football-1-585059-mThe universe is conspiring to make me think hard about practicing. Coincidenza? I think not. I’m up to my eyeballs in Lieder and Art Song in preparation for a recital next month. Most of you know that I have arthritis and therefore can’t spend long hours at the keyboard. I need to make the most of the time I have and vary the physical tasks often when I work.

Last week I wrote about a few practice techniques that I have found helpful for myself and my students. Then, on Friday I came across a post from The Bulletproof Musician, Why Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight. The article was written by Dr. Christine Carter, a clarinetist who teaches at The Manhattan School of Music.

Rather than relying on blocked practice where all repetitions of a task (6, 10, 20, etc.) are completed before moving on to a new task, Dr. Carter advocates setting up a random or interleaved practice schedule. Taking 3 passages and practicing them in rotating order makes the brain set up the task each time we play the passage.

Blocked practicing allows our brains to set it and forget it. By interweaving passages we have to practice the setting up part every time. Best of all, random practice has been shown to improve retention.

And, what you may ask, is the scientific name for all this? The Contextual Interference Effect. Yup. We are right back to interference this week. And, since I have a deadline and lots of material to get up to snuff, I decided do my own experiment in Contextual Interference.

One of the challenges for me in programs such as song recitals is changing keys over and over. The first songs are no problem but as the program or rehearsal goes on my mind can sometimes hit a wall and refuse to acknowledge (or maybe pay attention to?) what my ear knows. This particular program is comprised of 23 songs in 14 different keys.

It seemed to me that interlaced practice would help me review and learn the program and might be just the ticket for helping my issue since actively noticing the key is part of the setting up step in repetition. Would it help if I had to set up the key 6-10 separate times in a session rather than just one time? Complicating the matter is the fact that the songs are all in different stages of development. Some I have played for years, some I know but have never played and some are completely new to me.

I had already worked out fingerings, marked trouble spots, and done some listening. So, it was time for some interference. I made a list of all the songs that didn’t need a lot of help. There were 8 and I decided to use these as warm ups and as cool downs. I have been randomly doing one or two at the beginning and end of my sessions.

I made a list of all the other songs in groups of three as recommended by Dr. Carter. (OK, one group has four. So sue me.) Rather than just put them in the program/movement order, I tried to group them so that the problems being practiced were different. I ended up with 5 groups.

I’ve been practicing by rotating the songs within a group 3 times during each practice session. I haven’t yet tried Dr. Carter’s random rotations. My first group went like this: Fisherwise, Gretchen, Dvorak 1 / Fisherwise, Gretchen, Dvorak 1 / Fisherwise, Gretchen, Dvorak 1.

At first I practiced just a portion of each song in rotation but as I got better (and better I did get), I was able to divide the songs themselves into sections and rotate those sections randomly as well. (did I perhaps interfere with the interference?) I have been playing musically since that is part of muscle memory and good technique. Interlacing helps avoid the rookie mistake (which all of us can succumb to) of banging out your repetitions just to get them over with.

The cool part is that even though I am not practicing all the groups on the same day, the learning is sticking. I rotate the groups on a 2-3 a day basis and so far life is good. There is none of that rusty fingery, foggy mind stuff happening. There is no feeling like I’m back to square one when I start a piece or passage the next time I practice it. I know I will have off days but hopefully the foundation I’m building will see me through them.

Certainly this method is allowing me to target my practice and to spread different tasks out over a few days—something which my arthritis certainly approves of.  I’m sure as the days pass, I will need to reconfigure my groups in order to keep my mind from going into set it and forget it mode again. Try Contextual Interference out for yourself and let us all know how it goes.

(On another note, isn’t it awesome that I managed to use a football reference twice within the last two weeks? Coincidenza???)





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