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3 Practice Hacks Boost Learning

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Have you ever been frustrated by the slow pace of progress in the practice room? Where you work diligently on a challenging passage until it sounds great, but discover the next day that the improvements didn’t stick?

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Studies of everything from rats running mazes to basketball players hitting free throws have demonstrated that many of our most common practice strategies help us sound better today, but tomorrow? Not so much.

Here are three ways to accelerate your learning and ensure that you get more out of the time you spend in the studio or practice or rehearsal room.

Strategy No. 1: Distributed Practice

Rather than practicing in one big chunk, space out your practice sessions over the course of a day.

A study compared the performance of individuals who practiced golf putts in one session of 240 putts vs. those who practiced in four sessions of 60 putts, and found a consistent performance advantage for the latter group 1, 7, and 28 days later.

Strategy No. 2: Variable Practice

Rather than practicing a passage in only one specific, rigid, and unvarying way, practice a wider range of possibilities that you might incorporate on stage—different nuances of shaping, articulation, pacing, dynamics, tempo, color, etc.

In one classic study, a group of individuals practiced throwing bean bags into a bucket three feet away, while another group practiced at two and four feet. Six weeks later, everyone was tested at three feet. Despite never practicing at three feet, the two- and four-foot group outperformed their three-foot counterparts, due to the more robust internal motor program created by their variable training.

Strategy No. 3: Interleaved Practice

Rather than allowing yourself to perfect an excerpt or passage before moving on to the next one, rotate among a few different passages every few minutes and keep coming back to each passage multiple times within the same practice session.

This is perhaps the most counterintuitive of the three strategies, but studies have found that, much as repeating a phone number over and over doesn’t embed it into long-term memory, repeating the same passage until it sounds better doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term improvements either.

Instead of practicing excerpt A for 15 minutes, B for 15 minutes, and C for 15 minutes, do A for 5 minutes, B for 5 minutes, and C for 5 minutes, repeat the cycle, and then repeat again. It’ll take the same total amount of time, but splitting the piece into smaller increments will force your brain to re-create the exact motor programs necessary for proper execution of each excerpt. This effortful recall is where deeper, long-term learning occurs. 

Find more tips on Noa Kageyama's blog, bulletproofmusician. For more strategies on accelerating your learning, read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning and The Talent Code.

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