The six practice strategies listed below come directly from the cognitive psychological scientists at LearningScientists.org. Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein hold doctorate degrees and have systematically applied current research on the brain and how it learns to the classroom setting.
I’ve taken their learning strategies one step further and applied them specifically to practicing an instrument. A good portion of the following paragraphs closely resemble their findings and I greatly appreciate their inspiration for this post!
The main point of their research is how the brain remembers best. It’s not through repetition nearly as much as through retrieval of information.
“Every time you leave a little space, you forget a bit of the information, and then you kind of relearn it. That forgetting actually helps you to strengthen the memory. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but you need to forget a little bit in order to then help yourself learn it by remembering again.”
-Weinstein from TheCultofPedagogy.com
You may find the list below validating like it was for me. I’ve encouraged most of these tactics for years and am thrilled that they are now scientifically proven to work thanks to Dr. Smith and Dr. Weinstein! Perhaps you’ll feel the same? Each strategy is first defined in the clinical terms found at TheLearningScientists.org. Next, you’ll read how I relate them to practice. I’ve also connected visuals to each strategy to help practicers understand and recall each one.
“Space out practice over the day instead of in one block of time. Forgetting and then relearning a piece over time strengthens your memory bank.”
How to apply this to practice: “Drive-by” or stop and practice before dinner, then “drive-by” again after dinner. Run through a couple of assignments before school and see what is remembered after school.
“While repetition is vital, research says we will actually learn that skill more effectively if we mix our practice of it with other skills. This is known as interleaving.”
How to apply this: Mix up assignments. After practicing a scale a few times, play a piece, then go back to the scale. Switching between tasks will help practicers to think more critically and will encourage them to give more thought before playing. Or, practice a piece, do some homework and then play the same piece to test reliability and accuracy.
“Practice bringing information to mind without the help of materials.”
How to apply this: Repetition of a piece digs a “rut” in the memory bank. To dig the rut deeper, put the book away and see how much can be recalled without looking. Remembering the piece without reading the score helps practicers learn more effectively and permanently. Avoid binge practice and instead, put away the score before it’s completely memorized. Later “drive by” and play it again and see if it can be played error-free the first time it’s played.
“Explain and describe ideas with many details.”
How to apply this: Get under the hood of a piece and discuss all the elements: form, key, chord progressions, dynamics, mood changes and any other details. Analyzing the nuts and bolts will boost the understanding of concepts and lock in memory anchors when retrieving a piece or definition of a term from the memory bank.
“Encourage students to pay attention to visuals and link them to the text by explaining what they mean in their own words. Then, students can create their own visuals of the concepts they are learning. This process reinforces the concepts in the brain through two different paths, making it easier to retrieve later.”
How to apply this to practice: Connecting the word and image of an apple which has two syllables and yet is one word explains the concept of two 8th notes sharing one beat. Learn more about how I connect rhythms to all kinds of fruits and vegetables in my Rhythm Produce Cards.
“Use specific examples to understand abstract ideas. In addition, help students extend their understanding by coming up with examples of their own.”
How to apply this: The D major chord uses a white key, then a black key and then a white key, just like this triple dip ice cream cone has a chocolate scoop in the middle of two scoops of vanilla. To extend their understanding, ask students to imagine the scoops of a C major triple dip ice cream cone. Or, if it’s tool cold for ice cream, all those flavors of Oreo cookies do the job, too.
I believe you’ll find these six tips incredibly helpful and encouraging as you train musicians to progress. As I wanted to share these strategies with my students with “concrete” explanations, I created a free printable infographic that will fit perfectly inside their practice pouches or wherever they want to store them. If you have students who favor binge practice, this scientific evidence about how the brain learns and retains information may help them turn from their default practice mode for good!
Feel free to share this post and the printable with your student families so they can support their practicers with methods that are backed by scientific research!
The other side of the printable includes a word cloud packed with practice tips and ideas. Follow this link to download the printable.
A big thanks to Dr. Megan Smith and Dr. Yana Weinstein for sharing their research and that of others in the field and making it applicable to learning and practicing.
May the year 2017 be packed with practice and progress in your music studio!
Information was used and inspired from articles found at both of these respected educational-based websites:
“Six Powerful Learning Strategies You Must Share with Your Students” http://cultofpedagogy.com/learning-strategies/
“Six Strategies for Effective Learning” http://www.learningscientists.org/downloadable-materials