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Practice Smarter, Not Harder – What does that MEAN?

We’ve all heard the phrase “practice smarter, not harder,” but what does that really mean? What does “smarter” practice actually look like? A study of collegiate piano majors suggests that the key lies in how we handle mistakes.

A group of researchers led by Robert Duke of The University of Texas at Austin conducted a study several years ago to see if they could tease out the specific practice behaviors that distinguish the best players and most effective learners.

Seventeen piano and piano pedagogy majors agreed to learn a 3-measure passage from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The passage had some tricky elements, making it too difficult to sight read well, but not so challenging that it couldn’t be learned in a single practice session.

– See more at: http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/8_things_top_practicers_do_differently#sthash.kUagqmzm.dpuf

Each of the pianists’ performances were then evaluated on two levels. Getting the right notes with the right rhythm was the primary criteria, but the researchers also ranked each of the pianists’ performances from best to worst, based on tone, character, and expressiveness.

That led to a few interesting findings:

  1. Practicing longer didn’t lead to higher rankings.
  2. Getting in more repetitions had no impact on their ranking either.
  3. The number of times they played it correctly in practice also had no bearing on their ranking. (wait, what?!)

What did matter was:

  1. How many times they played it incorrectly. The more times they played it incorrectly, the worse their ranking tended to be.
  2. The percentage of correct practice trials did seem to matter. The greater the proportion of correct trials in their practice session, the higher their ranking tended to be.

The top performers utilized a variety of error-correction methods, such as playing with one hand alone, or playing just part of the excerpt, but there was one strategy that seemed to be the most impactful.

Strategically slowing things down.

After making a mistake, the top performers would play the passage again, but slow down or hesitate – without stopping – right before the place where they made a mistake the previous time.

This seemed to allow them to play the challenging section more accurately, and presumably coordinate the correct motor movements at a tempo they could handle, rather than continuing to make mistakes and failing to identify the precise nature of the mistake, the underlying technical problem, and what they ought to do differently in the next trial.

The one-sentence summary

“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.” -George Bernard Shaw

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