Practice research

The “Bullet Proof Musician” blog is a great collection of psychology-and-music information for the “practicing” musician! Of particular value is a post about practicing: Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight. Dr. Christine Carter studied the “contextual interference effect” and concluded that we practice too many repetitions. Instead, we should break up our practice routines into shorter segments in order to allow our brains to pay attention! Too many repetitions results in boredom and we can’t help it that our minds wander. Carter writes, “Rather than spending long uninterrupted periods of time woodshedding each excerpt or section of a piece, pick a few passages you would like to work on and alternate between them.” In another study, “Practice with Sleep Makes Perfect: Sleep-Dependent Motor Skill Learning,” [Matthew P. Walker, Tiffany Brakefield, Alexandra Morgan, J.Allan Hobson, Robert Stickgold, “Practice with Sleep Makes Perfect: Sleep-Dependent Motor Skill Learning,” Neuron, Volume 35, Issue 1, 3 July 2002, Pages 205-211] the authors determine that a good night’s sleep, presumably within 24 hours of the practice session, will result in up to a 20% increase in motor speed without loss of accuracy. And, in Bruce Hammel’s treatise, “A COMPENDIUM OF PRACTICE METHODS AND THEIR
Dr. Hammel suggests breaking up the practice time into shorter segments throughout the day in order to make the practicing more effective and efficient. As bassoonists, we may be tempted to rationalize that, “it’s hardly worth putting the instrument together and soaking a reed, I only have 30 minutes.” But, an ideal session could be 20 minutes long with a few minutes on either side to set up, then pack up. So, plan ahead. Choose a few short excerpts/sections of your solo piece or ensemble music, alternate between them a few minutes each; be sure to get a good night’s sleep within 24 hours of your practicing; and avoid long practice sessions–divide up your time throughout the day. Above all, realize that anything you can do to move in the direction of the ideal approaches to practicing will be beneficial. It’s not all or nothing. Happy Bassooning!

Update: in discussions with students this week, we thought that the analogy between motor skill in sports and in playing the bassoon might need a finer point: motor skills in playing the bassoon are sheer technique, but more than motor skills are needed when preparing the performance of a piece. We wondered if bassoon motor skills are like batting practice, but performing music is more like the design of a play or a strategy.

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