1) THOU SHALT NOT KID THY SELF.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius gives his son Laertes the advice to above all else to be true to himself. Honesty with one’s self is a lifelong process. In the world of music practice it can begin with the simple step of writing down how much you practice. Even if you never total the time or even give it a second look, you have established a measure from which to judge your efforts.
Goal setting is critical for any endeavor. If the requirement is to have a piece up to tempo by a certain date, you can break down the steps necessary for the accomplishment. If these intermediary steps are not met, you must be honest with yourself that the larger goal is in danger and likely not to be met unless additional effort is made. If a secure memory is the goal and little has been committed to memory a week before the deadline, don’t kid yourself, a secure memory is not likely to be the outcome.
We will bear the complete responsibility for our success or failure for the vast majority of our life. While as a student, it is easy to be dependent upon your teachers to order and plan your work and goals. However, you are a student for only a short time and will have to order and plan your work for decades after your student years.
While it helps to record our activities so we have a written record of what we did, rather than relying upon a faulty memory, we can learn so much more about the practice of practice with just a little thought and planning. If you treat your practice as a scientific experiment in learning, your learning specifically, over time you will make significant gains in the efficacy of your work. I was motivated to learn about cognitive psychology because of my very slow learning and poor progress as a young student. What I learned allowed me to improve my practicing and learning efficiency by orders of magnitude. I have been a slow learner and a fast learner, being a fast learner is much more fun!
The last thing we want to happen is to become neurotic about our record keeping and cease to enjoy this journey of discovery, so only keep those records which you find helpful in your understanding of what you did and the results your efforts yielded. However, keep in mind it is easier to have too little information than too much. Sometimes your data may only point to an interesting observation but because you failed to collect enough information you cannot know for certain. So at first try to collect as much information as you can and after you have a better sense of what you need to know to reach your conclusion you can begin to focus your collection more closely.
Here are a couple of examples of how we can do some very simple experiments, with ourselves as subjects, and our learning styles/habits/procedures as the point of query.
When starting with a brand new piece of music we are immediately faced with the task of figuring out how to approach its unique problems. It is often suggested that you begin by playing through the work. This helps in getting a sense of the structure, common musical patterns, and areas of difficulty. Assuming you have done whatever you feel necessary on this issue, we can begin at the beginning.
With your very first page of music you have several choices as to how to handle the music. Will you play it from beginning to end before repeating it? Play it half way? Phrase? Line? Measure? How many times will you repeat your chosen unit before moving on? How do you know which combination of all these variables is most appropriate for you today with this particular piece and its unique problems? While cognitive science can give us some general guidelines as to capacity of our short-term memory, the effects of repetition, recencey, latency, etc. on how we move information from our short-term memory to our long-term memory the application is more art than science. Only with careful self-observation can we become aware of what may be our particular needs at a specific moment.
So try this experiment with a multiple page piece which remains roughly consistent in difficulty throughout.
On the first page, play the first unit of music, whether it is a phrase or line. If it takes longer than about 15 seconds, play a shorter unit. Play it three times without speeding up and observe your progress. Do you feel you are at least familiar with the music now? Play it a fourth and fifth time. Did you make any more significant progress? Continue this process throughout the whole page. With each unit observe at what repetition point you felt your progress slowed, that is the point further effort started yielding less improvement compared to earlier efforts.
On second page of music double the length of material. If you were playing one line, play two; one phrase, this time do two phrases. Now compare the results with the first page. Do you still have the same sense of “familiarity” as you experienced on the first page? Did the progress in learning increase or decrease? Are beginning to notice a “sweet spot” in the repetition count before your improvement slows?
On the third page, treat the whole page as your unit.
At this point it is probably becoming quite obvious which level of breakdown allowed you to absorb and retain the most information. So far we have addressed two possible variables in our practice, the length of material and the number of repetitions. How long of a section we work on and the number of repetitions we find most useful are impacted by your understanding of music theory, technical demands relative to your technical abilities, and your focus and attention.
Continue working through the whole piece using the unit size you found most advantageous. When you have completed the work one time, put it away for a day, you need some time for this information to be processed and the time will give the slight variations in repetition and attention to become less of an issue for the next part of the experiment.
On the second day, repeat the entire process using the section length you settled upon on the first day. Observe the progress you make per repetition. Has the “sweet spot” moved? You will no doubt find yourself speeding up some now, try to keep this under control. Playing faster by definition will make the music harder, which introduces another variable to our experiment. We are looking to see how quickly we can absorb new music, not how quickly we can speed it up… yet.
So, at this point we are beginning to get a sense of how many repetitions it is worth doing before moving on to the next section at the very earliest stages in the learning process. For your own understanding of the learning process it is a worthwhile exercise to use the rejected breakdowns on two other pieces to better understand why they did not work as well and what their inherent weaknesses were for you. However, just because they were inappropriate at this early stage does not mean they will not be useful later on.
You should make a notation for your records of the following: composer, work, relative difficulty for you (was it below your current ability, comparable to recent works, or harder than what you have been playing), selected working unit length, some type of note about the density of the music (more dense usually means smaller units), average or range of repetitions which yielded the best results, and also observe if you found that after a certain number you actually got worse.
Since for most of us, our musical aspirations exceed our ready technical equipment, we inevitably spend a fair amount of time working on increasing our tempos, sometimes by very large margins. There is a school of thought which says we should not attempt music which is significantly above our current playing ability. I think the answer to this is very subjective and very dependent upon the personality of the individual. Some people may find challenges which take long hours of effort, with no certainly of success very discouraging. However, I find life quite boring without multiple skill bending projects going on simultaneously. This next experiment may prove more useful if you of the later group, but I think even if you are more comfortable with less difficult challenges you may find some useful understanding here.
Now that we have worked through our piece at least twice and as many as four times with the chosen breakdown unit, we have become quite aware where is the hardest material. Nothing will ruin a piece faster than a difficult couple of dozen measure which always lag behind the rest of the music in performance. So in keeping with Rule #4 of Practicing: hard stuff first.
We first must find a base line tempo, a speed we can play the passage with no less than a 95% success rate. In all likelihood, this will a much slower tempo than you image it needs to be. Record this tempo in your notes. After we find the speed which we are just able to play successfully, we need to find a tempo which is “easy” to play. The primary, if not the only determinate of difficulty is speed. If you played the section at the rate of one note per hour, you would certainly find it easy, no matter how dense the music was. If you had ten minutes to play a note, I dare say it still would be easy. We are essentially looking for a speed which is slow enough that we can think about everything we are doing and yet fast enough we don’t take all day to get through it once.
A funny thing happens when you start looking at some of these numbers in how they relate to other human activities. In weight training a similar procedure can be done. When doing a new lift, athletes will look for a weight which they can lift only once. Eighty percent of that weight however will yield them a weight which they can lift 7 – 10 times, which is often a repetition number they are also looking for.
Eighty percent of your maximum successful tempo will often yield you a speed which is near that sweet spot of slow enough to study and think and fast enough to repeat often. Your results may vary some, I would only use results slower than 80% though, never faster.
Now for the experiment. Play through your passage at this tempo. Make sure the unit is short enough you can get through it in 30 – 45 seconds. It is important that you remember in detail what you did so that you can learn from the experience. After successfully playing through the passage move your metronome up one standard notch. (I will discuss standard metronome numbers vs. smaller increments at a later date.) Continue to move the metronome up with each successful completion. If you start making mistakes, repeat the speed. If the mistakes continue, slow down 2 – 3 notches and continue to move up the tempo once the problems are fixed. Observe what happens as you approach your baseline. Do you find a sudden increase in difficulty or do you roll right past it? Continue raising the tempo until you find the number you can’t move past. You can check this by slowing down a couple notches and trying again. If you continue to fail, you have reached your limit for the day. If you can, continue to move up until you fail again, this will probably mark the end. Record the numbers which you had all of these experiences. Again put the music away for the day.
The very next day repeat the entire process, however this time the proceeding’s day top speed becomes your new baseline. Again, start at no more than 80% of that number and work your way up the metronome. Observe and record if you experience a sudden increase in difficulty and your final speed.
Do this for several days. After you have 5 – 7 days worth of data what observations can you make? Which days experienced the largest increase in tempo? How much slower was the progress in the later days? If it helps graph the numbers, over time you will start seeing some very predictable results.
The next stage would be to repeat the entire process on some new material, however this time start at 70% below your baseline and observe the results. There is a flaw in this approach however, by starting slower you will be assured of having more repetitions before you reach your baseline… or will you?
As a final stage start at 50% of your baseline. Do this with two different sections. In the first section go up one notch at a time and in the second go up two notches at a time. There can sometimes be very different results, a lot will depend on other factors such as the difficulty of the music.
There are many other experiments which we can do at various stages in the learning process and by applying just a dash of scientific method can teach us a lot about how we learn best. Hosting practice camps during summer months can also give you the opportunity to show your students how to learn how they learn.