The Science and Art of Practicing: with Molly Gebrian and Shelly Tramposh

June 17, 2014, 11:12 AM · Why is it better to practice every day for an hour, instead of seven hours on one day of the week? Why didn’t it help much to play that hard passage 20 times in a row? Does mental practicing actually work? Should I pull an all-nighter before my jury? I practice so hard, why does my playing sound mechanical?

The answers become clear, when you look at the science of the brain, paired with the art of practice. Molly Gebrian spoke about “What Violists Can Learn about Practicing from Current Brain Research” on Friday in a lecture at the Primrose International Violin Competition and Festival. Her lecture was followed by a lecture by SUNY Potsdam viola professor Shelly Tramposh, called, “Art of Practicing.”

Molly Gebrian, left, and Shelly Tramposh

When she was studying both viola performance and neuroscience at Oberlin College and Conservatory, Molly found herself marveling, “If only musicians knew more about neuroscience, they would practice so much better!”

Knowledge of the brain can help when it comes to several specific areas: practice session structure, using a metronome, sleep and learning, and mental practice.

Structuring practice sessions

Most of us spend a solid chunk of time on each task we practice during a given session: a chunk of time practicing scales, then a chunk on etudes, then a chunk on our current piece. This is called a “block method” of practicing. But brain science suggests that “random practice” is better — in other words, when you keep going back and forth between different things: a little time on scales, then switch to the piece, then back to scales, back to the etude, a different piece, etc.

In several studies, some with sports, others with music, people were asked to learn a task (pitching a ball, learning a simple melody) Some people used a block method of practicing and others did random practicing. Those who practiced in blocks improved during the actual practice time, but this did not translate to improvement in performance. In one study, where they tried learning both ways, people felt like blocked practice was better, even though their ultimate performance was measurably better after the random practice! Our general comfort with blocked practice — “it’s an illusion,” Molly said. Though you might improve at a task during practice, you’re less able to carry forth that improvement to the next day.

One idea is to have a gradual ramping up, starting with blocked practice to solidify a task; moving to serial practice, which would mix things up a little; then to random practice, which would mix things up a lot. The random practice forces one to mentally construct the task each time, activating more sensory-motor parts of the brain and more strongly activating the “executive control” part of the brain. “Random practice is much closer to what you have to do in performance,” Molly said.

Using a metronome

Here’s another surprise: “A different part of your brain is activated when you’re using a metronome, than when you’re not. There are fundamentally different brain activations going on.” When the metronome is on, the brain responds to an outside stimulus. When it is off, the brain must generate that beat itself. This is why you may practice very well with the metronome, but once it’s off, your consistency with tempo may still not be accurate.

She said to try putting the metronome on offbeats only — “It’s strangely difficult!” she said. Another idea is to have the metronome sound on every other beat only, or on random beats. (Here is an app for a random beat generator).

Your brain, deprived of sleep

Studies have shown that consistently getting a full night’s sleep (eight hours) plays a huge role in learning motor and auditory skills, Molly said. It has to do with neurons, and she explains it very well in this essay. In a nutshell, in order to fire the correct signals that get your body to play something correctly, neurons need to learn the task correctly. Sleep allows for a refinement of those neural messages, so that the next day, the brain starts with a better map. Then practice it again (correctly!), and it all gets stronger over time. But only with the (enormous) help of sleep. That’s why it is more important to practice every day of a given week than to try to cram it into one day — you need the sleep in between.

“Don’t cram,” Molly said, “space it out as much as possible so that you can get sleep in between.” On the first day of learning new music, learn something clean and slow, don’t even try it fast. Then sleep, and try it faster on the second day. The result will come more easily and solidly then trying to ramp it all up on the first day. Plus, you don’t risk putting wrong information into the map that your mind is creating, by practicing with mistakes. In fact, if you read Molly’s essay, you can see that studies suggest that less practice is necessary for more progress, as long as you have the discipline for consistent and correct practice, followed by necessary sleep.

Mental practice

Believe it or not, “mental practice changes your brain in almost the same way as physical practice,” Molly said. Interestingly, actually doing “air violin,” miming the motions of playing, is not as effective. Mental practice means just that: completely mental. To do it, you do not move at all, and you reconstruct in your mind everything you do when you play: which fingers you use, the feeling of the arm, the intonation you hear, the articulation, the feeling of the bow, whether it’s going up or down, etc. “The more you can re-create everything in your mind, the better your mental practice.”

When she does this with students, she asks them afterwards, “Was anything fuzzy?” It’s usually the part that they were messing up that’s fuzzy. The task is to go back and make a completely clear picture in their minds. Then she has them play the passage, after which she asks, “Was anything surprising?” The surprising parts are usually the places that they did not account for in their mental practice. “Mental practice is very taxing on your brain,” she said, “practicing this way takes way more thinking and organization.” But it’s very effective.

Art of practice

While Molly addressed the science of practice, Shelly Tramposh discussed the art of practice.

Our ultimate aim, when we practice, is to make music. “Sometimes we become disconnected from musicality when we practice,” Shelly said. If you are mostly practicing un-musically, then when you try to play or perform musically, you will find yourself on unfamiliar ground. “We want to make our practice as close to our performance as possible,” she said.

How do you approach a new piece? Do you find all the difficult parts, then scrub them into shape? The problem with this approach is that “once you’ve trained yourself to play an etude in the middle of your piece, it’s hard to untrain.” You’ll be playing along, making lovely music, then , then back to the music….Not ideal!

She recommends a different approach to new pieces that, in some ways, is pretty radical: Forget about the nasty passages for now. Instead, spend two weeks getting in touch with the musical aspect of the piece and practice it through, just for musicality. If the notes are too difficult to play, then simplify the hard parts, skip a few notes here and there, so that you can play it through and get the musical sweep of the piece: the phrasing, the color, the mood… “Never turn it into just an etude.”

How do you find that musical frame of mind?

“Listening to recordings can be a great way to start,” Shelly said — but be sure you listen to many recordings, so that you don’t get stuck on a single one.

Another way to get in touch with the music is through your body. As you listen to the piece, try “arcing” — that is, following a musical phrase by making an arc in the air with your hand. Or carry this further: put on the recording and make up your own interpretive dance along with the music. Move to it, sing with it. “That goes after a character level,” Shelly said. Sometimes she has students take out balloons and bounce them to the music. As simple as this sounds, it takes quite a bit of concentration and coordination to synchronize the bounce of a balloon to the meter of a piece of music. You can also step to the music, walk around while playing it.

Find the way that works, but “experience the music as music,” Shelly said.

Of course, at some point, you have to get the notes. But when you do practice those tricky passages, keep your musical goals strongly in mind and apply them the whole way. Identify the musical context for a difficult passage that you are practicing: What is the music doing? Is it getting bigger, arriving, or getting smaller? If you practice the passage with the musicality intact, then it will fit back in better, once you return to the larger piece, she said.

And, still get the notes — and be honest about it. Let’s say you practiced something 40 times on a given day: be aware that “your brain will remember the best time as being representative of your ability,” Shelly said. Obviously, it’s not! This is why, when a student plays for his or her teacher, the student is often surprised that things don’t go as well as they seemed to go in the practice room!

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Here are some books that Shelly Tramposh recommended about practicing musically:

Deepening Musical Performance through Movement by Alexandra Piece

Practicing for Artistic Success: The Musician's Guide to Self-Empowerment by Burton Kaplan

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June 17, 2014 at 07:13 PM · Really interesting stuff, glad to see mental practising getting mentioned at last! Ever come across the 80/20 rule?

June 17, 2014 at 08:32 PM · Matthew, I can guess at it, but what exactly is the 80/20 rule?

June 18, 2014 at 01:36 AM · What a fantastic article! It's a breath of fresh air from traditional studies, which I feel like can set students up for a conception of practicing as mindless drudgery. I've applied many of these methods and techniques to my practicing before, and I have to say, they really, really do work. In particular, I love the method of working on musical ideas first – I've had a few conductors who've rehearsed this way, and the performances with them have blown virtually all others in my experience out of the water.

Thanks for posting this!

June 18, 2014 at 05:47 AM · Thanks for such a great article, Laurie! You captured both of our talks very clearly and accurately! -Molly Gebrian

June 18, 2014 at 09:02 AM · Thank you Laurie, wonderful information! I used to call random practice 'messing about' and feel guilty about it, although I tend to do it instinctively. I love to sleep a lot, too! No more guilty feelings for me.

June 18, 2014 at 12:53 PM · Fantastic ideas and instructions. This article really spoke to me. I'll be printing, highlighting and sticking this to my music stand! Thanks very much Laurie.

June 18, 2014 at 01:41 PM · very useful app: TimeGuru; - with random mute... :)

June 19, 2014 at 03:48 PM · This article has certainly challenged some of my thinking. I've always been a block practicer (that's how Miss Delay taught me to practice), but I'll give random practicing a try. I do wonder if this is different for different people, and for different learning styles. The article mentions that studies show that "Those who practiced in blocks improved during the actual practice time, but this did not translate to improvement in performance." But we've all seen studies that were disproved several years later (for instance, today's NY Times quotes a study that shows that triglyceride levels in the blood correlate with instances of heart attacks, but for many years, doctors have said that studies of triglyceride levels showed that they did not correlate with instances of heart attacks).

And again, to play devil's advocate, Primrose said that whenever he had trouble with a passage, he would practice it 60 times (with different rhythms, bowings, and speeds), and then he knew he would be able to play it.

I do like the ideas about sleep, and about mental practicing. And I will keep an open mind, and try random practicing!

Jeffrey Irvine

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