GUEST POST: Practice Strategies for Musicians Based on the Science of Learning

GUEST POST: Practice Strategies for Musicians Based on the Science of Learning

by Leila Viss

Leila Viss uses innovative, tech-savvy lesson plans to develop lifetime pianists at her independent, creative-based piano studio. Viss holds a church organist position, blogs at 88pianokeys.me, writes a column called “Teaching with Apps” for Clavier Companion and authored The iPad Piano Studio. With Bradley Sowash, she co-founded 88 Creative Keys workshops and webinars, which help pianists teach and play more creatively. You can find her on Twitter at @clviss.

Over the past couple of weeks, Science teacher Naomi Hennah, @MrsHennah, explored how she uses effective learning strategies in her chemistry classes (Part 1 & Part 2); and prior to that, RE teacher Dawn Cox, @MissDCox, described her school’s approach to integrating cognitive science into teaching. In this guest blog post, we continue the series with another subject: music.

Sharing the love of music through a successful and confident performance is a primary goal of instrumentalists. In preparation for this goal, musicians must master various fine motor, aural, visual and processing skills. One of the best ways to measure that mastery is through practicing and monitoring errors. Few or zero errors demonstrates that practice is making a difference.

Working as a team, teachers and students can identify and isolate specific areas and determine goals to master each week between lessons. For example, an achievable task might mean selecting a piece or portion of it and choosing one or more of the following objectives:

  • Use correct fingering
  • Play all pitches correctly
  • Play all rhythms correctly
  • Play all dynamics correctly
  • Play all articulation correctly
  • Play all of the above in one steady tempo
  • Play all of the above with complete accuracy

This list could be expanded to more interpretive details such as

  • Soften the ends of all slurs
  • Use a wrist bounce on all staccatos
  • Shape each musical phrase with a crescendo and diminuendo

Clarifying specific goals to reach and using the learning strategies found here at LearningScientists.org helps students and teachers measure and monitor progress. As a piano teacher, I’ve instinctually implemented most of these learning strategies for years and am thrilled that there is now scientific evidence behind them! I first came across the strategies on this Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. Because of Jennifer Gonzales @cultofpedagogy, I learned of this site, so her article and podcast were important to my thoughts on this topic.

Below are descriptions of how I morphed the 6 learning strategies into specific practice strategies. Let me stress the importance of clarifying objectives at every lesson and prior to every practice session. This will make for the most efficient use of practice time and cut down on errors, which shows progress. It’s all about practicing smarter – not harder!

Spaced Practice

Space out practice over time instead of in one block of time. Forgetting and then relearning a piece over time strengthens your memory of it.

How to apply this to practice:

1)  "Drive-by" or stop and practice a piece before dinner, then "drive-by" and play it again after dinner with the aim of playing it error-free.

2) Select a piece, and locate and play any or all the tricky measures with zero errors. Then, walk away and later play the entire piece, aiming to play all the tricky sections with no mistakes.

3) Play through all assignments before school and see what is remembered after school; drill sections that were not secure. The next morning, play through all assignments one time and aim to play all sections that were drilled the day before with zero errors.

4) The evidence that building strong memories requires a "struggle" and some forgetting stresses the importance of avoiding “binge practice” - a favorite of many musicians.

Image courtesy of Leila Viss at 88 Piano Keys Studio

Image courtesy of Leila Viss at 88 Piano Keys Studio

Interleaving

While repetition is vital, research says we will actually learn a skill more effectively if we mix our practice of it with other skills. This is as known interleaving.

How to apply this to practice:

1) When practicing scales, don’t play the same scale over and over – go back and forth between different keys. Switching between keys will feel harder and you might make more mistakes, but this will lead to greater learning.

2) Mix up assignments. After practicing a scale with attention to correct fingering, play a piece, then go back to the scale and aim for correct fingering.

3) Switching between tasks will encourage you to think about how to complete each assignment and encourage more attention to specific goals before playing.

Retrieval

Practice bringing information to mind without the help of supporting materials.

How to apply this to practice:

1) Repetition of a tricky passage can help eliminate difficulty; however, mindless repetition may only lead to temporary mastery. Limit repetition of a passage to three times. To keep the mind engaged, on the third repetition, set a goal to play it with zero errors. In other words, try to practice only when your attention is engaged, and stay away from mind-numbing repetitions.

2) When memorizing a piece, use spaced practice combined with interleaving. After you review a piece with the book, complete another task, then go back to the piece and see how much you can retrieve without looking at the score. Playing the piece without looking will show what has been memorized and what needs to be reviewed. In addition, trying to remember the music from memory will actually cause learning. Afterwards, referencing the score for feedback will refresh your memory of the parts you couldn’t remember, and make it more likely that you will remember them the next time you try to play the piece from memory.

3) Beginning at the end can help to solidify the last section of the piece, which is often not as strong as the beginning. Play the last measure, then play the measure before that and the last measure. Keep following this routine adding a new measure each time. Every time a new measure is added, it tests retrieval of the last measures and thus builds more reliable retrieval.

4) The above steps can also be applied when playing by ear. Instead of consulting the score, refer to recordings instead to get your feedback.

Image courtesy of Leila Viss at 88 Piano Keys Studio

Image courtesy of Leila Viss at 88 Piano Keys Studio

Here is a game I came up with that builds a strong retrieval system with the help of a die:

  1. Divide a music score up into six sections and label each section with a number 1-6. 
  2. Roll a die for a number. Say it lands on the number four. 
  3. Locate the section labeled “four" in the score. 
  4. Roll the die again and say it lands on the number three. 
  5. Section four must be played three times and the third time must be error-free or played from memory.
  6. Roll again for the next section and repeat steps 2-6.

The randomness that the die provides and the pressure to get it right after a limited amount of repetitions makes for an engaging practice session!

Elaboration

Explain and describe ideas with many details.

How to apply this to practice:

1) Before learning a new piece, study the score and get “under the hood” by identifying elements such as:

  • Form
  • Key signature
  • Scale
  • Chord progressions
  • Dynamics
  • Mood changes
  • Any other relevant details of the score

Talking through and marking details in the score prior to sight reading a piece promises fewer errors as it encourages anticipation and preparation for what's to come.

2) Analyzing the nuts and bolts of a piece will boost the understanding of the composer's intentions and create memory cues that will be useful when memorizing a piece.

3) Improvising within the chord progression borrowed from a piece that is being learned takes the elaboration strategy one step further. This creative process demonstrates the understanding of a concept in the mind as well as the hands.

Dual Coding

Encourage students to pay attention to visuals and link them to the text by explaining what they mean in their own words. Then, students can create their own visuals of the concepts they are learning. This process reinforces the concepts through two different paths, making them easier to retrieve later.

How to apply this to practice:

1) To communicate music, we hear a sound and assign a symbol to it. For example, when a beat is heard and played, it is associated with a quarter note. This considerably complex system of note values is further complicated by unique symbols for longer and shorter durations. That's when dual coding is invaluable. Connecting the word and image of an apple – which has two syllables and yet is one word – explains the concept of two eighth notes sharing one beat.

Image from Pixabay edited in Canva

Image from Pixabay edited in Canva

2)  For younger children, linking a high pitch to something familiar like a tweet of a bird or squeak of a mouse with visuals of these animals helps secure comprehension. Describing how a low pitch sounds with images of a growling bear and even a stuffed animal will reinforce the contrasting concept.

3) There's no easy way to describe moods in music, so it's essential to relate sounds through words as well as images and color. For example, listening to a minor piece like "Moonlight Sonata" may evoke a dark color like maroon, images of a night time scene, or even a sad emoji.

There are no right or wrong applications of the examples above. The option to explore personal connections with concepts like duration, pitch, and mood helps to solidify understanding.

Concrete Examples

Use specific examples to understand abstract ideas. In addition, help students extend their understanding by coming up with examples of their own.

How to apply this to practice:

1) On the piano keyboard, the D major chord uses a white key, then a black key, and then a white key, just like this triple dip ice cream cone has a chocolate scoop in the middle of two scoops of vanilla. To extend understanding, imagine the C major chord with three scoops of vanilla.

Image from Pixabay edited in Canva

Image from Pixabay edited in Canva

2) An interval is the distance between two keys. Comparing them to shoes can be helpful as shoes, too, come in various sizes and quality. For example, a second is a small interval and can be major or minor just like shoes can come in small sizes in different materials and colors.

3) Musical compositions are organized into sections. Reinforce listening and form identification skills by designating specific moves to a section – just like in this video:

It takes dedicated teachers and students to make progress and to build confident performing skills on a musical instrument. Clarifying objectives and then designing daily practice time around strategies that eliminate errors and meets those objectives makes practice much more efficient and fun! The quality of practice far outweighs the importance of quantity. It’s a no-brainer.


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