Using Interleaved Practice Strategies at the Piano

I have been hearing about interleaved practice for a good decade at this point, and while I often share this strategy for getting information to stick with my students, I wonder how often they use interleaved practice, and if they are going about it in a thoughtful way. There is a lot of research out there on interleaved practice, and much evidence to support using it as a strategy for learning. Here is an example from The Bulletproof Musician discussing research showing that while we prefer blocked learning, we learn better with interleaved practice. Basically, we feel more positively about blocked learning because the successive repetitions make us feel like we know the material better, even if the next day we will probably not remember it very well. Interleaved practice requires us to recall the material after taking a break from it. In order to do this, we have to actually know the material.

The mistake I think people might be making in employing interleaved practice is simply alternating between different tasks, but not really going through the difficult part of recalling before repeating. For example, you could alternate between two sections of a piece you are memorizing, thinking that you are being very wise using interleaved practice. It is very tempting to look at the score first, then play without looking (maybe only peeking a bit…), and assume that because you could kind of do it that you are effectively memorizing the passage. The step that is missing is the recall phase. The reason that you neglect the recall phase is that deep down, you know that you don’t really know the passage and fear the unknown amount of work you will have to do to really know it. I call this “learning resistant” behavior. Being learning resistant is not a good strategy for effective practicing! This behavior results in a huge amount of frustration when you come back to practice the same passages the next day thinking that you have them memorized, only to find that you have to start back at the beginning of the process because it didn’t stick. You then might resort to blocked practicing because you feel that interleaved practice didn’t work and you can’t trust it.

I divide practice tasks into the following categories: technical, interpretive, and presentation. Technical tasks involve mapping the choreography, building endurance, and improving tempo. Interpretive tasks involve anything that isn’t purely technical: sound, voicing, shaping, phrasing, timing. Presentation tasks synthesize technique and interpretation, and include memorization, recording/analyzing, doing research for a deeper understanding, and getting feedback from peers.

Using interleaved practice for technical tasks:

  • Set a timer to limit time spent on a passage that is physically demanding in order to reduce risk of injury.
  • Manage repetition as tempo is improved. To be most effective, spend time mentally practicing the passage in slow motion before repeating. I limit repetitions to 3-5 times per session.
  • Solidify tricky choreography. My difficulties tend to be places where the two hands share a line or part of the texture. Memory of what hand is responsible for what notes can be shaky. Very slow practice, and emphasis on mental play-throughs are crucial.

Using interleaved practice for interpretive tasks:

  • The two challenges are deciding what the intention is, and remembering to follow through. What tends to happen is a play-through, an evaluation of what was good and bad, and repetition. What is missing is conscious intention.
  • Once a rough outline of the interpretive choice is decided, follow these four steps: 1) say the plan out loud, 2) do a mental play-through, 3) do a physical play-through, 4) evaluate, refine the plan, and repeat the steps.

Using interleaved practice for presentation tasks:

Memorization:

  • Use a timer to avoid spending too long at one task. The more we repeat in one session, the more likely we will trick ourselves into thinking we know it. The secret is to have many opportunities to recall the passage without prior repetition.
  • Try these steps: 1) choose a short passage that you can play, 2) study it for one minute without playing, 3) close the score (don’t tell yourself that you won’t peek, because you will) and play the passage the best that you can, 4) take notes on the information you are missing, 5) choose one of the missing bits of information (very important not to be tempted to stuff more than one piece of information into your brain here) and learn it in whatever way you think is best , 6) close the score again, do a mental play-through, followed by a physical play-through, 7) repeat steps 4-7.
  • Balance proximity of repetitions with distance. If you play the piece everyday, you will confirm your memory, but it may not be possible to maintain this consistency, especially if you are balancing a large amount of music. Taking a couple of days away from the piece and then playing it with no preparation will inform you much better about what information is missing.

Recording/Analyzing:

  • For repertoire in the polishing phase, set up the practice session with several short segments devoted to this piece. Use a session for technical tasks, a session for interpretive tasks, and a session for memory if applicable. Follow up with a recording/analyzing session. The next time practicing this repertoire, review notes from the recording before repeating the whole process.

I think that interleaved practice can be used both in the short-term, and in long-term planning. I use short-term interleaved practice nearly every practice session. This keeps my brain fresh as I navigate between different kinds of problem solving, and makes the practice session seem shorter as well as more productive. In the long-term, I use it to alternate between different kinds of practice sessions. I get burnt out if I employ the same routine day after day, and alternating between practice sessions with different intentions helps maintain my interest and curiosity.

How do you use interleaved practice in your musical pursuits or other areas of study?

Slowly, patiently, and one step at a time

I have recently taken up the habit of walking our old yellow lab Lucy in the evenings. When Lucy was younger, she pulled horribly on the leash and always had to be out front, but now at 15 years, she is a much more companionable walking partner. I run for fitness (and sanity), and have run quite a few marathons, so I am used to checking my pace and challenging myself when I go out on the trail. Lucy is not in it for fitness. She is in it for the experience. She is incredibly slow, and amazingly thorough in her sniffing of every footprint in the snow and every mailbox. She is also completely impervious to the cold weather, stopping to sniff the air for minutes at the coldest, windiest points on the walk, as I stand there shivering.

While I have always prided myself on my patience, the lessons Lucy has to teach on these walks are beyond anything I have learned about patience through practicing or teaching piano. Here is some wisdom gleaned from Lucy that I am trying to take into the practice room and the teaching studio:

When we go slowly, we observe more deeply.

When we go slowly, we allow the experience to affect us.

When we stop, we are able to take in the moments.

When we stop, we can feel gratitude just for existing.

When we endure, we build resilience.

We will get there eventually.

Thanks, Lucy.

Using visual art to aid memorization

Memorizing solo piano music is one of the most tedious tasks I can think of. While I love the feeling of performing confidently from memory, this process can take awhile and taxes my patience. I have several favorite go-to tools for memorization, especially having helped many students with the process, but today I dug one out that I haven’t used in awhile: creating an “artistic” representation of a piece. I have my accidental sketchbook practice journal to thank for this idea.

This particular piece, No. 8, from Lera Auerbach’s 24 Preludes, has been tricky to grasp. Not only is the harmonic style a bit outside, incorporating unusual scale forms, but because of the constant sweeping scales and arpeggios, each measure takes up a lot of space, and it is difficult to see whole phrases because one phrase may take up several pages. I thought that it would help to be able to “see” the whole piece on one page.

Opening up my watercolor markers, I started swooping and slashing, trying to choose colors that intuitively spoke to me as representative of the harmonic and textural material in each phrase. The result is not pleasing from an artistic perspective- I am not equipped to make visual art; but, it does show the phrases, form, range, rhythm in an abstract way. As I work on solidifying the memorization, I will be able to use this page to jog my memory, filling in details as more connections are made. What I really like about this process is that it breaks me out of routine thoughts and encourages different ways of sensing and recalling the music.

In the name of vulnerability, I will bravely post my “art” below. If you like, follow the “score” while listening to Lera Auerbach perform the prelude. (Begin at 3:55) Be kind, please, and happy practicing!

Prelude No. 8 from 24 Preludes by Lera Auerbach

My favorite tips for taking practice breaks

When I was 18, it seemed like I could practice piano for hours without needing a break. Who knows how effective that kind of practice actually was (probably less than I thought at the time). As a more mature, and hopefully smarter practicer now, I find that scheduling breaks into my practice helps refocus, reenergize, and most importantly gives my body and brain a needed respite from solving problems. Here are some suggestions for how to spend this valuable time so you can optimize the time spent devoted to music:

  1. Take a total break. Set an alarm, find a cozy and warm place to doze off, and close your eyes. I find this kind of break to be most effective in the late afternoon when I am already getting a bit tired. Just a tiny cat-nap can be exactly the right thing for regaining focus.
  2. Take a walking break. A brisk 5-10 minute walk outside is especially refreshing if I’ve been stuck inside my windowless office for too long. If it’s cold outside, I heat up water for tea before I bundle up.
  3. Take a stretching break. I take multiple short stretch breaks during most practice sessions. Depending on how my body is feeling, I will focus on full body, shoulders and neck, arms and wrists, or hips. A couple of minutes doing a sun salutation series, or even just resting in wide-leg child’s pose does wonders. This routine from Yoga With Adrienne is great for shoulder and neck tension: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SedzswEwpPw
  4. Take a breathing break. Close your eyes and breath slowly for 2-3 minutes if you are feeling anxious. For reenergizing, breath quickly in and out of your nose for 10 seconds, relax for 10 seconds, and repeat a few times.
  5. Take a mind-emptying break. Take a few minutes and write down all of the great ideas, questions, discoveries, tasks to do, or anything else that popped up during the practice session.
  6. Take a humor break. This is especially helpful if I’m feeling frustrated or overwhelmed during practice. Humor has been proven to heighten persistence! My go-to humor sources are The Onion, or videos of cats in compromising situations. If I can laugh out loud I feel even more refreshed.

Things I try to avoid doing during a practice break:

  1. Checking email and social media accounts. This will only serve to knock me out of the practice zone and make me feel anxious. Unless I am expecting a life or death message, I keep my phone on airplane mode throughout the practice and break.
  2. Continuing to practice by using the time to analyze, do mental practice, or read. My brain and eyes need a true break.
  3. Talking with colleagues, students, or family members. Sometimes this is difficult to avoid, but often these conversations derail the practice session by initiating some new urgent to-do.
  4. Using my computer, phone, or anything that will tax my neck, shoulders, and arms.
  5. Listening to music. My ears need a break as well.

What types of practice breaks work best for you? Do you schedule breaks, or do you wait until you receive signals from your body and brain that you need one? Do you have favorite stretches, meditations, or other routines?

I hope you find this helpful, and Happy Practicing!

I should read more biographies.

I just finished Alan Walker’s epic biography of Chopin a couple nights ago. It had stood dutifully by my bedside for almost two years, and took at least two tries to finish. I don’t typically reach for biographies, preferring to escape into fiction and the occasional self-improvement manual, and biographies of composers feel a little too close to work to qualify as relaxation. This book held a lot of sway for me, though, and I will not be surprised if more biographies find their way to my nightstand.

There is so much to admire in this work. First, there is the scholarship. Every detail is scrupulously attended to, and the trust that is built through this process cannot be underestimated. I was hanging on every word in every footnote. Second, there is a seamless weaving of the biographical facts with the music, with the historical and political context. Walker really puts the reader into the world of 1830’s-40’s Paris, and sets the imagination on fire with descriptions of the settings in which this beloved music was first heard. Third, there is no flowery rhapsodizing. I love Walker’s sharp wit, and his ability to parse mythology (and there are so many myths regarding Chopin!) from fact. He also succeeds in exposing some of the less savory aspects of a human who was definitely far from perfect, without ever approaching the tipping point where we lose empathy. This is miraculous!

I probably haven’t played as much of Chopin’s music as I should. Reading this book brought back all kinds of first experiences as a student. In middle school, I played waltzes, nocturnes, mazurkas, and etudes. In high school, I played the G Minor Ballade (obsessively), and a handful of other pieces. Throughout college, I only played two works that I can recall: the glorious D-flat Major Nocturne, and the F Minor Ballade (the second-most nasty coda in my repertoire, Schumann Fantasy mvmt II being first). Considering I was in school for more than a decade, this seems like a big drought of Chopin! As a professional, I have programmed his music a few times, but not frequently. Right now, I’m enjoying working on four of the Preludes I have never played or taught as part of a program of 24 Preludes by various composers. This biography makes me regretful that I haven’t studied more works, but hungry to learn more. I see the Cello Sonata, a Mazurka or two, and a Scherzo in my future.

What is the optimal tidy/messy threshold for productive and creative work?

This is the view from the piano today.

Shockingly chaotic, but not really my fault unless you count the fact that I brought four boys into the world, and these boys, now adults, have a very fun time together. After a month of holiday frivolity and debauchery, the two middle sons are en route to their schools out of state, and the house has been left much like a frat house the day after Homecoming. The more judging types might suggest that I should have done a better job raising them to be tidy, respectful of property, civilized in speech, and quiet. My answer is that not even a mother can hold back the tide, especially if that tide consists of a synth, guitar, bari sax jam accompanied by the most enthusiastic of drum set players. I am in no way regretful for this wealth of time with my boys, especially in 2020-2021, but the view from the piano must change soon. I can’t work very well under these conditions.

I’m definitely not a neat-freak. I would describe my organizational style as a nest approach. This is probably a habit picked up from when I was attached to the sofa nursing infants, but still somehow had to practice, study, and make a living through graduate school. I would set up my nest with piles of books, scores, notes, manuscript paper, cd liner notes, snacks, and tea all within reach and not requiring two hands to manipulate, as one hand seemed to always be occupied with a kid. Today, even though I no longer have to nurse infants, I have various nesting areas placed around the house. This became even more evident when I was working exclusively from home in Spring 2020. I like this way of working, as it feels like I’m settling cozily into the task at hand. I can relax, let my guard down, and let the work flow. My piano nest usually contains a black 3-ring binder where I do most of my score work, my practice journal, a set of colored pens, a pencil, a stack of scores and books of peripheral interest, and a beverage according to mood. I turn my phone to airplane mode so I can use it as a timer and metronome without being interrupted, and I get to work.

For me, a mildly untidy workspace is optimal. If it is too clean, I have a hard time relaxing, even to the point of obsessing over what things might be out of place. If it is too chaotic, I feel overstimulated and can’t easily settle down to work. During my practice breaks today, I chipped away at the chaos, enlisting the one lucky remaining son to move the drums and amps down to the basement jamming room. I tidied up the nest area, too, shunting the extra scores that have accumulated over break to a pile that will go back to school. It hasn’t approached that sweet spot just shy of tidy, but at least I don’t have to look at Benedict Cumberbatch in a Christmas Tree hat.

Do you have optimal conditions for practicing or other creative work? Are there any fellow nesters out there? What do you do when family or other factors take control of your workspace?

New Year, New Practice Journal

I have kept a practice journal ever since I made the realization that practicing was a serious pursuit. I must have been 15 or 16 at the time, and just beginning to self-guide my musical development. I think that all successful musicians reach a point where they realize that they can’t rely on their teacher to solve all of their problems, and that nobody is going to make sure they achieve their goals except themselves. At this point, they become their own teacher and now have the responsibility of goal setting, problem solving, and assessing growth. A practice journal is a natural tool for this, and in my experience, improves creativity, productivity, focus, and most importantly ownership of the learning process.

I love the possibilities that arise with beginning a new journal at the new year. Not only does it feel fresh and new, but there is some time before the semester starts to implement good habits and try out some new ways of thinking. As 2020 came to an end, I spent some time reading through my practice journal, noting the highs and lows, keeping routines that work effectively, and discarding those that don’t.

Through the years, I have tried many different formats for my practice journal, and have made the following conclusions:

  • A handwritten format is best for creating meaningful journal entries. While electronic formats are convenient and come with built in practice trackers and metronomes, etc., they feel too transitory.
  • A less-fancy notebook is better than a fancy one. I like a notebook that looks nice, but that I wouldn’t feel terrible if I spilled coffee on it.
  • Less structure is better than more. A great practice should feel like it builds on established habits while giving free rein to exploration. If the journal is too prescriptive, creativity can be stifled.
  • Tracking, while satisfying in its way, is not the point of a practice journal. The journal should focus much more on discovery and reflection than on achievement.
  • The journal should induce a sense of calm curiosity. Different colored pens and chaotic entry styles distract from the content.
  • Practice time is precious. The journal should not take up so much time that actual practice is compromised. If the journal isn’t saving time by making you more productive, it is convoluted.

For this year’s journal, I have elected to use a sketchbook format. This is a happy accident, as I meant to pick out a lined notebook, but neglected to pay attention at the store and ended up with a sketchbook. I nearly returned it, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the malleability of a completely blank page.

While I have used aspects of bullet journaling for years in my personal journal, I have never incorporated these into my practice journal. The flexibility of this organizational system is ideal for what I have in mind for this year’s practice journal. Here is how I set it up:

  • Number the pages
  • Designate the first few pages for a Table of Contents
  • Create a “Future Log”- space for each month (I used a quarter page), space for next year divided into quarters, and space for as many years as I want to plan ahead. (I went up to 2026.) These pages are used to track calendar items and benchmarks.
  • 1 page for 2020 Review
  • 1 page for 2021 Goals- I keep these pretty broad, with a mix of specific performance goals, and more growth based goals. I expect to add more as the year progresses.
  • 1 page for 1st Quarter Goals (January 1-March 31)
  • 1 page for January Goals
  • 1 page for Week 1 Goals
  • At this point, I use a template for each practice session.
    • Date, time, and how long I intend to practice.
    • 3 questions or problems I will explore during this session.
    • 3 specific goals for repertoire, technique, or musicianship. This might be more or less depending on how long the session is. 3 is a good number for me given 2 hours to work.
    • A description of the process. This is usually a warm-up, followed by 15-20 minute segments of practice alternating between the questions/goals, interspersed with 3-5 minute active breaks. I usually designate a cool-down activity like improvisation, sight-reading, or revisiting a favorite piece. Ending with positivity is important!
    • Space for noting discoveries. I try to fill this up during the session.
    • Space for questions. I write these down as soon as they pop into my head. If this space isn’t full by the end of the session, I spend some time coming up with more questions. I can then use these questions to help form the next practice session.
    • Space for capturing negative thoughts. This might be self-talk, excuses, egotistic bs, etc.

At the end of the week, I take time to read and reflect on the week’s entries. I review the week, month, quarter, and year goals to make sure I’m on track, and to adjust as necessary. Next I set goals for the next week, and the process repeats itself. Once the month is at an end, I will reflect on January and create goals for February. At the end of March, I will reflect on the 1st Quarter and create goals for the 2nd Quarter.

Other tasks I use my journal for:

  • Taking notes on performances, lectures, masterclasses, books, or articles.
  • Creating templates or workflows for analysis, practice structure, or performance routines.
  • Lists: quotations, music I want to learn, books I want to read.
  • Creative distractions like poetry or sketches.

If you keep a practice journal, I would be curious to know how you use it. Have you found that your process has evolved as you have matured? How has journaling effected your practice habits?

How does vulnerability figure into effective practice?

Thanks to BrenĂ© Brown, it seems like the word “vulnerability” is everywhere. I am a recent convert to her podcast “Dare to Lead,” and find much there that applies to my life as a teacher in higher ed, but also so much that relates to life as a female professional. If you haven’t checked it out yet, do it now! https://open.spotify.com/show/3oEPsPKDhPVoNNL7pH5db6?si=bmlx1nxoTby_cjhH4qalAw

This emphasis on vulnerability leads me to question what this could mean in the practice room. Can the practice of vulnerability make us more courageous and less vulnerable to mishaps on stage? If cultivating vulnerability helps people to be better leaders, can it help a person lead themself more effectively in the practice room?

Why is Vulnerability Difficult to Cultivate for Musicians?

Musicians spend most of their time in the practice room trying to eliminate vulnerability. The goal is to make difficult things look easy so that an audience member can gain optimal communication from the stage, while experiencing awe in the face of flawless execution. Having experienced enough criticism, some well-meant, and much of it mean-spirited, musicians know better than to allow themselves to appear as anything other than perfect. We equip ourselves with layer upon layer of armor to achieve this end, but in the process we risk becoming inauthentic and mechanical. In really free, open-hearted moments, we may give our most honest selves to the audience, but in my experience, this is a rarity. How can we practice so that these moments occur more frequently, and how can we incorporate the practice of vulnerability into our routines?

This might be a dumb question, but…

This is a phrase I have real difficulty with, in fact I’m pretty sure I have never had the nerve to utter it. Taking the risk of asking a question that might expose ones ignorance is a raw display of vulnerability. Admitting that you don’t already know something, or that you are unsure of the next step is hard, especially if you are a seasoned professional. We live in a culture where “fake it until you make it” is an accepted adage. It’s not really effective in the practice room, as it results in a scaffolding of dishonesty of the worst kind- the kind where you lie to yourself. Yes, we have to exhibit some confidence in order to move forward, but we would be better off asking more questions rather than confirming our knowledge (especially when that knowledge may be incorrect). A veneer of confidence with little to back it up betrays us on stage when we confront the fact that we didn’t ask enough questions in the preparation stage.

In the lesson setting, I give my students many opportunities to ask questions. I encourage them to write down their questions before they come to the lesson, and I always end the session with one more chance to ask questions. With few exceptions, students rarely come to the lesson with prepared questions. When they do, there is a flip from a teacher-driven session, to a student-driven session. This is always more productive. Rather than guessing what the problems are, I can target them easily. The last-chance question session rarely gets any response. Usually the student will cop out, and say something like ” I just need to practice it more.” I think that if students honed their question asking skills more in the practice room, they would ask more meaningful questions in the lesson, and would be more willing to display vulnerability in front of their teachers.

Things I’m going to try:

  • Begin the practice session by writing down 3 things I don’t know, or 3 problems I haven’t solved.
  • Keep track of self-armoring thoughts during the practice session, especially excuses and confirmation bias.
  • Write down at least 3 discoveries I make during the practice.
  • End the practice session by writing down 3 questions I have for tomorrow.
  • At least once per week, ask a colleague a “dumb” question.

If you feel moved to try some of these ideas, I would love to know how they affected your practice. Happy Practicing!