I spent so many years believing that my way of practicing was effective. I was told that the only way to become a great player was to practice in long blocks of uninterrupted repetition. Recent studies in cognitive science show clearly that this time honored belief of mine is not true. Long uninterrupted blocks of time given over to working exclusively on one exercise or one activity has been found out to not only be unhealthy for muscles, tendons and ligaments, but also discourages the creation of long term memories and deeper learning. The following articles sum up for musicians the current science on learning and makes a very counterintuitive assertion which is that many short, interrupted and interleaved sessions of practicing (around 3 minutes long) are considerably better than long sessions devoted to one exercise.
The above concept combined with keeping a “practice log” or list of things one is presently working on makes for an enjoyable and much more effective way to learn music. It keeps one focused, awake and wanting to play more. It makes that which one practices more accessible sooner and it (at least for me) stops obsessive and frustrating practice behavior.
In a teaching situation rotating topics every 3 minutes keeps the lesson moving and gives a strong feeling of development within the lesson and from lesson to lesson. By constantly returning to material one is practicing retrieval, thereby making it much easier for the student to remember and continue at home in a similar manner.
The reason the method seems counter intuitive is that we use the “feels good so it must be good” way of judging effectiveness of a session. When it comes to learning when the juices begin to flow and the exercise gets easy learning has stopped. We are just feeding the ego by repeating longer. Learning comes about by leaving a topic or activity just long enough so that forgetting begins to take place. By getting back into a topic or activity we have to start again to remember which is a “gear grinding” and painful process that effectively lets the brain know that we really do need the information and it better shift it over into long term memory for easier retrieval and use.
This method has revitalized my belief in my ability to learn and improve quickly. I can’t wait to get back to the shed or any learning situation for that matter.