Clavier Companion - July/August 2017 - 13
She recommends an Interleaved, or Random, Practice
Routine. Here, in simple form, is how it works:
component, and that personal commitment and
courage is key. To him, learning is a method of selfdiscovery, and there are always hard-to-explain vaults
over gaps leading to mastery, inexplicable using
traditional models of repetition and step-by-step
learning. He called these "heuristic gaps."
I tried to get my student Christina to use Bernsteinian
principles in her preparation two weeks before
her recital. "Play the program through at 8 a.m.," I
directed. "I can't," she replied, "I'm not a morning
person." "Perform it at church," I suggested. "No way,"
was her answer. "The piano there is terrible." "Invite
some friends and go straight through the program in
a different practice room." "Oh, no," was the answer.
"The room is too small."
I wasn't getting my message across. The whole
purpose of Bernsteinian practice is to vary the method
and environment in your preparation, so that your brain
and nervous system learn to adjust. If the situation
is less than ideal, all the better: playing the recital in
better conditions will seem easy.
Bernsteinian practice can also be used in daily work.
Use a variety of practice devices: different tempi,
articulation, starting points, and rhythmic patterns, so
that your brain adapts to new conditions.
"If you sound great in the practice room, you're doing
something wrong" -unknown piano student
Clarinetist Christine Carter would agree.5 She is an
active performer and teacher, but has an interesting
sideline: she researches effective practice strategies at
the Wesleyan University Brain and Mind Institute. She
has published articles in The Strad magazine and on
The Bulletproof Musician website.
She believes, to summarize, that one important aspect of
practicing is "keeping it new;" that if you think you sound
great, you are probably doing the same thing over and
over and not challenging yourself to practice creatively.
Dr. Carter observes that the human brain is drawn to
novelty and that repetition without variation leads to what
psychologists call a "hedonic adaptation"-we become
habituated to positive things and take them for granted.
* Practice initially in small sections. Don't shorten the
total amount of practice time, but instead of practicing
an Allegro from a Beethoven Sonata straight through
five times, divide the movement into smaller parts and
practice them randomly. The goal is to force the brain
to "begin again" multiple times, reinforcing learning.
* Practice in precisely timed intervals. If using
practice devices, use only one device per interval.
- Dotted rhythm-three minutes
- Something else-three minutes
- Scotch snap rhythm-three minutes
Other research has suggested that pausing up to
five seconds between repetitions seems to increase
learning. The goal? To continuously interest your brain
by changing up the routine.
The amount of helpful research on practicing and learning
seems to increase every year. But some of the best ideas are
experiential and not new. The legendary British conductor
Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983) said performance preparation
had two components, rehearsal practice and performance
practice. In rehearsal, you think backward; in performance,
you think forward. It makes sense: we think backward during
practice to assess and plan improvement; we think forward
for flow and pacing. I wish you much success in each! ▲
Scott McBride Smith is the Cordelia
Brown Murphy Professor at the
University of Kansas. A recognized
his philosophical and cognitive
approach, combined with a sense
of humor, has made him an
audience favorite around the
world. His numerous practical initiatives to improve
today's piano lesson experience include the series
American Popular Piano and the summer program
International Institute for Young Musicians.
Photos of Benjamin Dominguez (p11) and Kai Ono (p13) practicing
at the University of Kansas School of Music. Photos by Christine
Metz. Used with permission.
I learned a lot from Why Don't Students Like School? Jossey-Bass, 2009.
Chick, N. "Metacognition: Thinking about One's Thinking," Vanderbilt
University Center for Teaching, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-subpages/metacognition/. This useful page has an excellent overview of the
background and important research about metacognition.
Bathgate, M., Sims-Knight, J. and Schunn, C. "Thoughts on Thinking:
Engaging Novice Music Students in Metacognition," Applied Cognitive
Psychology, 26: 403-409 (2012). I first learned about this study
reading Noa Kageyama's blog The Bulletproof Musician, "Metacognitive
Ito, J.P. "Repetition without Repetition: Bernsteinian Perspectives on
Motor Learning for Musicians". College Music Symposium. 10/1/2011.