Five types of practice you need to know
Over the past few summers, I've devoted just enough time to my golf game that I've progressed from being a golfer who's pleasantly surprised on the rare occasion when I make a decent shot to a golfer who knows enough about what should be happening to be frustrated most of the time.
My pursuit of information that could help me on the course sent me down a few internet rabbit holes, one of which led me to a book, The Practice Manual: The Ultimate Guide for Golfers, by golf instructor Adam Young. While ostensibly about golf, the book focuses less on its mechanical and technical aspects - only a small portion is very golf-specific - than on the methods and approaches that make practice and skill development more effective, efficient, and lasting.
It may be beneficial to have a basic knowledge of the game to draw your own parallels to some of the author's examples, but I feel this book would be of value even to non-golfing musicians or anyone pursuing or teaching a discipline that requires developing and refining a skill set. (My only criticism of the self-published book is that it could have benefitted from a good copy editor, but that likely won't irk many of you as much as it bothered me!) I've read several books covering learning and deliberate practice broadly, many of which Jason Haaheim has referenced on his excellent website, and I feel Young's book takes that research even further in mapping out practical strategies.
Before we get into discussing some of what Young's book covers, it's worth considering that the methods many of us have intuitively used to practice may not be most effective, and it's worth examining some misconceptions about learning.
Misconception No. 1: The quickest way to improve something is by doing it over and over again.
There is some truth to this, as we do get better through repetition. As we repeat things, the pathways in our brain that make it possible to create the desired physical motions become insulated with a substance called myelin. More insulation means quicker, more accurate retrieval and transmission of the information our body needs to perform well.
The most common approach we take to get repetitions in is what's called Block Practice: we keep repeating the same thing until we consistently get it right. Unfortunately, studies show that the myelination process happens faster when our brains have to work harder to recall the skill, task, or information we're trying to master and that Block Practice isn't the best way to encourage this.
Imagine a deck of flashcards. Let's say I'm trying to work on my command of music history, and the first card up is “In what year was Beethoven born?” I don't remember (I never took Music History), so I flip the card over and see the answer is 1770. If I immediately repeat that flashcard again three or four times, I'm going to get it right; after all, the answer is still going to be on the tip of my tongue. But the odds are low that I'll be able to recall the answer days or weeks later. (Theoretically, I could spend an entire day just flipping that single card back and forth and at some point, the fact that Beethoven was born in 1770 would probably become burned into my brain. Effective? Yes, but terribly inefficient and impractical, especially if I plan to memorize anything else. Also likely not the most enjoyable way to spend a day.)
A better way to do this would be to put the card back into the stack so I return to it just after the answer has slipped from the forefront of my thoughts. That way, when it comes up again, my brain will have to do a little bit of searching to find the appropriate information. There's a sweet spot where long-term retention is established: the information is still retrievable, but we have to work to find it. A more effective approach would be to go through the deck of cards once an hour until I was consistently getting most of my facts right, then limit myself to perhaps two repetitions a day, then once a day, twice a week, etc. As anyone who's sought to build muscle through weight training knows, repetition is key, but without a healthy amount of struggle, we won't see results.
Many of us have had an experience where we had run a piece a number of times the day before a lesson and felt we could play it perfectly only to have it go poorly in the lesson and think, “I don't understand; I played this flawlessly ten times in a row yesterday.” The success we experience during a stretch of block practice may be made possible by the use of easily accessible information from the repetitions which immediately preceded it and can create a false sense of security: since there are seldom opportunities for preceding repetitions in performance, the information responsible for our practice success may not be available when we most need it.
Misconception No. 2: “Perfect practice makes perfect”
Typically, I think people understand this to mean, “If you want to have perfect performances, you must play perfectly while practicing.” While I believe that practicing well does make perfect (or as close to it as we can get), I don't think that we can define practicing well as playing everything perfectly during a practice session.
It's easy to fall into the trap of evaluating our practice sessions based on performance, but if we're focused on performing well during a practice session, we're not being as effective as we could be (once again, Jason Haaheim has done terrific writing on this). Adam Young suggests that we should design our practice so we can achieve success between 30% and 70% of the time. If we're not meeting the 30% threshold, we need to make the task more manageable; if we're finding success over 70% of the time, we need to increase the degree of difficulty. These numbers can be adjustable: as we get closer to a performance, we may wish to increase both the high and low cutoffs to build confidence and consistency, though many musicians find it beneficial to continue introducing elements of physical or mental adversity as they approach important performances.
The most significant learning happens in a thoughtfully curated struggle. Effective practicing should be a bit of a grind: not so overwhelmingly frustrating that we don't see signs of progress, but also enough of a challenge that we're always growing. Consistently playing things perfectly during practice should be an indication that we need to push ourselves harder.
Five Ways To Practice
One of many areas where information in The Practice Manual is transferable to music is in its discussion of different types of practice. Young lays out five distinct approaches to practicing, and understanding how to most effectively take advantage of each will result in greatly increased efficiency.
1. Block Practice: practicing the same thing over and over again
This is the type of practicing that we are likely most familiar with. As discussed in the flashcard example, the “success” of block practice is often attributable to short-term information retention from one repetition to the next rather than evidence of the long-term learning that sticks. While this method can produce great-feeling practice sessions, gains are often lost from one day to the next.
That's not to say you can't learn something by practicing this way - many people, my past-self included, have certainly done so - but this is a relatively slow, incremental route to mastery.
At this point, I mainly reserve block practicing for work on new repertoire or skills where there may be so much unfamiliar information that walking away between repetitions would essentially mean starting from scratch. Using the flashcard example, imagine that the answer I'm trying to learn is a paragraph of text rather than a single year. It may be helpful for me to re-read this longer answer multiple times when I first encounter it to build understanding.
2. Broken Practice: repeating the same thing but with breaks between repetitions
Broken Practice is similar to Block Practice, but involves downtime between repetitions to allow the brain to "reset." This may include putting the sticks or the instrument down, standing up and walking around, or leaving the room. The reset means slightly more effort for our brains in retrieving all of the necessary information but more insulation for our neural connections. Adding this difficulty is likely to decrease the quality of each repetition initially, but we should see performance consistency gains more quickly than we would with Block Practice.
3. Random Practice: alternating between pieces, excerpts, or skills
Random practice takes the spacing of Broken Practice even further: we bounce between the things we're working on. According to how comfortable we are with what we're practicing, the spacing should vary: If you're working on an audition list, you may decide to prioritize a few challenging or unfamiliar excerpts and repeat them with two or three times the frequency of the others. The formula may change several times during the preparation for a single project according to where attention is needed.
Again, think of the flashcards: the more consistently we're having success, the more we'll gain from increasing the time between attempts. By the week prior to an audition, I've often restricted myself to running each excerpt once per day. The harder the brain has to work to retrieve the necessary information and skills to execute in the practice room, the easier it'll be to do so when it counts.
As with the transition from Block to Broken Practice, when we move to Random Practice, we should expect to see a temporary decrease in our practice room performance, but increased gains in long-term learning and consistency. Because it mimics the "one-shot" nature of performances/auditions, Random Practice should be a staple of the final stage of preparation.
It's worth pausing before we cover the final two types of practice since they are more experimental in nature and focus specifically on developing skills.
When we're struggling with a specific trouble spot, many of us isolate the offending passage and repeat it until it reaches an acceptable level of accuracy and consistency. This approach could eventually be successful but it leaves some things to be desired.
The drill-it-until-you-get-it-right method doesn't allow for much flexibility. Let's say we practice a tricky passage in an audition excerpt exactly as we plan to play it until we can do it consistently. Imagine we get the audition and our nerves cause us to start the excerpt slightly faster than we'd practiced it – what's going to happen when we suddenly have to execute the difficult passage at a different tempo than we've trained our body to do it? Or suppose the hall is extremely resonant and we need to play slightly softer and with more articulation. We won't have much adaptability if we've spent all of our time cementing the one way we play that passage.
On top of that, much like memorizing phrases in a new language by rote rather than expanding our knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, our learning is only applicable to the specific situation we've practiced and won't transfer even when we encounter something similar.
Young creates an analogy to illustrate the shortcomings of practicing for a single situation using two carpenters: one who perfects the technique of hammering a nail in ideal conditions, and another who spends the same amount of time practicing driving nails at many different angles. In a hypothetical nail-hammering contest, it's possible that the first carpenter would outperform the second under ideal circumstances, but if confronted with a situation unfamiliar to both carpenters, it's a near certainty that the second carpenter would a broader skill set to make the necessary adjustments.
A study of children in which half the participants practiced throwing a beanbag into a basket three feet away, and the other half split their time between practicing throwing beanbags into baskets two and four feet away, then all were tested at the three-foot distance, found that the children who had varied their practice (without practicing at the test distance) outperformed their peers who had trained exclusively at the test distance. These findings support the Schema Theory of Motor Learning proposed by Richard A. Smith, which suggests, among other things (to grossly oversimplify for our purposes), that physical motions like those we need to play an instrument are calibrated through trial and error.
If we can identify the skills we need to master a difficult passage and design exercises that allow us to fine-tune them, we're more likely to improve faster and to increase our adaptability. Additionally, rather than tackling each difficult passage individually, our training will transfer between spots demanding similar skills.
The final two forms of practice are geared toward developing skill by increasing our conscious and subconscious understanding of how our motions impact the sounds we create, and can – by design – be quite disruptive. In the long term, however, these approaches will increase awareness, skill, and the ability to adapt.
4. Differential Practice: do it wrong to get it right
I use a warm-up exercise attributed to Cloyd Duff, which involves a bar of double-stop eighth notes followed by a bar of alternating sixteenths, repeated, with three different variations: first, the sticks are held normally; second, they're gripped as tightly as possible; finally, they're held as loosely as possible (to the point of almost being out of control). We'd not normally use either the second or third variation in performance, so what's the point? By exploring these variations, we're developing awareness of our grip pressure and how it relates to the sound we're able to produce. By stretching the boundaries of what we would normally do, we're able to get a sense of how desirable and undesirable sounds feel. Our brain is then better able to calibrate our motions according to the outcome we seek.
When we're having issues performing a rhythm accurately, the issue is often our ability to precisely control the placement of individual notes rather than a lack of having repeated the correct rhythm into submission. An issue with a swung triplet or 12/8 rhythm may be more quickly addressed through practicing a version of it with straight eighth notes and a dotted-eighth/sixteenth note pattern, and by varying the tempo. Instead of learning one rhythm one way, we're building awareness and control - simultaneously addressing the issue at hand and developing motor skills which are universal to our playing.
Working on evenness by deliberately playing unevenly would be another example of Differential Practice. Being able to precisely and consistently execute random accents demands manipulation of the same skills needed to consistently play a string of uniform notes.
Experimenting with the extremes of what we can do helps us to make connections between technique and results. Once we've found the extreme (and sometimes unusably impractical) ends of the spectrum, we can use that knowledge to work on smaller, more subtle adjustments of the same type to obtain the desired results. This type of exaggerated practice can help lead us to breakthroughs when we aren't progressing or have deeply ingrained bad habits.
5. Variability Practice: getting the optimal result from a suboptimal situation
Variability Practice is similar to Differential Practice in that it is designed to build skill, awareness, and flexibility through experimentation, extremes, and exaggeration. Instead of doing something incorrectly, we attempt to reach the desired outcome despite the addition of some obstacle or impediment.
One of my teachers recommends playing through etudes multiple times with sticks of varying hardness. Since some of the pairs won't be ideal for a given etude, the player has to utilize what we call "touch" to try to manipulate the sticks to get the appropriate sound rather than relying on the “correct” stick to do it for them. (As an aside, it may come as a shock to some conductors that such a skill exists!) Developing touch is essential for timpanists; this method fast-tracks the learning more than any explanation could.
The available exercises using a similar approach are limited only by imagination. To improve a challenging shift between adjacent drums, we can work on making that shift between non-adjacent drums – when we come back to the shorter shift, it will feel much more manageable. Practicing passages by leading with our non-dominant hand can often improve evenness and comfort when we return to our preferred sticking. I've even experimented with physically moving a drum out of position to hone my ability to precisely strike the correct playing spot.
Recognize that, with Variability Practice, it won't always be possible to achieve the perfect result. For example, we won't ever get the softest stick in our collection to sound as articulate as our hardest stick, and we'll never be able to execute shifts skipping over a drum at the same tempo we can between adjacent drums, but our playing benefits from having pushed our limits nonetheless.
With Differential and Variability Practice, experimentation is encouraged provided we're clear about the skill(s) to be addressed. And remember the 30/70 rule: if we can't execute 30% of the time or more, decrease the difficulty; if we're consistently over 70%, up the challenge.
Because of their disruptiveness and experimental nature, when we get close to performances we may choose to limit our use of Differential and Variability Practice with the repertoire or modify our exercises to narrow their focus to movements likely to be used on stage.
Like many of us, I'd stumbled upon aspects of these approaches before, but The Practice Manual put them in clearer focus and helped me better evaluate my own practice. Now, I'm addressing issues more quickly and they're more likely to stay fixed. It's easier to develop a plan of attack for accomplishing goals, and gains transfer more effectively to the next session. Having an understanding of a diverse array of practice tools means more creativity and exploration when practicing, which makes the time more enjoyable and rewarding even as I'm spending more time beyond the limits of my abilities, at least temporarily.
Good practice is smart and smart practice is challenging and we should adjust our expectations accordingly, letting go of the pursuit of practice-room perfection and embracing a productive, deliberate struggle. Knowing how learning happens most effectively is vital to developing a practice routine that allows us to use our time most efficiently and to reach our short- and long-term goals sooner. •