Every day, all day, I hear myself asking the same question over and over again: “How did you practice this?” I ask this question to students of all ages and levels. I ask this question even when I am fully hoping the answer will be “Exactly like you told me to.”
I ask this question because I know that engaging deeply with practice—maybe even falling in love with practice—is the secret to becoming a lifelong musician. Find me a student who loves to practice, and you have found a musician. Pure and simple.
Hence my relentless question: How did you practice this? But I also ask the question because I know the dangers of State-Dependent Learning.
Years ago, while working on a graduate degree in Educational Psychology, I was sitting in class one day when the professor began talking about something called State-Dependent Learning. I listened for a moment and then thought, “Well I know exactly what this is. It is called ‘I played this better at home.’”
In a nutshell, State-Dependent Learning works like this: we can recall and reproduce information and skills better in the environment we learned them in than when we are put in a new situation. Translation: music students will play better in the space, and on the instrument, where they learned and practiced the music. This is not a flimsy excuse offered for a lack of practicing. It is actually true: they played better at home.
Any musician can attest to this. We have all found ourselves in performance situations where we have not played our best, and while nerves do play a role (they are indeed part of the change in mental and emotional “states”), they are not the whole story. What is happening is that taken out of a familiar setting our brains do not access the material we have learned with the same ease and fluidity as we did in our practice rooms.
But there are ways around this very real challenge. Back to my question about practicing.
Educational research shows that the deeper and richer and more varied the learning is encoded in our brain, the more flexible and quicker we can retrieve the material. In other words, the more we practice the same way in the same place at the same time, the less nimble we will be at recalling our efforts in a situation that doesn’t mirror exactly our practice situations.
What I am really looking for when I ask, “How did you practice this?” is evidence that students have practiced in a variety of ways, thereby creating multiple pathways of learning in their brains and undermining the negative effects of State-Dependent Learning. Note that I do not ask “How long did you practice this?” or “How many times did you practice this?” These are relevant questions to be sure, but not nearly as helpful as “How did you practice this?”
The good news is that there are probably hundreds of creative and resourceful ways to counter State-Dependent Learning and to encourage curious and engaged practicing in general. Win-win, I say.
Here are a dozen practice techniques to get you started:
1. Hands Separately. This is often a first step when learning a piece at the piano, but as I remind my students, I often practice hands separately even on performance days, long after the nuts and bolts of the learning has taken place. Practicing hands separately forces us to listen closely and attend to exactly what each hand is doing. As a teacher once said to me, a lot of problems can be covered up by the other hand.
This practice strategy can be easily translated to other instruments as well. For example, string and wind players can practice fingering their instruments without bowing or blowing. The idea is that by subtracting an element (or three!), we can focus more intentionally on what remains.
2. Tap the rhythm. My students know that I expect this as a beginning step in learning new material, but it can be helpful long after the basic rhythms are mastered. Tapping rhythm removes the challenges of notes, fingering, etc. and yet at the same time, reinforces the musical gestures in a physical way. For a more advanced version of this idea, try stepping the beat while tapping the rhythm with your hands.
3. Ah! The Metronome. Of course, this makes any good practice list, but there are so many interesting ways to use this device. Metronomes can be used to slow us down or speed us up. We can practice Hands Separately (or the appropriate variation) with the metronome. We can alternate between super-slow, super-fast and somewhere in the middle. We can set the metronome on beats two and four, instead of the predictable beats one and three. So many options.
But metronomes can do so much more than just manage tempo. Metronomes are brilliant at ironing technical stumbles and smoothing out musical bumps, even when tempo consistency is basically already achieved. Particularly if one takes the music apart hands separately and sets the metronome at a moderate (not challenging) tempo, one can work magic towards erasing inner unsteadiness within beats/measures/passages.
4. Opposites. Play with opposite dynamics, or even more challenging: opposite articulations. Not easy but will really sharpen one’s attention to the actual printed markings.
5. Scramble. Scramble sections or lines or phrases out of order. Play them backwards or start in the middle and work out. Anything that takes us out of the habit of always starting at the beginning is helpful here.
6. Play-Think-Play. Play a phrase, think the next phrase, and so on. Try to do this without dropping a beat.
7. Fermata Practice. This is one of my favorite practice techniques. Fermata practice simply means to insert a fermata on any chord, note, jump, cranky turn, tricky fingering or other troubled spot and just sit there until your body and your brain have sorted out the problem. There is so much freedom in fermata practice because you can put fermatas in randomly as needed, depending on the day. There can be twenty-seven fermatas per page or only two. You can put a fermata on the first beat of every measure, or on the last note of every phrase. Fermata practice demands that you are paying attention and adjusting your work to fit the situation. This strategy is both highly creative and super flexible.
8. Record and listen. This practice trick assumes what we all know: we can’t fix something unless we know exactly what we are doing already. Record a piece, a passage, or a section and listen and evaluate. Be your own teacher.
9. Listen to recordings. This is #8 in reverse, sort of. Listen to other people’s recordings of the piece in question. Even if you hate the interpretation, it will help to clarify your own musical ideas.
10 Research piece/composer/musical context. All background is helpful. When stuck, this is what I do.
11. Analyze form/themes/key structure. Our brains love a roadmap. Figure out how the piece breaks down in terms of sections, repeated themes and key centers. Like #9 and #10, this suggestion reminds us that non-playing practice can be as helpful as a dozen mindless repetitions.
12. Finally: Tempo Mish-mash. This is not for the faint of heart. This requires that you have a solid handle on tempo consistency, but it is great fun if you can handle the wackiness of the intentional tempo shifts. Take a piece/section/passage and deliberately change the tempo every phrase (or measure or line). Do the first bit at tempo, then the next part twice as slow, then the next part back to tempo, and then twice as fast and so on, mixing up tempi as you want. This might make you sea-sick, but you won’t get bored. And oh! How nimble and flexible you will be.
How did I practice this? Ah, let me count the ways…