Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight

Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight
by Dr. Noa Kageyama 

Have you ever been frustrated by the fact that you can take a difficult passage, work on it for a bit, get it sounding pretty good, but return to the practice room the next day to discover that you’re back at square 1? That nothing has really changed? And despite how good it sounded yesterday, now it sounds just as bad as it did before you worked on it?

Most of us can live with “two steps forward, one step back.” It’s the “two steps forward, two steps back” that makes us want to tear our hair out.

So what are we to do?

Are we just supposed to keep at it and learn how to be more patient? Or is there a different way to practice that can make these improvements more permanent?

Enter Christine Carter

Dr. Christine Carter is a clarinetist who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music, and did her dissertation on the contextual interference effect – a phenomenon that can help you make your daily progress in the practice room actually stick. In this post, she shares a few suggestions on how we can make the most of our practice time.

Take it away, Christine!

Making the most of your hours in the practice room:

One simple change that could drastically increase your productivity

When it comes to practicing, we often think in terms of time: How many hours are necessary to achieve optimal progress? While this is a valid concern, a more important question is how we can make each hour count. What is the most efficient way to work so that what is practiced today actually sticks tomorrow? There is nothing more frustrating than spending a day hard at work only to return the next day at the starting line. Unfortunately, our current practice model is setting us up for this daily disappointment.

Repetition, babies, and brain scans

Early on in our musical training, we are taught the importance of repetition. How often have we been told to “play each passage ten times perfectly before moving on”? The challenge with this well-intentioned advice is that it is not in line with the way our brains work. We are hardwired to pay attention to change, not repetition. This hardwiring can already be observed in preverbal infants. Show a baby the same object over and over again and they will gradually stop paying attention through a process called habituation. Change the object, and the attention returns full force. The same goes for adults. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that there is progressively less brain activation when stimuli are repeated. The fact is, repeated information does not receive the same amount of processing as new information. And on some level, we all know this. Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged. But instead of listening to this instinctive voice of reason, we blame ourselves for our lack of attention and yell at ourselves to “focus!” Luckily, there is an alternative.

Blocked practice schedules

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.

Random practice schedules

What if we took the blocks of practice on particular tasks and broke them down into smaller segments on each task? In the baseball example above, the players could hit the three different types of pitches in an alternating fashion, instead of doing all of one kind in a row. Two breakdown options are a repeating order (e.g., abc abc abc…) or an arbitrary order (e.g., acb cba bca…). In either, the net result will still be 15 practice hits of each of the three types of serve, exactly the same as the net result in the blocked practice schedule. The only variable that changes is the order in which the pitches are practiced. This type of interspersed schedule is called a random practice schedule (also known as an interleaved practice schedule).

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.

How much better is a random practice schedule?

It turns out that the hypothetical baseball example used above is not hypothetical.  In a 1994 study by Hall, Domingues, and Cavazos, elite baseball players were assigned to either the blocked or random practice schedules discussed above. After twelve practice sessions, the baseball players in the random practice schedule hit 57% more of the pitches than when they started. The blocked group only hit 25% more of the pitches, meaning that the random practice schedule was almost twice as effective, even though the two groups hit the same number of practice pitches. Similar results have been found across a wide variety of fields. Most pertinent to our interests as musicians, my preliminary research at the Brain and Mind Institute in Canada provides empirical support for the use of a random practice schedule in music. Not only does this research suggest that a random practice schedule is more effective than a blocked schedule for practicing musical passages, participant interviews also reveal that random practice has positive effects on factors such as goal setting and focus.

How to use a random schedule in the practice room

Rather than spending long uninterrupted periods of time woodshedding each excerpt or section of a piece, pick a few passages you would like to work on and alternate between them. If you want to spend a total of 30 minutes on a particular excerpt, practice in shorter segments, continually returning to this excerpt until you have achieved your 30-minute goal. Experiment with lengths of time. If you are practicing excerpts that are very short, you may be able to switch between them at a faster pace than would be required for longer sections. You can use a small alarm clock to time specific intervals or switch after each repetition. At its most basic level, random practice might look like this:


Material to Practice

3 minutes Excerpt A
3 minutes Excerpt B
3 minutes Excerpt C
3 minutes Excerpt A
3 minutes Excerpt B
3 minutes Excerpt C

Practicing passages in different rhythmic variations is a great way of introducing contextual interference on a smaller scale. But instead of doing all rhythmic variations on a single excerpt before moving onto the next, do one variation on excerpt A, one on excerpt B and then return to excerpt A for a second variation etc. Technique can also be interspersed into the random schedule, instead of doing all of it in one long block. An example of a more complicated random practice session might look something like the following:


Material to Practice

2 minutes Long tone, scale, long tone, scale…
3 minutes Excerpt A (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Third progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio…
3 minutes Excerpt B (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Long tone, scale, long tone, scale…
3 minutes Excerpt A (using second rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Third progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio…
3 minutes Excerpt B (using second rhythmic variation)

The permutations are endless and the exact division of time is not important. What is crucial is that you are keeping your brain engaged by varying the material. More engagement means you will be less bored, more goal-oriented (you have to be if you only have 3 minutes to accomplish something), and substantially more productive. Most importantly, when you return to the practice room the next day, you can start from where you left off. This type of practice sticks.

Additional resources

Dr. Robert Bjork on the benefits of interleaving practice @ Go Cognitive (6-minute video)

About Dr. Christine Carter

Dr. Christine Carter is interested in how musicians can be more effective on stage and in the practice room. She has conducted research at a number of brain imaging and music psychology labs and is currently a visiting scholar at Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute.

Christine is also an active clarinetist. Performances have taken her around the globe, including venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, the ancient cloisters in Avignon France, the Sydney Opera House, the Heritage Theatre in rural Newfoundland, and a Baroque Palace in the South of Germany. She completed her Doctor of Musical Arts at Manhattan School of Music, where she now teaches the Woodwind Lab.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Asking The Right Questions

Asking The Right Questions

This week's faculty blog post comes from Assistant Professor of Music, Mr. Matthew Lau

In place of a one-size-fits-all platitude, it is my belief that the best advice is given from personal experience.  This blog post will offer a brief tale of how I learned to modify the questions I was asking to obtain better advice.

I moved to New York City fresh out of graduate school to start my career as an opera singer.  Though I quickly met many aspiring and working singers, I was annoyed that no one could tell me what the necessary steps were to begin my operatic career.
I approached every singer I met with a list of questions:

            1) How do I get a manager?
            2) How do I support myself until my music career takes off?
            3) What voice type do you think I am?
            4) Is life as a vocalist more rewarding than life as an instrumentalist?
            5) Am I good enough to make it?

Sadly, the more I asked, the more confused I became.

Despite the dearth of helpful advice I was able to support myself as a singer.  Yet these questions still plagued me until a chance encounter with Marilyn Horne.  Though likely paraphrased after all these years, I remember Ms. Horne to say, “My advice about advice?  Stop asking other people what you should do. Make your own mistakes.  Now, if you want to ask me about my own choices and how they affected my life, THAT I can answer.  If it rings true for you, use it.  If not, disregard it entirely.”

In the years that followed I asked for advice in a completely different way paying particular attention to tales of what each might do differently given another chance to do it all over again.  Instead of “Do I have to live in New York City?”   I asked, “How old were you when you moved to New York and was the transition an easy one?”   Instead of “Can I have a love life and a career in music?” I asked “How did you manage your love life with your career?” Instead of "With whom should I study?" or "Who is the best manager in town?"  I asked, "Who is your teacher and who is your manager and are you satisfied?"

The resulting stories helped give me the advice I sought and helped me feel less alone during the first years of my career.  One caveat, however: the new, more detailed responses were more helpful, but they were often contradictory.  In order to lend perspective, I found it paramount to keep in mind that each of us is shaped by his current life events.  If a singer responded to my relationship question with an angry or jaded viewpoint often there was a recent divorce framing his or her response. If my interviewing questions resulted in career war stories usually the interviewee was going through a rough time professionally.

Now that I have spoken about how I changed my questions, I would like to list some words of advice which greatly influenced my life.

Marilyn Horne, Mezzo-Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
My advice to you is to stop asking for advice and make your own mistakes.

Mistrust any advice from someone who tells you what you should be singing after just one hearing.

Frederica Von Stade, Mezzo-Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
Guilt.  The business and study of singing has more guilt attached to it than any other.  Like a game of hot potato each teacher and singer hands off his guilt to the next.  In order to be a successful singer you must learn how not to be crippled by this guilt.

Richard Leech, Tenor: Metropolitan Opera
The key to a successful career is effective pharmaceutical management.  Most singers at some point struggle with allergies or illness and a good doctor on speed dial is invaluable.

Ellen Shade, Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
Learn to talk about something OTHER than music.  When a group of singers get together inevitably the conversation turns to vocal technique, competitions, agents, or the music business.  If you're not careful you will expend all your energy in these conversations having nothing left for the real work that needs to be done.  Instead, seek out a good teacher, a good coach and a good manager. Trust their ears and their advice alone.  With everyone else, CHANGE THE SUBJECT!

Margaret Harshaw, Soprano: Metropolitan Opera
Music is the only lover that will never leave you.

Georges Janzer, Violist: VĂ©gh Quartet
When choosing between different career paths pay attention to how you spend your day.  If you look carefully you will notice a pattern which reflects your sincere interest.  Follow that as your guide regardless of family pressure or preconceived ideas and you will lead a happy life.

Gerry Bolfrass, Artist's Agent and Manager, New York City
You are ready for operatic management when you can articulate exactly which roles you are prepared to sing and where you feel you could be singing them right now.

Two Things Experts Do Differently Than Non-Experts When Practicing

Two Things Experts Do Differently Than Non-Experts When Practicing
This blog comes from Dr. Noa Kageyama, and his blog the Bulletproof Musician. A must read!

Have you ever found yourself awake at 2am, watching infomercials, wondering where they find those folks who can go from a size ten to a size four in eight weeks, throw out their fat pants, get engaged, and live happily ever after? (If not, you gotta check out these five all-time worst fitness infomercials – especially the Hawaii Chair, which you could totally use to tone your abs while you practice.)

I will admit that I’ve been tempted by the Bowflexes, Perfect Pushups, and various other devices, because the frustrating thing about working out, is that it’s hard to know if you are making the best use of your time.

I mean sure, doing something is better than doing nothing, but what if there’s another exercise routine that could be getting me far greater results in the same amount of time?

What do the fittest people do that I’m not? How are their workouts different? Are there key things they do while they’re working out that provide a bigger payoff than the things I do? In other words, are they extracting disproportionately greater results from their time in the weight room than I am?

The same can be said for the practice room. What do the best musicians do in the practice room? What do the less effective practicers do? Are there any differences?

Indeed, it appears that there are.

Best vs. worst

Two researchers from the City University of New York did a study of basketball players to see if they could discern a difference between the practice habits of the best free throw shooters (70% or higher) and the worst free throw shooters (55% or lower).

There were a number of differences, but it boiled down to two in particular.

Difference #1: Goals were specific

The best free throw shooters had specific goals about what they wanted to accomplish or focus on before the made a practice free throw attempt. As in, “I’m going to make 10 out of 10 shots” or “I’m going to keep my elbows in.”

The worst free throw shooters had more general goals – like “Make the shot” or “Use good form.”

Difference #2: Attributions of failure were specific

Invariably, the players would miss shots now and again, but when the best free throw shooters missed, they tended to attribute their miss to specific technical problems – like “I didn’t bend my knees.” This lends itself to a more specific goal for the next practice attempt, and a more thoughtful reflection process upon the hit or miss of the subsequent free throw. Far better than saying “I suck” or “What’s wrong with me?” or “Crap, I’m never going to get this.”

In contrast, the worst performers were more likely to attribute failure to non-specific factors, like “My rhythm was off” or “I wasn’t focused” which doesn’t do much to inform the next practice attempt.

It’s not what you know, but whether you use it

You might be thinking that perhaps the worst performers didn’t focus on specific technical strategies because they simply didn’t know as much. That perhaps the best performers were able to focus on technique and strategy because they knew more about how to shoot a free throw with proper form.

The researchers thought of this as well, and specifically controlled for this possibility by testing for the players’ knowledge of basketball free throw shooting technique. As it turns out, there were no significant differences in knowledge between experts and non-experts.

So while both the top performers and the worst performers had the same level of knowledge to draw from, very few of the worst performers actually utilized this knowledge base. Meanwhile, the best performers were much more likely to utilize their knowledge to think, plan, and direct their practice time more productively.

Take action

When you’re practicing something technical, try using more specific goals. But perhaps more importantly, pay attention to how you talk to yourself after mistakes. Do you focus on technique? Or throw out a few curse words and jump right into another practice attempt without trying to figure out why you missed the last one?

The one-sentence summary

“Without knowledge action is useless and knowledge without action is futile.” ~Abu Bakr