Close this search box.

Brain Research and Practicing Part 2

Molly Gebrian | July 2016

   Most successful musicians learn how to practice well and become adept at perfecting exactly what their arms, hands, fingers, lips, and tongues should do to convincingly express the music they are performing. Fewer musicians, however, spend time practicing what their brains should do during performances. This oversight leads to two common shortcomings in performances: difficulties with tempo and timing and a lack of consistency and reliability.

Effective Metronome Use
    Musicians use a metronome to learn how to play with a steady pulse. However, many musicians have had the experience of practicing regularly with a metronome only to find that they still rush or drag when playing the same passage without one. There is a good reason for this: the brain works in a fundamentally different way when the metronome is on versus when it is off.
    In a study by Rao, et al., (1997), non-musicians tapped to a metronome and then continued tapping at the same tempo after the metronome was turned off while researchers looked at their brain activity. They found that entire areas of the brain that were silent while the metronome was on became very active when the metronome was turned off. Specifically, the supplementary motor area (SMA), the putamen (put.), and the thalamus (thal.) are only activated when the metronome is off. These areas together comprise the sensorimotor loop and are important for the internal self-timing of movements. It makes sense they would be active only when the metronome is off because the metronome provides an alternate external source to help time movements. Incidentally, it is these areas that are affected in Parkinson’s disease, which is why Parkinson’s patients have difficulty initiating and controlling their movements.
   What this means for musicians is that while practicing with the metronome, the brain is doing something fundamentally different than it will have to do in performance without a metronome. So in the practice room, it is imperative to make sure to practice what the brain must do in a performance situation, not just what the body has to do.
    Armed with this new information, here is a step-by-step guide to using the metronome to help improve the sense of pulse.
1. Play a passage perfectly steady with a metronome clicking on each beat. If this is a challenge, practicing conducting the passage while singing it, and walking with the metronome while playing until it is perfectly in sync with the metronome.
2. Play the passage with the metronome, but use the clicks as offbeats – the and of the beat. Because many musicians find this difficult try this exercise to trick your mind into feeling the clicks as the offbeats. Turn on the metronome and tap on the offbeats. Then count out loud (1, 2, 3, 4 etc) with the tapping – not with the metronome. Stop counting and tapping, and it should feel like the metronome is off the beat. If this is difficult, work at it until this feels natural. Struggling with this exercise is clear confirmation that the internal sense of pulse is weak and is reliant on external reinforcement.
3. Another exercise is to play the passage while the metronome clicks on every other beat. So, in 4/4, it should only click on 1 and 3.
4. Play it again and have the metronome click only on the downbeat.
5. Have the metronome click only on every other downbeat.
6. Continue to move the clicks further and further apart. A metronome app such as Tempo by Frozen Ape is useful because any beat can be manually silenced. For example, you could set the metronome to 12/4 and make everything silent except the downbeat. If the passage is in 4/4, the metronome will click on the downbeat of every third measure or every fourth measure in 3/4.
7. A random beat generator, such as the app TimeGuru, will randomly silence a certain percentage of the beats. It is very challenging to play with 75% of the beats randomly missing and then line up precisely with the metronome when it does click. This is the ultimate test for steadiness of pulse.
    This process gradually makes the brain increasingly responsible for generating the beat itself, while still having something objective to check in with. It is a great challenge, a lot of fun, and will dramatically improve the sense of pulse and timing.

Random Practicing
   All musicians have dealt with the frustration of being able to play something perfectly in the practice room, only to have it completely fail on stage. All teachers know the, “But I played it perfectly yesterday!” excuse. Some of this is performance anxiety, but it also can be attributed to the specific practice method being used, namely blocked practicing. Nearly all musicians are taught to practice this way. It involves doing something X number of times and spending a big chunk of time perfecting a particular piece or passage before moving on to something else. Random practicing is the opposite of this. The name may conjure up an image of a hopelessly unfocused practice session that could not possibly be beneficial. On the contrary, when it is done correctly, random practice is anything but unfocused, and research has shown it to be the most beneficial type of practicing for good performances.
   The bulk of the experiments on random practicing come from the sports world. One of the clearest experiments on random practicing comes from a study on baseball players that examined athletes on a collegiate baseball team (Hall, et al., 1994). Researchers wanted to see whether blocked or random practice improved batting performance more. They divided the players into two groups, and each practiced hitting 45 pitches. In the blocked practice group, they were thrown 15 fast balls, then 15 curve balls, then 15 change-up pitches. In the random practice group, they never knew what was coming, so they might get two fast balls, a curve ball, then three change-up pitches, then two curve balls, etc. They found that in the practice session, the players in the blocked practice group hit more balls than those in the random practice group. However, when they tested their batting performance at a later date, those who trained with blocked practice had gotten 25% better, while those who had trained with random practice had gotten 57% better. These results (better performance during training in the blocked practice group, but better performance in an actual performance situation in the random practice group) are found over and over again, in a variety of sports.
    In 2013, two researchers decided to test this in pianists (Abushanab and Bishara, 2013). In their study pianists had to learn a group of brand new short pieces. The pieces were hard enough that they were not easily sightread, but easy enough that they could be learned in a relatively short amount of time. All of the pianists learned all of the melodies, but some were learned using blocked practice, and some with random practice. The actual procedure was a bit more complicated, but an example of blocked practice would be 30 minutes on Piece A, then 30 minutes on Piece B, and 30 minutes on Piece C. Random practice would be 5 minutes on Piece A, 5 minutes on Piece C, 5 minutes on Piece B, 5 minutes on Piece C, 5 minutes on piece A, etc. until each piece had been done for a total of 30 minutes. Two days later, the researchers brought them back to perform some of the pieces. Just like the baseball players, the melodies they had learned using random practice were performed much better (measured in terms of note and rhythm accuracy) than those learned using blocked practice. Strangely enough, when they asked the pianists which practice method they thought was better, they said they thought blocked practice was better, even though they could see that random practice resulted in better performance. This finding is so common that psychologists have a name for it: the illusion of mastery.
    Understanding why random practice is so effective can help protect against this illusion. Like the baseball players, pianists did worse in practice when using random practice. This is because of something called the contextual interference effect and is the whole reason why random practice works so well. When doing something for the first time, the brain has to recreate from scratch how to do it. If it is done again right away, the brain does not have to remember how to do it, it simply repeats what it just did. This is why everything often sounds much better the second time through, even if no new learning happened in between the first and second time. It creates an illusion of mastery because it seems like the passage is fine, whereas in reality, the brain is just better at repeating something than figuring how to do it from scratch. During random practicing, the brain has to keep switching between different things, which interfere with each other (hence the contextual interference effect), forcing the brain to continually have to reconstruct things as if it is the first time. This is exactly what happens in a performance: the brain has to reconstruct everything from scratch on the spot to get it right the first time.
    Musicians often wish they could get a second chance at a particular passage when it does not go well in performance. This happens in the first place because, through blocked practicing, they have gotten very good at repeating something correctly, but not at playing it perfectly on the first try. Random practicing is the answer to that frustration. Studies of brain activity during random practice back this up. Researchers see greater sensorimotor activity during random practice. During later performance, they show activity in higher cognitive areas that are involved in planning and working memory. This is not seen in people using blocked practice; their brains have just performed the activity, so they do not have to plan or access memory to do it correctly a second time.
    There are, of course, an infinite number of ways to use the principles of random practicing. Here are just a few:

•    In order for random practicing to be effective, the passage has to be reliably correct when played X number of times in a row. If it is not, random practicing will never work. In fact, one study (with basketball players) found that the most effect way to practice is to do blocked practice (AAABBBCCC), followed by serial practice (ABCABCABC), followed by random practice (ACBCAABCCA). First, make sure you can play the passage at least five times in a row correctly (so, if it is correct twice, and then on the third try there is a mistake, you have to start over at zero). Then, pick several passages and put a small sticky note in the music by each passage. Play the first passage and if it is correct, put a tick mark on the sticky note. Do the same with each passage until you have done them all. Then, come back to the first passage and if it is correct, make another tick mark. If there is a mistake, erase the first tick mark and start over at zero. Continue through each of the passages until you have done each one at least five times in a row correctly in this serial way.

•    Get an interval timer app and set it to go off every X number of minutes (every five minutes, for instance). Go about practicing as usual (probably using blocked practice, which is fine), but when the timer goes off, immediately switch and play a passage that is difficult. It could be the very first note of a certain piece, an entire orchestral excerpt or solo, or a particularly challenging measure in the middle of a chamber music piece. Just play it once, and then even if it was awful, go back to whatever you were practicing. When the timer goes off again, play that tricky passage again. Keep doing this for the duration of the practice session for as many days as it takes. Eventually, that difficult passage will be perfect every time the timer goes off. When it comes time to play it in performance, you will feel confident, and the passage will be secure and reliable.

•    At least two weeks before a performance or audition, play through the entire program or do a mock audition at the end of each day. This will mimic what it will feel like to just play everything from scratch with no chance to play the hard spots first.

•    In doing scale and arpeggio practice, rather than going around the circle of 5ths (or some other systematic method), try incorporating random practice. Put little slips of paper in a plastic bag, each with a different key on it. In another bag, put different tempos, articulations, or dynamics. Each day, pick a slip out of the key bag and one out of the tempo (or articulation, etc.) bag to determine which scale you will play and how.

    There are many, many more ways to incorporate random practicing. The most important aspect of random practicing to keep in mind is that its effectiveness comes from forcing the brain to reconstruct how to do something from scratch with no preparation or warm-up.
    Musicians tend to think learning to play an instrument is about training the body to perform certain skills, but it is really the brain that is trained. Learn to structure practice sessions so the brain gets to rehearse and not just the body. When the brain becomes the focus of practice, performance feels effortless and reliable.     

Works cited:

Abushanab, B., and Bishara, A.J. (2013). “Memory and metacognition for piano melodies: illusory advantage of fixed-over random-order practice.” Memory and Cognition 41(6): 928-937.
Hall, K.G., Domingues, D.A., Cavazos, R. (1994). “Contextual interference effects with skilled baseball players.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 78: 835-841.
Rao, S.M., et al., (1997). “Distributed neural systems underlying the timing of movements.” The Journal of Neuroscience 17(14): 5528-5535.