8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently

violin-practice-Limassol8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently

by Noa Kageya­ma, Ph.D.

Synopsis
We’ve all heard the phrase “practice smarter, not harder,” but what does that really mean? What does “smarter” practice actually look like? A study of collegiate piano majors suggests that the key lies in how we handle mistakes.

As my kids were (begrudg­ing­ly) prac­tic­ing their Tae Kwon Do pat­terns not long ago, I caught myself telling my old­est that he had to do his pat­tern five times before return­ing to his video game.

My goal, of course, was not for him to sim­ply plod through the motions of his pat­tern five times like a pouty zom­bie, but to do it once with good form and com­mit­ment. But the par­ent in me finds it very reas­sur­ing to know that a cer­tain num­ber of rep­e­ti­tions has gone into some­thing. Beyond the (erro­neous) assump­tion that this will some­how automag­i­cal­ly solid­i­fy his skills, it feels like a path to greater dis­ci­pline, and a way to instill with­in my kids some sort of work eth­ic that will serve them well in the future.

It’s true that some degree of time and rep­e­ti­tion is nec­es­sary to devel­op and hone our skills, of course. But we also know on some intu­itive lev­el that to max­i­mize gains, we ought to prac­tice “smarter, not hard­er.”

But what does that real­ly mean any­way? What exact­ly do top prac­ticers do dif­fer­ent­ly?

Pianists learn­ing Shostakovich
A group of researchers led by Robert Duke of The Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin con­duct­ed a study sev­er­al years ago to see if they could tease out the spe­cif­ic prac­tice behav­iors that dis­tin­guish the best play­ers and most effec­tive learn­ers.

Sev­en­teen piano and piano ped­a­gogy majors agreed to learn a 3-mea­sure pas­sage from Shostakovich’s Piano Con­cer­to No. 1. The pas­sage had some tricky ele­ments, mak­ing it too dif­fi­cult to sight read well, but not so chal­leng­ing that it couldn’t be learned in a sin­gle prac­tice ses­sion.

The set­up
The stu­dents were giv­en two min­utes to warm up, and then pro­vid­ed with the 3-mea­sure excerpt, a metronome, and a pen­cil.

Par­tic­i­pants were allowed to prac­tice as long as they want­ed, and were free to leave when­ev­er they felt they were fin­ished. Prac­tice time var­ied quite a bit, rang­ing from 8 1/2 min­utes to just under 57 min­utes.

To ensure that the next day’s test would be fair, they were specif­i­cal­ly told that they may NOT prac­tice this pas­sage, even from mem­o­ry, in the next 24 hours.

24 hours lat­er…
When par­tic­i­pants returned the fol­low­ing day for their test, they were giv­en 2 min­utes to warm up, and then asked to per­form the com­plete 3-mea­sure pas­sage in its entire­ty, 15 times with­out stop­ping (but with paus­es between attempts, of course).

Each of the pianists’ per­for­mances were then eval­u­at­ed on two lev­els. Get­ting the right notes with the right rhythm was the pri­ma­ry cri­te­ria, but the researchers also ranked each of the pianists’ per­for­mances from best to worst, based on tone, char­ac­ter, and expres­sive­ness.

That led to a few inter­est­ing find­ings:

Prac­tic­ing longer didn’t lead to high­er rank­ings.
Get­ting in more rep­e­ti­tions had no impact on their rank­ing either.
The num­ber of times they played it cor­rect­ly in prac­tice also had no bear­ing on their rank­ing. (wait, what?!)
What did mat­ter was:

How many times they played it incor­rect­ly. The more times they played it incor­rect­ly, the worse their rank­ing tend­ed to be.
The per­cent­age of cor­rect prac­tice tri­als did seem to mat­ter. The greater the pro­por­tion of cor­rect tri­als in their prac­tice ses­sion, the high­er their rank­ing tend­ed to be.
The top 8 strate­gies
Three pianists’ per­for­mances stood out from the rest, and were described as hav­ing “more con­sis­tent­ly even tone, greater rhyth­mic pre­ci­sion, greater musi­cal char­ac­ter (pur­pose­ful dynam­ic and rhyth­mic inflec­tion), and a more flu­id exe­cu­tion.”

Upon tak­ing a clos­er look at the prac­tice ses­sion videos, the researchers iden­ti­fied 8 dis­tinct prac­tice strate­gies that were com­mon to the top pianists, but occurred less fre­quent­ly in the prac­tice ses­sions of the oth­ers:

1. Play­ing was hands-togeth­er ear­ly in prac­tice.

2. Prac­tice was with inflec­tion ear­ly on; the ini­tial con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the music was with inflec­tion.

3. Prac­tice was thought­ful, as evi­denced by silent paus­es while look­ing at the music, singing/humming, mak­ing notes on the page, or express­ing ver­bal “ah-ha”s.

4. Errors were pre­empt­ed by stop­ping in antic­i­pa­tion of mis­takes.

5. Errors were addressed imme­di­ate­ly when they appeared.

6. The pre­cise loca­tion and source of each error was iden­ti­fied accu­rate­ly, rehearsed, and cor­rect­ed.

7. Tem­po of indi­vid­ual per­for­mance tri­als was var­ied sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly; log­i­cal­ly under­stand­able changes in tem­po occurred between tri­als (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sec­tions cor­rect).

8. Tar­get pas­sages were repeat­ed until the error was cor­rect­ed and the pas­sage was sta­bi­lized, as evi­denced by the error’s absence in sub­se­quent tri­als.
The top 3 strate­gies
Of the eight strate­gies above, there were three that were used by all three top pianists, but rarely uti­lized by the oth­ers. In fact, only two oth­er pianists (ranked #4 and #6) used more than one:

6. The pre­cise loca­tion and source of each error was iden­ti­fied accu­rate­ly, rehearsed, and cor­rect­ed.

7. Tem­po of indi­vid­ual per­for­mance tri­als was var­ied sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly; log­i­cal­ly under­stand­able changes in tem­po occurred between tri­als (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sec­tions cor­rect; or speed­ed things up to test them­selves, but not too much).

8. Tar­get pas­sages were repeat­ed until the error was cor­rect­ed and the pas­sage was sta­bi­lized, as evi­denced by the error’s absence in sub­se­quent tri­als.
What’s the com­mon thread that ties these togeth­er?

The researchers note that the most strik­ing dif­fer­ence between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they han­dled mis­takes. It’s not that the top pianists made few­er mis­takes in the begin­ning and sim­ply had an eas­i­er time learn­ing the pas­sage.

The top pianists made mis­takes too, but they man­aged to cor­rect their errors in such a way that helped them avoid mak­ing the same mis­takes over and over, lead­ing to a high­er pro­por­tion of cor­rect tri­als over­all.

And one to rule them all
The top per­form­ers uti­lized a vari­ety of error-cor­rec­tion meth­ods, such as play­ing with one hand alone, or play­ing just part of the excerpt, but there was one strat­e­gy that seemed to be the most impact­ful.

Strate­gi­cal­ly slow­ing things down.

After mak­ing a mis­take, the top per­form­ers would play the pas­sage again, but slow down or hes­i­tate – with­out stop­ping – right before the place where they made a mis­take the pre­vi­ous time.

This seemed to allow them to play the chal­leng­ing sec­tion more accu­rate­ly, and pre­sum­ably coor­di­nate the cor­rect motor move­ments at a tem­po they could han­dle, rather than con­tin­u­ing to make mis­takes and fail­ing to iden­ti­fy the pre­cise nature of the mis­take, the under­ly­ing tech­ni­cal prob­lem, and what they ought to do dif­fer­ent­ly in the next tri­al.

The one-sen­tence sum­ma­ry
“Suc­cess does not con­sist in nev­er mak­ing mis­takes but in nev­er mak­ing the same one a sec­ond time.” -George Bernard Shaw

- See more at: http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/8_things_top_practicers_do_differently#sthash.v5UnTtsh.dpuf

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