This week’s blog is inspired by a presentation I attended at this year’s TMTA convention a couple of weeks ago in Waco. The presentation was given by Dr. L Scott Donald, who is a piano teacher in Austin, and he was speaking about repetition and effective practice skills for students. Now, everyone knows that a standard practice strategy is repetition- but what are its limits as far as being effective? Is it possible to have too much repetition when practicing? This relates to the question most parents ask me- how long should their child be practicing and how often?
According to motor skill acquisition research and cognitive psychology, we may be guilty of over use of repetition and that habituation (no longer paying attention) can occur with too much repetition. So first let’s talk about the two main types of practice involving repetition: blocked practice and interleaved/random practice. Blocked practice is repeating the same measure/line/piece multiple times in a row (ex: AAAAA, BBBBB, CCCCC), where as interleaved practice involves different segments repeated, but not in a row (ex: ABCABCABC or ABC BCA CBA). As a general rule, I ask my students to repeat a task anywhere from 3-5x, depending on passage length, and then move on to the next part of their assignment with the same repetition guidelines. If I ask them to play it more than that, I find that students burn out on the piece and the enjoyment is lost much quicker.
Dr. Donald proposed a few ideas on how to merge both blocked and interleaved practice to create the most efficient paradigm. To prevent burnout, it’s best to ask the student to practice shorter segments, and then alternate between segments- this could be as small as measures. To keep things interesting, ask the student to find different ways to practice the same segment: staccato vs. legato, forte vs. piano, slow vs. fast, etc. One of the most important that he mentioned was to make practicing goal oriented: did you achieve what you intended? I speak about this a lot with parents, in that it’s not necessarily about how long they sit at the piano to practice, but did they achieve the goal that we discussed at the lesson? And lastly, reinforce repetition by turning it into a game, especially for younger students. Dr. Donald’s presentation was in fact entitled: The Art of Repetition: How Beanie Boos Changed My Life. He uses 3 of them to turn practicing into a simple game: if you play the measure/line/passage correctly, a Beanie Boo sits up on the piano. The goal is to play it correctly 3 times to collect all the Beanie Boos, and then you play the passage a 4th time for your Beanie Boo audience. It’s a new spin on an old practice game called “penny practice”, but much more exciting. So if you walk into a lesson to find these guys pictured below on top of your piano, this is what we are doing!
So parents, if you are not sure if your child is practicing effectively or even what they are supposed to practice, always check their assignment sheet in their binder and feel free to ask your teacher questions. We would be happy to answer your questions on the first practice day, as we know it is much harder to fix something that was practiced incorrectly. Send your teacher a text with a picture or video if something is unclear. We want your practicing at home to be successful and effective!
If you are interested in learning more about effective practicing, please check out these resources:
Carter, Christine and Grahn, Jessica (August, 2016). Optimizing Music Learning: Exploring How Blocked and Interleaved Practice Schedules Affect Advanced Performance. Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 7.
Kageyama, Noa (September, 2014). Why the Progress You Make In The Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight. The Bulletproof Musician https://bulletproofmusician.com/why-the-progress-in-the-practice-room-seems-to-disappear-overnight/.