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.

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!

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!