How to Practice Effectively, Efficiently and Make It Stick

origin_6270193694

Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight

by Dr. Noa Kageyama 

Have you ever been frustrated by the fact that you can take a difficult passage, work on it for a bit, get it sounding pretty good, but return to the practice room the next day to discover that you’re back at square 1? That nothing has really changed? And despite how good it sounded yesterday, now it sounds just as bad as it did before you worked on it?

Most of us can live with “two steps forward, one step back.” It’s the “two steps forward, two steps back” that makes us want to tear our hair out.

So what are we to do?

Are we just supposed to keep at it and learn how to be more patient? Or is there a different way to practice that can make these improvements more permanent?

Enter Christine Carter

Dr. Christine Carter is a clarinetist who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music, and did her dissertation on the contextual interference effect – a phenomenon that can help you make your daily progress in the practice room actually stick. In this post, she shares a few suggestions on how we can make the most of our practice time.

Take it away, Christine!

Making the most of your hours in the practice room:

One simple change that could drastically increase your productivity

When it comes to practicing, we often think in terms of time: How many hours are necessary to achieve optimal progress? While this is a valid concern, a more important question is how we can make each hour count. What is the most efficient way to work so that what is practiced today actually sticks tomorrow? There is nothing more frustrating than spending a day hard at work only to return the next day at the starting line. Unfortunately, our current practice model is setting us up for this daily disappointment.

Repetition, babies, and brain scans

Early on in our musical training, we are taught the importance of repetition. How often have we been told to “play each passage ten times perfectly before moving on”? The challenge with this well-intentioned advice is that it is not in line with the way our brains work. We are hardwired to pay attention to change, not repetition. This hardwiring can already be observed in preverbal infants. Show a baby the same object over and over again and they will gradually stop paying attention through a process called habituation. Change the object, and the attention returns full force. The same goes for adults. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that there is progressively less brain activation when stimuli are repeated. The fact is, repeated information does not receive the same amount of processing as new information. And on some level, we all know this. Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged. But instead of listening to this instinctive voice of reason, we blame ourselves for our lack of attention and yell at ourselves to “focus!” Luckily, there is an alternative.

Blocked practice schedules

In the field of sport psychology, the continuous repetition discussed above is called blocked practice. In a blocked practice schedule, all repetitions of one activity are completed before moving on to a second activity. For example, a baseball player who must hit fifteen fastballs, fifteen curve balls, and fifteen change-up pitches in practice would complete all of the fastballs before moving on to the curve balls and so on. This most resembles the way the majority of musicians practice, especially when it comes to challenging passages. We work on one excerpt for a given amount of time and then move on to the next excerpt until all tasks for the day are complete. A blocked approach seems logical.  Muscle memory requires repetition and why wouldn’t we do all of the repetitions in a row? After all, if we are working on a difficult passage, it feels a lot more comfortable 10 minutes into practice than at the beginning. It is precisely this feeling of comfort and improvement that reinforces our reliance on blocked practice. The problem with this kind of practicing, however, is that the positive results we feel in the practice room today do not lead to the best long-term learning tomorrow. Practicing in a way that optimizes performance in the practice room does not optimize learning.

Random practice schedules

What if we took the blocks of practice on particular tasks and broke them down into smaller segments on each task? In the baseball example above, the players could hit the three different types of pitches in an alternating fashion, instead of doing all of one kind in a row. Two breakdown options are a repeating order (e.g., abc abc abc…) or an arbitrary order (e.g., acb cba bca…). In either, the net result will still be 15 practice hits of each of the three types of serve, exactly the same as the net result in the blocked practice schedule. The only variable that changes is the order in which the pitches are practiced. This type of interspersed schedule is called a random practice schedule (also known as an interleaved practice schedule).

In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning. In the blocked schedule above, the baseball players must only construct the action plan for each type of pitch once, at the beginning of each block. In the random schedule, they must construct and later reconstruct an action plan fifteen times for each pitch. Although a blocked schedule may produce superior performance during practice, study after study has shown that a random practice schedule consistently produces superior retention following practice a day or more later (i.e., the amount actually learned). This phenomenon is called the contextual interference effect.

How much better is a random practice schedule?

It turns out that the hypothetical baseball example used above is not hypothetical.  In a 1994 study by Hall, Domingues, and Cavazos, elite baseball players were assigned to either the blocked or random practice schedules discussed above. After twelve practice sessions, the baseball players in the random practice schedule hit 57% more of the pitches than when they started. The blocked group only hit 25% more of the pitches, meaning that the random practice schedule was almost twice as effective, even though the two groups hit the same number of practice pitches. Similar results have been found across a wide variety of fields. Most pertinent to our interests as musicians, my preliminary research at the Brain and Mind Institute in Canada provides empirical support for the use of a random practice schedule in music. Not only does this research suggest that a random practice schedule is more effective than a blocked schedule for practicing musical passages, participant interviews also reveal that random practice has positive effects on factors such as goal setting and focus.

How to use a random schedule in the practice room

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. If you want to spend a total of 30 minutes on a particular excerpt, practice in shorter segments, continually returning to this excerpt until you have achieved your 30-minute goal. Experiment with lengths of time. If you are practicing excerpts that are very short, you may be able to switch between them at a faster pace than would be required for longer sections. You can use a small alarm clock to time specific intervals or switch after each repetition. At its most basic level, random practice might look like this:

Length

Material to Practice

3 minutes Excerpt A
3 minutes Excerpt B
3 minutes Excerpt C
3 minutes Excerpt A
3 minutes Excerpt B
3 minutes Excerpt C
Etc.

Practicing passages in different rhythmic variations is a great way of introducing contextual interference on a smaller scale. But instead of doing all rhythmic variations on a single excerpt before moving onto the next, do one variation on excerpt A, one on excerpt B and then return to excerpt A for a second variation etc. Technique can also be interspersed into the random schedule, instead of doing all of it in one long block. An example of a more complicated random practice session might look something like the following:

Length

Material to Practice

2 minutes Long tone, scale, long tone, scale…
3 minutes Excerpt A (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Third progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio…
3 minutes Excerpt B (using first rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Long tone, scale, long tone, scale…
3 minutes Excerpt A (using second rhythmic variation)
2 minutes Third progression, arpeggio, third progression, arpeggio…
3 minutes Excerpt B (using second rhythmic variation)
Etc.

The permutations are endless and the exact division of time is not important. What is crucial is that you are keeping your brain engaged by varying the material. More engagement means you will be less bored, more goal-oriented (you have to be if you only have 3 minutes to accomplish something), and substantially more productive. Most importantly, when you return to the practice room the next day, you can start from where you left off. This type of practice sticks.

Additional resources

Dr. Robert Bjork on the benefits of interleaving practice @ Go Cognitive (6-minute video)

About Dr. Christine Carter

christine carter clarinetDr. Christine Carter is interested in how musicians can be more effective on stage and in the practice room. She has conducted research at a number of brain imaging and music psychology labs and is currently a visiting scholar at Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute.

Christine is also an active clarinetist. Performances have taken her around the globe, including venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, the ancient cloisters in Avignon France, the Sydney Opera House, the Heritage Theatre in rural Newfoundland, and a Baroque Palace in the South of Germany. She completed her Doctor of Musical Arts at Manhattan School of Music, where she now teaches the Woodwind Lab.

photo credit: fmgbain via photopin cc

Posted in Education | Tagged | 1 Comment

Oboe Reed Cases, Reed Making Kits, Reed Knives and More

Summer is coming to an end and school will be starting again before you know it. Reed Pros is happy to announce new products we have just in time for back to school. We have some lovely new oboe reed cases. You’ll find silk covered cases: Blue Dragon Silk Covered Oboe Reed Case Red Dragon Silk Covered Oboe Reed Case

We also have beautiful wooden oboe reed cases: Oboe Reed Case Stained Wood

We also have oboe reed making kits. There are kits for reed adjusting: Oboe Reed Making Kit

And our new Deluxe reed making kit featuring a Landwell Reed Knife and all the necessary items to make your very first reed, including staples and cane. This kit contains a Landwell reed knife, mandrel, cutting block, plaque, beeswax, spool of thread, three staples, three pieces of gouged, shaped and folded cane and a Reed Pros combo ruler. Deluxe Oboe Reed Making Kit

We carry Fox beveled reed knives, Landwell Medium steel and Soft steel double hollow ground knives, and new Pisoni double hollow ground reed knives. Pisoni Double Hollow Ground Reed Knife

Don’t forget your fresh supply of oboe reeds for the start of school!  Place your orders now at http://www.reedpros.com to make sure everything is in stock and sent to you in time for school starting. Please visit http://www.reedpros.com for new products and updates!

Posted in Reed Pros Products | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Oboe Reed Customer Reviews

reeds_rack_600x452

 

Very few things give me such pride as when a customer takes time out of their day to write to me about how much they are pleased with their reed order. I hope I can make oboe playing for everyone a little easier!

“Dear Tanya,
Thank you so much for the reeds. My daughter tried them all right away and was able to play her scales easily. There was no need for adjustments by her teacher which was the case for other reeds she has tried. Thanks again! PS – she’s already asking me to order some Med. Hard reeds 🙂  We’ll be back to order these soon”  ~ Marisol

“This place is GREAT! Bailed me out when I had an important audition coming up!!! Fantastic playing reeds out of box – no tailoring needed!” ~ Ray Otani

“I hate to even share some things … if this business gets too busy it’ll take longer to get my reed order. And yes, I DO play on other folks’ reeds much of the time these days. I just don’t like to make reeds. I think every oboist should learn to make reeds. I think it’s of utmost importance. However I don’t think we all have the talent to make them well. I’m one what I call the World’s Worst Reed Maker. It doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying, but it does mean I’ll buy reeds if I can find someone who works for me. Tanya’s reed do. Heck, she got me through Les Miserables!” ~ Patty Mitchell (from her website http://oboeinsight.com/category/idrs2013/)

Thank you all for taking the time to let me know you enjoy my oboe reeds. It always makes my day!

http://www.reedpros.com

 

Posted in Reed Pros Products | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How To Practice With A Metronome

Korg MA1 Metronome

Korg MA1 Metronome with subdivisions

I haven’t encountered a beginning musician yet who enjoys playing with a metronome. I know how they feel because I still remember those days of struggling to practice with the dreaded contraption and wondering why my teacher insisted on torturing me so. Many a time I sat puzzled looking at it wondering why it clearly must be off (of course that wasn’t the case, I was off tempo!) So how can you learn to practice with a metronome?

1. You need to learn the notes for the piece first. If your fingers aren’t sure where they are going on the keys, using a metronome will certainly only add to the frustration. The metronome is to help you with a steady tempo and accurate rhythms so you’ll need to make sure your fingers are comfortable with where they are going.

2. Think before you play. Before you begin any music you are practicing, even if it is just a short exercise in your book, think about the tempo first. If you just start without thinking about it, you may have picked a tempo that is too fast for trickier spots. This will make it so you slow down during those sections. The goal is a constant tempo, not one that speeds up and slows down. The metronome is there to help you make those trickier spots easier and faster by being constant.  

3. Subdivide. Count or sing a few measures out loud and subdivide the notes. Count out loud not only the quarter notes but the eighth notes as well. If your piece has sixteenth notes, count those out and make sure you are right with the metronome. It’s even easier to count the subdivisions if you have a metronome that can play those for you. I recommend the Korg MA-1. It is a great metronome for the money and it will subdivide 8ths, triplets, 16ths and special combinations of those rhythms. If you are keeping time with the metronome while singing/counting, then try to play the piece. It is much easier to focus on listening to the clicks when your focus isn’t on embouchure, fingerings and breath.

4. Play slowly. This may seem like a no-brainer but so many of us pick a tempo faster than we should when working on our music. The tempo for the piece you are playing may say Presto, but you’ll never get to Presto if you can’t play it Largo first. Not only that, if you are busy trying to play faster you are likely not able to concentrate on the metronome because all of your concentration is taken up with your fingers on the keys. It’s ok to slow down. You’ll get there.

5. Listen. Remember to listen out for the metronome.  If you hear it clicking and your quarter notes are not lined up with the metronomes clicks, you stopped listening to the metronome. If that happens, repeat steps 1-4. Keep at it!

Sometimes getting used to playing with a metronome is easier if you practice playing something you know really well. Play scales with your metronome. Usually most band students know at least a couple of scales in their first year of playing. Play those scales and see if your quarter notes are matching up exactly with the metronome.

These tips should help you get over the hurdle when it comes to the frustration of learning to play with a metronome. It was really annoying when I learned as a beginning musician but now I can’t imagine working through my pieces with out it! Do you have any tips that helped you? I’d love to hear them! Write a comment below.

Find the Korg MA-1 metronome recommended in this posting (and pictured above) at http://www.reedpros.com

Posted in Education | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

The Best Coin Ever Spent

This girl drops a coin in this man’s hat when something unexpected happens 🙂    I couldn’t stop smiling when I watched this. As a teacher, performer, musician and music enthusiast I found the video to be truly beautiful.

Click here to watch this video: http://www.wimp.com/bestcoin/

best coin

(Clicking on the picture doesn’t work. You’ll need to click the URL)

Posted in Just For Fun | Leave a comment

Oboe Reeds – How Long Do They Last?

Reed Pros image of hand crafted oboe reeds back lit to show detail.

Back lit hand crafted oboe reeds

How long does an oboe reed last? The average consensus is 10 -15 hours of playing time or about 1 month, whichever comes first.

No two oboe reeds are exactly alike no matter what steps are taken to ensure they are as much the same as possible. Oboe reeds are made from cane (Arundo Donax specifically). Since it is a living thing, the cane will vary greatly.

So what steps can you take to make sure your reeds are lasting as long as possible?

1. Never buy just one oboe reed.

  • If you are out of reeds and restocking, never buy just one reed. If that one reed doesn’t play well, you are stuck with it until you can get more. Also (and more importantly) you can’t take the risk on having only one playable reed and it cracks or breaks in some way.

2. Purchase at least 3 oboe reeds at a time.

  • See number 1 and number 3.

3. Rotate the reeds.

  • It is really easy to play on the reed you love the most all the time and ignore your other reeds. Don’t fall into this trap! It will wear out sooner if you only play on one reed. Save the best reed for your lessons, really important band rehearsals, solos or performances. If you rotate the reeds when you purchase three at a time, they break in evenly and last longer. Play reed “A” Monday, reed “B” Tuesday, reed “C” Wednesday, then back to reed “A” for Thursday. Continue the pattern.

4. Buy hand made reeds from a qualified supplier. (Like www.reedpros.com)

  • Mass produced reeds purchased from most music stores have inferior scraping techniques and a shrill tone quality at best. You’ll have a more mature sound and enjoy playing on hand made reeds.

5. When soaking your reeds up to play, use water in a cup instead of trying to soak them in your mouth.

  • Reeds soaked in your mouth don’t really feel as free blowing as reeds soaked in water. Saliva has digestive properties and degrades the reed as you play. Might as well keep the exposure to a minimum if possible.

6. Rinse your mouth with water (or brush your teeth) if you have just eaten before playing. 

  • Food “gunk” is no good for your reeds or your instrument!

7. Avoid oversoaking the reeds.

  • If you have soaked up multiple reeds for the rehearsal or performance and decide on the reed you like be sure to put the others away. Leaving them soak for extended periods of time causes the fibers to lose their elasticity thus shortening the life of the reed.

Out of oboe reeds? Try hand made reeds by Reed Pros! Visit http://www.reedpros.com and read the descriptions to see which reed is right for you.

Posted in Education | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Importance of Oboe Reed Cases

Oboe Reed Case

Oboe Reed Case, French style reed holders

Yes, you really do need a reed case.

Oftentimes one of the essential supplies that is overlooked when students start the oboe is a reed case. It doesn’t need to be an expensive one. A plastic case, like the one pictured below, will do just fine.

Plastic oboe reed case

Plastic oboe reed case

The plastic tubes or even the plastic clamshell style containers you get when purchasing reeds from a supplier are only meant to keep your reed safe during the shipping process. They are no substitute for a quality reed case!  See below the tubes and clamshell shipping containers.

clamshell reed holder

clamshell reed holder

shipping tube with reed

shipping tube with reed

The plastic tubes don’t offer the reeds the proper ventilation for the reeds to dry out. Another problem is if you aren’t careful when going to place the reed into the tube you could end up hitting the delicate tip and ruining the reed.

The clamshell style doesn’t offer a way to hold the reed securely. The reed ends up rolling back and forth on the foam padding while you try to close the clasp. If you haven’t ended up accidentally catching the reed in the sides of that case yet, it doesn’t mean you won’t. Then you’ll have spent between $9 – $15 for a reed you can no longer use because the tip of the reed got crushed as it rolled on the padding when you tried to close the clamshell.

Oboe reed cases come in a variety of materials and price ranges for all budgets. Keep your reeds safe and happy – purchase a reed case.

Now Reed Pros offers oboe reed cases! Please visit http://www.reedpros.com to see our latest products. We will have new lines of reed cases coming soon so check back often!

Posted in Education, Reed Pros Products | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment