. I still remember the year I discovered this potential, way back when I was a student at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston.

I had just completed my first year at the Conservatory. I had transferred from Wayne State (where I now teach!) and entered as a sophomore. It had been a good year, full of inspiring experiences. NEC is an amazing school, and Boston is one of the coolest cities on the planet to live in, especially as a musician.

Most of my classmates at NEC left town for the summer, many of them heading to prestigious music festivals around the world. I had no money, and I was far from the strongest trumpet player at school, so I had no festivals scheduled. I stayed in Boston and worked full-time as a temp, doing data entry for a large hospital at first, and later moving to a clerical job at the conservatory.

One would think that having a full time office job would mean there’d be no time for work, but I found the opposite to be true, possibly because the schedule was so relentlessly consistent. Every day I would work all morning at the Conservatory, then head across the street and spend lunch in a practice room (I ate in the office during work hours), then work all afternoon. After dinner I would get another couple hours of practicing in. It was not the most exciting time, but it was very productive. I was able to work through, in depth, all of the etudes and other material I’d worked on during the school year, but never felt I’d really mastered.

That Fall, as the school year began and we all got our ensemble placements and started rehearsing and practicing together, several fellow students came up to me and asked what festivals I had attended and who I’d studied with over the summer. They could hear such a huge improvement in my playing, they were all convinced I’d been somewhere amazing. Let’s just say they were pretty surprised when I told them how I’d actually spent my summer.

Now, here we are more than a few years later, and another summer is getting underway. This year I have very specific plans for my time. My main project is what I’ve been calling “SPM 2.0” for a while now. I’ve actually been working on this for some time now, but have begun spending significant time and energy on it as my other commitments have scaled back. I am really excited about what the new version will look like, and what it will be able to do.

I have a few other “projects” planned for the summer, such as continuing to practice the trumpet and spending at least some time outside every day when the weather permits. I’ve rediscovered cycling over the last couple of summers, and can’t wait to get my bike back out!

One thing I will not be doing is making regular blog posts. I’ll resume my bi-weekly posting schedule in the Fall, but over the summer I’ll post only if I find something I just have to share, and maybe make an occasional update about progress on SPM 2.0.

I hope you all have a wonderful summer! Get outside and enjoy it as much as you can, but also, if possible, see if you can carve out some time for a project that’s meaningful for YOU. Of course, if you want to share your summer plans in the comments, I’d love to hear about them!

Happy practicing!

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!!​

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