Science Gives Tips on Practicing!


How many times should I repeat a passage when I practice?

Blocked practice has often been compared to random practice in scientific studies. Blocked practice involves giving total focus to one aspect of technique, practicing the same thing over and over until it is correct. Random practice on the other hand is where a number of skills are practiced in random order, with the goal of avoiding or minimizing repetition of any single task. While it is encouraged for musicians to use both methods, random practice has been proven by numerous experiments to be much more effective for long term retention. The idea of repeating a skill over and over is often a waste of time and has been proven to be less efficient in terms of practice technique. This point can be summed up in the words of the late Russian physiologist N.I. Bernstein: The process of practice towards the achievement of new motor habits essentially consists in the gradual success of a search for optimal motor solutions to the appropriate problems. Because of this, practice, when properly undertaken, does not consist in repeating the means of solution of a motor problem time after time, but in the process of solving this problem again and again.

How fast should I practice:

“The speed at which a skill is first practiced should be approximately that of the speed at which it is to be used later.” (from Paul Rolland)

That quote is one of the most important aspects of instrumental practice. If the end goal is not clear in the mind of the performer, then practicing is a waste of time. In order to master a fast passage it has to be practiced fast in order to find the most efficient movement pattern. In addition the muscles involved with executing a fast movement is completely different than the muscles involved in executing a slow movement.

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5 Responses to Science Gives Tips on Practicing!

  1. cellobaker May 16, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    Very interesting quotes! The first one, especially. So often one thinks that by repeating a passage, shift, or other small feature over and over again until we get it right is the correct way to practice, and you hear it in every practice room you walk by. Rather, it seems this is saying it is much more efficient to know how to practice a passage, understand the difficulties and the traps one may have in it, properly execute it, and move on.

  2. Colin Cronin May 16, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    Check out the discussion over the piece over at our Facebook page

  3. Hans Jensen May 16, 2011 at 10:16 pm #

    Louis Levitt said on face book:I disagree with the advice on practicing something fast right away, I think its a recipe for disaster.

    (Louis also asked advise from Paul Ellison. For Paul Ellisons great advise go to:

    Hans Jensen’s response:
    Hello Louis,
    First of all thank you for your comment. Every person is different and it is up to each person to find the best way for him or her to practice. No other person can really lecture any body how to do any thing. My job as a teacher is to try to teach each student to become his or her own teacher. My reason for posting a short practice tip about this on String Visions is due to the fact that slow versus fast practicing is a topic that is often misunderstood.

    Most teachers tells there student all the time including myself you have to practice very slowly first. Why do you always play so fast? and that is true for many skills.
    Lots of students practice to fast without really paying attention to all the details.
    Their mind is somewhere else when the practice or they are not really listening with a super critical ear. Of course learning to play an instrument and acquiring motor skills happens in stages so my statement is not for a beginning student but for an advanced younger student a college level student or a professional player. For a beginning student just starting out lots of slow controlled practicing is important. And of course we all know that slow practice is very good for all of us.
    I remember as a young student in Denmark staying outside a practice room at our school in Denmark listening to Claudio Arrau warming up just before having to play the Brahms second piano concerto. Claudio Arrau was playing through some difficult passages in a very slow tempo. Listening to that made a strong impression on me.

    However when understanding the movement patterns involved in a fast passage
    It is important to practice and to understand the movement patterns in the final tempo. Depending on the skill level of the performer it can be done a number of ways.
    1. A very advanced player will try a fast passage that gives them problem a few times in the fast tempo to find the right movement patterns, after that it can be helpful to slow it down a few times to fix a few details and then back up to tempo again. Of course practicing slow is also important for fine-tuning every detail.
    2. The not so advanced players often think that they should practice a fast section slow for a few days and then step-by-step speed it up and then it will all work in the end. However that seldom works, because the movement patterns that have to be used in the fast tempo are totally different than the movement patterns used in the slow tempo. So students often gets stuck at a certain speed and have problems getting it much faster.
    So in order to learn and master the movement patterns that have to be used in the fast tempo it is extremely beneficial to practice those patterns in the fast tempo. How to do that?
    If it is a fast passage or continuously running sixteen notes break it down into 4 notes groups and play each group very fast with stops in between. After that make 8 group patterns with stops in between. After that play the whole passage etc. at tempo.
    If it is a complicated technical passage involving 10 or more notes, break the passage into smaller sections and play each section fast with stops in between. After that has been mastered now play the whole passage in tempo. If there still is a problem figure out why and where the problem is fix the detail in tempo and after that the whole passage again in tempo (It can be helpful to play the detail a few times slow and then immediately back to the fast tempo again)
    All of this is of course very different from person to person. However understanding that always practicing slowly to fix problems with fast passage works or a fast movement is not always the answer is an important concept to understand.

    All of the above does not mean that it is not good to also practice a fast movement in a slow tempo and then step-by-step speeding it up. That is a great way to practice but it is only part of the solution.

    Sorry for writing so long. But in order to explain this I had to go into this kind of detail.

    Please answer back and I am sure you will add a lot to this discussion and also help clarify some of this. As a teacher I change and adjust my ideas and concepts all the time because practicing teaching and playing a musical instrument is a never-ending endeavor.

  4. Hans Jensen May 16, 2011 at 10:24 pm #

    Adrianne Mascho said on face book: Interesting! I whole-heartedly disagree. I’ve never heard of a professional musician or teacher tell their students, “Practice fast! Practice randomly” lol

    Hans Jensen’s answer:

    Hans Jensen is here responding to Adrianne Mascho. Thank you for your comments.

    Yes this terminology can be confusing. These names come from Human Movement Science. Lots of Universities have departments in this science.

    Here are the definitions from: Sports Medicine
    Definition of blocked practise: Practice of a particular skill over and over until it is mastered, with no interruption, before moving to the next skill.

    Definition of random practice: Practice of several different skills in rotation, not mastering one before moving on the next but coming back to it later.

    The Science: Blocked Practice Versus Random Practice
    Motor learning research distinguishes between two types of practice styles. Blocked practice involves athletes repeatedly performing the same skill again and again, usually until some “improvement” is shown. This is commonly done in skill drills where players practice a single skill numerous times before moving on to the next skill drill. Repeat passing or repeat setting drills are classic example of blocked practices.
    Random practice, on the other hand, involves players practicing multiple skills in a random order while minimizing the number of consecutive repetitions of any one skill. Game-like drills requiring players to perform several skills in random order (as the situation demands) with only a single opportunity each time to perform each skill would constitute a random practice style.
    So which of these is more effective? If we’re practicing to get better when we compete (as opposed to getting better for practice) then the science overwhelmingly favors random practice. Numerous researchers and studies have consistently concluded that blocked practice makes players better in practice and random practice makes players better long term in competition.

    The above was quoted from here:
    another great article with the same results:

    Numerous studies are listed on the Internet just add random versus blocked practice into Google and you will see lots of wonderful scientific reports on this topic. This way of practicing can benefit musicians enormously. I have seen it over and over with my own eyes.

    Hans Jensen

  5. Jon Harnum May 25, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    Am enjoying the posts and comments. Thanks for taking the time.

    This discussion about tempo practice reminds me of a 2001 study of this topic. by Henley, who concluded that tempo practice that alternated between very slow/precise with performance tempo was more effective than other methods. It was done with young musicians (high school). It would be interesting to discover if similar or different effects were found in undergraduate and preprofessional musicians. Here’s the study:

    Henley, P. T. (2001). Effects of modeling and tempo patterns as practice techniques on the performance of high school instrumentalists. Journal of Research in Music Education, 49(2), 169-180.

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