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?