Practice, practice, practice

So, I started writing this post while my son was practicing piano.  I’ve been trying to take it up a bit again myself.  I played from the ages of 8-18 and got pretty good.  The Rachmaninoff C# Minor Prelude is probably about as good as I got.  Now I’ve been working on Chopin’s C minor Prelude (“that super sad song you are always playing” as my wife calls it) as well as Pachebel Canon in D.  I gave Claire de Lune a shot, but it’s just too hard.  Clearly need to work up to that.

Back in the day, of course, we didn’t have any of the modern studies of learning to guide practice.  Now we do.  I’ve been trying to apply these to help my son with his practice and now mine, too.  If it’s good for learning political science (as I’ve been encouraging my students for years), surely, principles of interleaved practice, self-testing, etc.,  are good for learning piano music.

Anyway, did some google searching to see what I could find about the science of learning and piano practice and came across some interesting sites about learning music and the brain.

Christine Carter applies the “Make it Stick” principles to piano practice:

In the field of sport psychology, the continuous repetition discussed above is called blocked practice. In a blocked practice schedule, all repetitions of one activity are completed before moving on to a second activity. For example, a baseball player who must hit fifteen fastballs, fifteen curve balls, and fifteen change-up pitches in practice would complete all of the fastballs before moving on to the curve balls and so on. This most resembles the way the majority of musicians practice, especially when it comes to challenging passages. We work on one excerpt for a given amount of time and then move on to the next excerpt until all tasks for the day are complete. A blocked approach seems logical.  Muscle memory requires repetition and why wouldn’t we do all of the repetitions in a row? After all, if we are working on a difficult passage, it feels a lot more comfortable 10 minutes into practice than at the beginning. It is precisely this feeling of comfort and improvement that reinforces our reliance on blocked practice. The problem with this kind of practicing, however, is that the positive results we feel in the practice room today do not lead to the best long-term learning tomorrow. Practicing in a way that optimizes performance in the practice room does not optimize learning…

In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning. In the blocked schedule above, the baseball players must only construct the action plan for each type of pitch once, at the beginning of each block. In the random schedule, they must construct and later reconstruct an action plan fifteen times for each pitch. Although a blocked schedule may produce superior performance during practice, study after study has shown that a random practice schedule consistently produces superior retention following practice a day or more later (i.e., the amount actually learned). This phenomenon is called the contextual interference effect. [italics in original; bold mine]

Meanwhile, I also came across the benefits of learning music for your brain.  I had Evan read this one and will remind him when he’s being difficult about practicing:

A growing number of studies show that music lessons in childhood can do something perhaps more valuable for the brain than childhood gains: provide benefits for the long run, as we age, in the form of an added defense against memory loss, cognitive decline, and diminished ability to distinguish consonants and spoken words.

Not only that, you may well get those benefits even if you haven’t tickled the ivories, strummed the guitar, or unpacked your instrument from its case in years. And dividends could even be in store if you decide to pick up an instrument for the very first time in mid­life or beyond.

The reason is that musical training can have a “profound” and lasting impact on the brain, creating additional neural connections in childhood that can last a lifetime and thus help compensate for cognitive declines later in life, says neuropsychologist Brenda Hanna­-Pladdy of Emory University in Atlanta. Those many hours spent learning and practicing specific types of motor control and coordination (each finger on each hand doing something different, and for wind and brass instruments, also using your mouth and breathing), along with the music­-reading and listening skills that go into playing an instrument in youth, are all factors contributing to the brain boost that shows up later in life.

Oh, and enough on the ridiculous idea that anybody, with enough practice, can be a virtuoso.  So obviously not true.  Certain naturally talented people with enough practice can be truly great.  Love this headline, “What Do Great Musicians Have in Common? DNA.”  Scientific American:

But it gets more complicated. The new findings suggest that it’s the way our genes and environment interact that is most crucial to musical accomplishment. Not only do genetically-influenced qualities contribute to whether people are likely to practice, Hambrick’s data show that the genetic influence on musical success was far larger in those who practiced more. It was previously thought that people might start out with a genetic leg up for a particular activity, but that skill derived through practice could eventually surpass any genetic predilections. “Our results suggest that it’s the other way around,” explains Hambrick, “that genes become more, not less important in differentiating people as they practice…genetic potentials for skilled performance are most fully expressed and fostered by practice.”
In other words, people have various genetically determined basic abilities, or talents, that render them better or worse at certain skills, but that can be nurtured through environmental influences. Hence Hambrick is far from down on dedication: “If you want to be a better musician, practice! If you want to be a better golfer, practice!” …

It’s potentially unsettling that our abilities are so influenced by a genetic crapshoot. Some people people will always be maddeningly proficient at shredding through guitar solos, or blowing tubas, or winning amateur competitions at the Apollo Theater. But Hambrick sees his findings as constructive. If practicing our way to being just pretty good at something isn’t enough, we can better seek our strengths. More importantly we can avoid setting up unrealistic expectations for children: “I think it’s important to let kids try a lot of different things…and find out what they’re good at, which is probably also what they’ll enjoy. But the idea that anyone can become an expert at most anything isn’t scientifically defensible, and pretending otherwise is harmful to society and individuals.” [emphases mine]


Anyway, practice smartly (i.e., not blocked practice) to get better.  And you will get better.  But if you want to be a genius at something, that’s going to be pretty much up to your genes.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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