Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Conflicting advice on practicing?

As a pianist most of my hours at the instrument are spent practicing. A successful 30 minute concerto performance is the result of 20, 30, 100 hours of work alone in a practice room. So *how* I practice is one of the most important topics for me to consider.

As a teacher, "how to practice" is likewise a central subject of conversation between my students and me. They spend many more hours practicing on their own each week than they do with me. With this in mind, it is not surprising how many books and articles have been written on the subject of practicing. I myself have given presentations on practicing to various music-teacher's groups, and have more than once been a part of public "panel discussions" on the topic of practicing. Recently, there have been two articles gaining a lot of attention among musicians that both give good - but possibly conflicting - advice. I am sharing them both here for you to read for yourself and decide what you think.

First is an article from Time Magazine from August, entitled "Over-Practicing Makes Perfect" ( The basic premise of the article is that practicing well beyond the point of knowing something ("over"-practicing) is not useless repetition, but in fact is teaching our brains (and/or fingers) to do the task more and more easily. The ultimate result of this "ease" is that we can devote more attention to other tasks. In other words, if we practice a difficult passage of music enough, it will require little or none of our attention and we can focus on the musical expression or something else.

This article suggests that when we continue to repeat or "drill" certain tasks, it may appear that we are not making progress (beyond a certain point), but there is in fact something being gained. This is probably the advice we (and/or our students) would NOT like to hear - it implies that we all should be practicing MORE, that we should be repeating things more. We would all much rather hear that there is a shortcut, a quick way to learn things so that we can move on to other activities, like watching baseball games or blogging.

A more recent article ( from the interesting blog "Bulletproof Musician" is more immediately appealing in that sense: it suggests not a shortcut, but certainly a more interesting way to practice than mere repetition. The article is well worth reading yourself, but some of the salient points include the fact that our minds tend to "tune out" sameness - our brains are instead wired to be alert to changes, rather than things that remain the same. So when we practice in the same way (or practice the same passage of music) over and over again, we quickly become mentally disengaged and much of the work we do doesn't "stick," according to the article.

The remedy for this is not so easy to describe, but basically it is to vary - constantly - what or how we are practicing. For example, we can take a specific passage of music and practice it different ways in succession (first hands separately, then in rhythms, then slowly, then back to hand separately, etc.). Or we can intersperse the practicing of one passage with another (first a few minutes of the Liszt Sonata octaves, then a few minutes of the Fugue section, then back to the octaves, back to the Fugue, etc.)

At first glance, this method of practicing is very appealing precisely because it is very much unlike the way I have practiced, and the novelty is fascinating. It can, however, also seem a bit chaotic - rather than sticking with something until it's good, we keep going back and forth between different tasks. The purpose is to keep our minds engaged, but I can easily imagine that we can lose our focus and end up half-learning many things rather than fully learning a few things.

I do recommend reading both of the articles, and coming to your own conclusions. I welcome hearing your comments and ideas here on the blog. Do you think the two methods contradict each other, or can they coexist?


Stan said...

While I have never been a serious enough musician to have had to practice like that, the premise of the first argument, that subconscious learning is still going on, seems strong, even if one tunes out and starts writing one's shopping list in one's min, or fantasizes being David Ortiz. Having said this, it's still worthwhile trying to keep the conscious mind interested in something so it will get exercise too, so I guess switching off both methods as you do would be pretty effective.

Joseph Lowry said...

Perhaps within the second method of alternating practice, it is still worthwhile to put aside some time to focus closely on one section, if only for the purpose of knowing what it is that you want to achieve with that section. An interesting idea.