Sunday 14 August 2022

How To Practise an Instrument - or, How Not to Waste your Time

All musicians will agree that the most important part of learning to play an instrument is the time spent practising. Without practice, there is no improvement. The most effective pedagogical methods and studies have been established for many years. There may be occasional changes in fashion, or the effect of a particularly influential educator, but in general this is a constant. When you learn an instrument, there is a way mapped out for you which will take you seamlessly from beginner to virtuoso.

What has changed dramatically is our understanding of what makes effective, efficient practice. Keeping in mind the single-minded commitment that is required to learning an instrument and the number of hours involved, it would clearly be sensible to make full use of the up-to-date view on this, so that great chunks of valuable time are not simply wasted. The student may know what to practise, but may well have given insufficient thought to how.

The precious resource that we have which wasn't available to us twenty years ago, or even ten, is an understanding of how the brain participates in our practice efforts and it is this that can provide some  stunning insights, which once gleaned will change your attitude to practice in major ways. The second area that we can consider in relation to modern times is the question of motivation.

But first, what is the brain up to when we learn. It's a common understanding that as you learn a new skill the brain is forming new neural pathways, is growing. What we want is to ensure that those pathways are the ones that we want, the right-way-to-do-it pathways, rather than the-wrong-way-to-do-it ones.

If a neural pathway is unused for a period of time then the brain will remove it. If it is in regular use, then it will be reinforced until it becomes what we experience as instinctive. Clearly, we want to create and stregthen the wanted pathways and we want to eliminate the 'wrong' ones.

Two methods of practice that are exceptionally common - and I think you may well recognise them in your own routine - are as follows. In a passage of music, or a study, you make a mistake in a particular bar. It may be intonation, or a position shift, for example. One approach is to make the mistake, then go back to the beginning of the piece and try again. The second approach is to play the mistake, then fix it, then play on.

Both of these approaches are the cause of even more difficulty. When you play the bar in question correctly, the correct pathway is in operation. Great! But when you play it incorrectly, the wrong one is reinforced. If you can play correctly 50 per cent of the time, then the other 50 is maintaining exactly what you don't want. How can you deal with this? Mark the offending place in your music and treat this as a completely separate issue. You can play up to it; you can play after it. That's all. Now, examine the error to determine what is causing it and work out a way to play it correctly, then practise just that. If you practise it ten times, it should be correct every time. If not, go back and start again.

To play the passages that you are good at is productive, even if you have achieved your goal. This is because the 'good' pathway neural cells (synapses) will be consolidated. A layer of fat (myelin) will grow round the connective tissue (the axon) of the synapse. This layer is equivalent to insulation around an electrical wire. What you don't want is any consolidation of those 'bad' pathways.

Another no-no is to make adjustments while you play. The brain will create 'adjusting' neural pathways which if reinforced will be difficult to eliminate. Don't make adjustments as you play, but play an error the first time you notice it. As before, you can go back and work out what was wrong and how it can be fixed. Then fix it with repetitive correct practice. You'll have to judge when you are confident enough that you'll be able to play it correctly every time in the context of your piece and only then should it be reinserted into the whole. If you trust this process and see it through, you will be amazed at the results.

The brain has modes of assimilating what you practise. First, it needs time to assimilate what you are learning and it seems that a practise period of no longer than ten to fifteen minutes is appropriate. Any longer and the ability to learn takes a nosedive. After each short period, take a break for a few minutes. Go check your emails or update your calendar. And when you resume, move on to something different. I like to divide my practise material into warm-ups, scales, studies, pieces and spend ten minutes or so on each of these and not necessarily in the same order. If you focus on one thing for a long period of time, at the end of that period you may well feel that you have accomplished your goal. This feeling has a name - 'The Illusion of Mastery'! The problem is revealed when you come back to do it again tomorrow, when you may well have to start all over again. Short practise bursts with gaps and variety, to the contrary, allow the brain to assimilate properly.

The second mode of assimilation happens over a longer period of time and you'll know about this via the phenomenon whereby you come back to some music after a couple of weeks break and find you can play it well if not better than before.

Thirdly, another bang up-to-date research revelation has shown that micro breaks during practice enhance results. The study, which quantified this, demonstrates that during a micro break (about ten seconds or so - stop and stare into space!), the brain continues to reiterate the practice but at a much quicker rate.

Now we come to consider learning rhythm and timing. Your friend here is the metronome but probably not in the way that you are expecting. There is a part of the brain that fires off and learns rhythmic and timing skills called the 'Sensory Motor Loop' (SML). If you put a metronome on and play along with it, the SML is inactive, its not needed and does not develop. The question is, how to activate it and encourage it to learn?

First, you will need to develop the skill of playing along accurately with a metronome, no mean skill in itself. This ability is a requirement before you can develop a true sense of timing. The SML development can then be achieved with the following method: 1. Use the metronome as an off-beat.  2. Now use it to click every other beat.  3. Now set it to click on the downbeats only (first beat of each bar). 4. Then set it to click on the 2nd downbeat only... then the 3rd... then the 4th. You get the idea.

When the metronome is not clicking, your SML fires up and helps you along. Bingo! There is an app specially designed to set this up for you called TimeGuru.

Finally (for now!) we come to what is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of contemporary brain research and its relationship with learning. When you are practising, the active part of the brain grows by accommodating the new neural networks that are being formed and consolidated. Mental practice, that is, imagining all the details of a practice experience, has the same effect. Yes, your brain can grow by conducting a practice session as a mental process. The ramifications of this are enormous.

If physical practice is not possible - because you are injured, or because you are away from your practise room, for example - then you can sit very still and quiet, close your eyes and imagine your practice. This needs to be done in detail. Imagine the feel of the instrument the movement of your fingers, or the bow, the intervals spacing between you fingers, the movement in shifting position, the creation of dynamics and expression. Whatever you would do in a physical session can be worked through internally as mental practice. The result will be the same.

I come back now to the second consideration that I mentioned at the outset, that of motivation. I have known, and know, many musicians who have not realised their potential through lack of that valuable commodity. This consideration is relevant in the context of learning music in contemporary times, just as brain research is a modern phenomenon. Motivation, however, has to be considered as a lifestyle concern, rather than one of scientific research.

Hopefully, what I have covered in this short essay is itself food for motivation but much more is needed. I have no clear answers but will offer a couple of prospective suggestions. If you don't enjoy practice for its own sake then the only other real solution has to be by setting goals. Playing a musical instrument to a high standard is an aim where dreams will definitely come true if you decide that the hard work and graft involved will be worth it.

A busy lifestyle is an adversary that is not going away, but can be put in its place, or at least taken into account. For myself, listening to music, reading about music and stepping into genres off the beaten track all feed into my own motivation. Music is an infinite world, socially and culturally and has so much to offer that comes on the back of musicianship.

I've cited a bunch of the relevant sources below so that you know that I'm not just pulling this stuff out of thin air, and I am particularly indebted for these to the Canadian violist and educator, Molly Gabrien, whose series of Youtube videos, 'What Musicians Can Learn about Practicing from Modern Brain Research', distils her research and amplifies further what I have encapsulated here. Her videos, 'Mental Practice', are a revelation.

Abushanab, B. and Bishara, A.J. “Memory and Metacognition for Piano Melodies: Illusory Advantage of Fixed- over Random-Order Practice,” Memory and Cognition 41, no. 6 (2013): 928-937

Buch, E. R., Claudino, L., Quentin, R., Bönstrup, M., & Cohen, L. G. (2021). Consolidation of human skill linked to waking hippocampo-neocortical replay. Cell reports, 35(10), 109193

Lin, C-H.J., et al., “Brain-Behavior Correlates of Optimizing Learning Through Interleaved Practice,” NeuroImage 56 (2011): 1758-1772

Porter, J.M. and Saemi, E. “Moderately Skilled Learners Benefit by Practicing with Systematic Increases in Contextual Interference,” International Journal of Coaching Science 4, no. 2 (2010): 61-71

Rao, S.M., et al., (1997). “Distributed neural systems underlying the timing of movements.” The Journal of Neuroscience 17(14): 5528-5535

 Shea, J.B. and Morgan, R.L. “Contextual Interference Effects on the Acquisition, Retention, and Transfer of a Motor Skill,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory 5, no. 2 (1979): 179-187

Sonderstrom, N.C. and Bjork, R.A. “Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10 no. 2 (2015): 176-199

Walker, M.P., et al. "Practice with sleep makes perfect: sleep-dependent motor skill learning." Neuron 35 (2002): 205-211