“To get to authenticity, you really keep going down to the bone, to the honesty and the inevitability of something.”
–Meredith Monk, singer & composer (The Musician’s Way), p. 19
Although we musicians practice in personalized ways, there are three fundamental practice strategies that I think every performer benefits from understanding: varied, distributed, and interleaved practice.
This article sums up features of all three.
By incorporating these and other deliberate practice techniques into our work, we deepen our learning and boost our ability to assimilate the bones of a composition.
Varied, Distributed, and Interleaved Practice
1. Varied Practice
Varied practice entails working on a piece from diverse angles.
We might practice hands alone and then together, vocalize a tricky rhythm, modify the rate of change, record and then review a chunk, and so forth.
The key is to mix up our practice approaches so that we cultivate easeful control as well as broad awareness of the music and our execution.
Conversely, musicians who rely on uniform practice habits, especially mindless repetition, tend to embed a sort of flimsy muscle memory that readily breaks down in performance situations.
2. Distributed Practice
Instead of focusing on a single piece in one extended practice session (blocked practice), with distributed practice, we practice the same music in separate sessions, perhaps over the span of a day.
If we’re tackling an orchestra excerpt, let’s say, we might practice it slowly in the morning for 20 minutes using varied tactics, review at noon, and then work on increasing the tempo in the evening.
3. Interleaved Practice
When we interleave practice tasks, we intermix them during a single practice session, returning to the same material relatively frequently.
If we aim to memorize a solo in addition to mastering that orchestra excerpt, we might zero in on the excerpt for 20 minutes, review a portion of the solo for 10 minutes, go back to the excerpt for 10, and then take a break for 5 or 10. Following that, we might memorize more of the solo before returning to the excerpt.
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Varied, distributed, and interleaved practice strategies deepen our learning because, for one, they require us to repeatedly reorient to the material we’re mastering.
When we interleave or distribute practice tasks, for example, and return to a passage we worked on earlier, our brains have to reconstruct our intentions for interpreting and executing the passage – that reconstruction reinforces the neural pathways in our brains, making our learning and execution more secure.
Note that some writers may use the terms “interleaved” and “distributed” interchangeably, but I recognize distinctions.
Interleaving, as I describe it here, takes place in a single practice session when we intermix tasks and frequently revisit the same material; distributing refers either to practicing the same material across separate practice sessions or, in long practice sessions, when substantial periods of time elapse between our encounters with the material.
For detailed practice guidelines suited to both individual and group music making, see Part I of The Musician’s Way.
Want additional help to upgrade your practice, performance, or career skills? Contact me for coaching via Skype.
© 2017 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © Stokkete, licensed from Shutterstock