Have you ever wondered why the progress you made in the practice room seemed to disappear overnight? You spent hours the previous day to come as close as you could to perfection with that one segment of music, but today if feels like nothing really changed.
It feels like you‘re back to square one.
This frustration can sometimes make or break you during the learning process. So what are you suppose to do with this frustration? Is it just a reminder to be more patient?
Well, there is a different way of practicing that can help make your improvements more permanent. To make the most of your practice session, studies have proved that there is one simple change that can increase productivity - interleaved practice.
Block Practice vs Interleaved Practice
During the early stages of our music training, we are taught that repetition is the key to success. This is also known as block practice. The majority of musicians prefer to practice with the block method. It's more comforting and appears to be more rewarding because we work on one section of the music until we get it right.
But the problem with repeating a section of the music until you get it perfect is that our brain isn’t wired to learn that way.
Imagine for a moment that you are driving down the highway. Block practice is similar to setting your car on cruise control and zoning out because the experience remains constant.
It’s more likely that you will reach your destination without remembering much about the journey itself.
Interleaved practice is more like stop-and-go traffic. You stay engaged during the driving experience because you constantly need to adjust your driving style to the changing conditions, giving you the opportunity to improve your driving more than when you’re driving on cruise control.
The problem with block practice
Muscle memory relies on repetition and we repeat an action until we feel we have succeeded in our goal for the day. To hear improvement after practicing the same thing for 15 minutes gives us a sense of accomplishment.
And who doesn’t want this feeling? We all want to walk away from a practice knowing that we have spent our time wisely.
The reality is that, when it comes to practicing your instrument, the focus is mostly placed on time and on how many hours you spend in the practice room. Of course, there is no doubt about how important time is, but this method of practicing doesn’t improve your long-term learning.
Numerous studies have shown that there is progressively less brain activation when stimuli are repeated. New information is processed more than the information that is repeated. In other words, constant repetition bores our brain and we become less engaged than when receiving new information.
We often confuse boredom with the lack of concentration or attention, but it’s actually our brains telling us to shake things up a bit. And even though shaking things up during your practice session will appear confusing, it will improve your long-term memory.
Over time, block practice will produce superior performance during practice because you divide the piece of music into sections A, B, and C , and then repeating each section at 15 minutes or longer intervals.
But as you get more comfortable with each section, your brain activity is less and practicing needs less concentration.
Keep in mind that, when you start utilizing interleaved practice, you will most likely not see immediate results. But when you return to your next practice sessions, you will soon start to notice the overall improvements.
Why Interleaved Practice Works
With interleaved practice, musicians need to restart sections at shorter intervals. Due to the shorter intervals, this method doesn’t give you the opportunity to get used to one learning avenue like block practice does.
This challenge with interleaved practice is the exact reason why this method proves to be more effective in the long-term.
Study after study has shown that more mental activity leads to better long-term learning and memory. Therefore, switching up your ABC routine (for e.g. ABC, BCA and then CAB) with short 3-5 minute intervals encourages better learning ability and mental activity.
With the interleaved practice method, you return quickly to the one section after the other. These fast transitions force the brain to reconstruct a plan of action for what you're about to do next. It’s at this moment, while your brain tries to remember what needs to be done, that it’s the most active in aiding long-term learning.
In other words, by not allowing your brain to go on cruise control through repeating the same thing over and over, you are forcing yourself to stay alert. This alertness is what will give you the upper hand in remembering better.
How To Utilize Interleaved Practice
Rather than spending hours on perfecting one section of your music, choose a few sections or techniques that you would like to work on and alternate between them to keep your brain active.
If you want to spend a specific amount of time on one section, divide it into shorter segments and mix it up with other segments of music while ensuring that the final amount of time adds up to what you originally wanted to spend on that section. And if you are practicing shorter segments, try switching between them at a faster pace.
Changing between smaller sections will keep your brain processing at a faster rate and will guarantee better results.
If this seems too overwhelming for you, take it slow in the beginning. Start with a block practice and switch to the interleaved practice method at the end. As you get more comfortable, you can spend more time practicing with the interleaving method.
Don’t let the initial experience of feeling scatter brained stop you. Stick with it and you will soon see the results.
About the Author: Brian Collins
I am a classically trained singer who believes that every instrument requires maintenance - including the voice! I started my professional music studies at the age of 8 and competed in and won several local and state piano competitions. I graduated with honors and earned my Bachelor of Music Education in 2003, and since then I have studied with famous musicians and teachers around the world. I have also completed hundreds and hundreds of voice lessons, exploring various methods, and attended countless seminars on voice coaching for all ages.