New research begins to bridge the gap between psychological and biological understandings of practice
From the beginning, Strings Visions has always been dedicated to giving readers access to the most up-to-date information on string theory and the workings of the musical mind. Practicing has been one of our most popular topics in these veins. As we try to discover exactly how we can most effectively spend the day in the practice room, we sometimes must question conventional knowledge in order to break through a moment of seemingly insurmountable frustration. Guest contributor Henry Myers aptly described this feeling in his recent article on active practicing:
Truth be told, I was inefficient because in my practicing I placed repetition over thought. Compared to the sheer amount of hours I practiced, the level of brainpower that I exerted was rather underwhelming. I didn’t really have a coherent method: I just practiced somewhat aimlessly until I either hit some preplanned number of hours or drowned in frustration.
Myers goes on to redefine the typical practice strategy, advocating a dual conscious-subconsciouss process in which the active engagement of the brain during practice can be utilized to influence the process of retaining input data. This idea that practicing can be active instead of passive contradicts the usual notions about practice. Often we think of someone like Franz Liszt as the artistic ideal, locking himself away for upwards of seven hours a day furiously repeating technical exercises until attaining peerless piano mastery. And while you do have to put in the hours to become great musician, the idea that sheer quantity alone will lead to instrumental mastery is simply misleading. Practicing is about how one spends the amount of time they’re willing to put in rather the amount of time they were simply in the practice room.
Our understanding of how practice works, however, is incomplete. Scientists have yet to establish a comprehensive model of learning that allows us to understand the most effective way to acquire, consolidate, and recall new skills. Fortunately, both musicians and researchers are hard at work on this task, and great strides forward appear frequently. Gary Marcus, who was the featured subject of Monday’s Bow, recently wrote an article in the Huffington Post highlighting two new discoveries in the fields of psychology and neuroscience as they relate to practicing. The two studies focus on how the way we schedule our practice time influences the development of long term memory. Marcus briefly summarizes each study and provides links to the full articles, but here are the main points of what we’ve recently learned:
- While we know that spaced practicing is better than massed practicing (cramming for a test the night before), we never knew the best interval at which to practice. New data has revealed that an irregular series of intervals (1o minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, and then 30 minuets) is superior to an evenly spaced method.
- Molecular processes initiated only by spaced practicing can be analyzed in order to gain a deeper understanding of how our cells retain data. The implications of this second study would help to link the psychological and biological understanding of practice, hopefully creating a cohesive whole.
Will we be able to completely understand what’s happening in this picture in the coming years? It’s hard to say. But rest assured String Visions is on the case. The ability to understand how we learn is an important prospect to musicians. Since we only have so many hours in day that we can spend practicing, we need to know exactly how much practicing is necessary and how we can most effectively spend those hours. And while a major scientific breakthrough won’t transform you into Jascha Heifetz overnight, the increasingly vast amount of information available on effective practice strategies will surely benefit us all and eventually raise the current standards of instrumental playing around the world.