Last time we discussed repetition, the act of playing the same passage over and over in a short time-span. In this article, we will discuss the second element in successful practice.
As we learned in part 1, repetition is effective for a limited time; after this short period, continuing to repeat can waste time as well as lead to daydreaming and joint pain. Furthermore, we can only learn so much in one session, no matter how long we do our drills. How can we imprint the skills we want to have so they are consistent and available to us? Through what I call reinforcement, or the process of forgetting and re-learning.
If we strongly imprinted every trivial thing in our experiences, we would be overwhelmed with information; memorizing every detail of our day would not help us. One way our brain can determine if something should be placed in long-term memory is if it happens consistently over a long period of time; songs that get played over and over on the radio get memorized, whether we like it or not. This is the whole idea of “image” advertising; enough impressions, and we know the brand, even if we have never used it. Our strategy of reinforcement uses this to imprint the things we choose into our memory.
Two types of memory
Learning theory holds that there is declarative knowledge, or facts, names and figures, and procedural knowledge, such as walking, talking and playing an instrument. A law student would primarily deal with declarative knowledge, such as case law, while a gymnast would obviously need mostly physical, or procedural skill. It appears that procedural skills need more cycles of forgetting and reinforcing than book-knowledge, and that actual changes in brain structure have been noted in individuals learning these physical skills. This is why it takes time.
A worn-out but accurate analogy
Imagine we have a house plant that needs a cup of water a day, but in order to simplify, we just pour all seven cups on it on Sunday, and save the time of the daily waterings. Two things happen: The excess water overflows and goes to waste, and over the week, the plant dries out and dies, or at least doesn’t grow.
The water is your time, and the plant is your skill.
As we well know, there is only so much water the plant can accept per day. Likewise, there is only so much information your brain can accept per practice day. Beyond these limits, your playing will not improve, and may even degrade due to over-repetition. In order to make progress, we balance repetition and reinforcement.
Imprinting the skills
1. Reinforcement only works if we have given our mind sufficient time to absorb and digest the things we practice. The typical interval is overnight; if we come back to the passage too soon, it will not have completely gone out of our “temporary buffer.” On the other hand, if we wait too long, it will have faded away and we will have to start over.
2. We need a checklist of passages to be reviewed in order to keep them from fading away. I have three categories of things I am practicing:
a. New passages that I am just starting, and that need slow, deliberate practice.
b. Parts that I have been playing a while that need to be made stronger.
c. Entire songs, forms and transitions that need to be kept performance-ready.
3. We need to be consistent about revisiting the various things in this queue, lest they be abandoned before they are ready. Worse yet, half-learned passages can become distorted with wrong fingerings or even wrong notes.
4. Keeping track of our improvement can be very rewarding; these successes can encourage us to keep going.
5. No amount of repetition can have the same long-term effect as reinforcement; spaced learning is the key to deeply-embedded skill.
Next time, we will examine the third element, evaluation.
Question: What is your system for imprinting and strengthening your skills?