Have you ever noticed that when you take a bucket of balls onto the tennis court or driving range and just hit, eventually you settle into a nice rhythm and things start to click?

Or how in the practice room, if you keep noodling around with the same tricky passage 20, 30, 50 times, suddenly things fall into place and just work?

It’s a great feeling. It feels like we’ve figured it out. That our muscles have gotten the hang of things, and we’ve made some tangible progress. It feels like a good day, and all is well in the world.

But on some level we are also uneasy. Deep down we hope that it sticks, but we know from experience that it probably won’t. That the nice flow we got into, the level of playing we reached by the 40th repetition is not stable – and it’s probably not going to sound quite so flawless at our lesson or our jury in two weeks.

So, if you’re anything like I was, you start practicing more and more as the performance draws nearer. You keep playing the tricky passages over and over, almost compulsively, mostly to quiet those nagging doubts and insecurities. You run things ad nauseum to try to build up your confidence and keep everything “in your fingers,” and convince yourself that you can trust everything to work out ok when the moment comes.

It’s like that guy on TV who keeps all those plates spinning up in the air. Scrambling frantically from one to the next, trying to touch everything every ten seconds to make sure nothing comes crashing down.

Of course, I could never keep all those plates spinning indefinitely. I wouldn’t nail all the tricky passages 10 times out of 10. And I’d end up worrying more, not less.

We actually don’t have to run frantically from plate to plate. As it happens, there is a way to tweak how we practice, so we can play more accurately when it matters, and create more stable and reliable long-term improvement.

Illusory gains

Learning is a funny thing. Have you ever gone into an exam thinking that you knew the material only to discover in horror that you didn’t know nearly as much as you thought?

It can be the same in the practice room. The rapid gains we make when learning a new skill by repeating the same passage over and over is deceptive. We have a tendency to confuse the rate of acquisition – or how fast we improve during practice – with learning. A better measuring stick of learning is how much of that skill is retained an hour, day, or week after a practice session.

To that end, we’ve covered a few key practice strategies that can help maximize this kind of stable learning in previous posts. Deliberate practice vs. mindless repetition. Interleaved vs. blocked practice.

A third paradigm is variable vs. constant practice.

Increase accuracy

One of the classic studies in this area compared two groups of 8-year olds who practiced tossing beanbags to targets at various distances over the course of 12 weeks. One group practiced tossing beanbags to a target 3 feet away (“constant” practice group). The other group practiced tossing beanbags to targets 2 feet away and 4 feet away (“variable” practice group).

At the end of the study, when the kids were tested on their ability to hit the 3-foot target, the ones who practiced from 2 and 4-feet – but never from 3-feet – actually demonstrated significantly greater accuracy on the final test than those who practiced at 3 feet the entire time.

Subsequent studies have replicated such results, and suggest that yes, practicing the same skill over and over in exactly the same way helps to improve your performance during that practice session and thus creates the illusion of rapid learning.

But, if you want to demonstrate a high level of skill and mastery when the situational demands might be slightly different (perhaps your hands are a little colder, stiffer, you are playing slightly faster or slower, your breathing is a little shallower, your clothes are more or less restrictive), practicing multiple different variations of the same skill is going to enable you to perform better when it’s performance time.

How’s that? Well, it’s thought that variable practice essentially creates more robust motor programs, making it easier for you to generalize or transfer what you’ve learned in one situation to another similar situation.

Loooong-term retention

So we know that variable training contributes to greater learning in the long run. But one researcher was curious to see how long these variable training effects might actually last.

So he took 32 college students and had them practice shooting free throws.

Everyone started by taking a shooting test to establish a baseline of their shooting abilities.

Then, each participant went through a 90-minute training session where they either shot 160 baskets from the free throw line (constant practice group) or 160 shots from a number of different positions (variable practice group).

When both groups took a shooting test immediately after the training session, the constant practice group performed better than the variable practice group. No surprise, right?

However, when researchers surprised the participants a year later by having them return to take the test again, the results were reversed. This time, despite not practicing free throws for a year, the participants who practiced shooting free throws from a variety of locations in the free throw lane outperformed those who practiced only from the free throw line.

The results suggest that whatever it is the variable practice group learned during their 90-minute training session, they retained more of it than the group which practiced free throws from only one distance.

Take action

Remember that the progress you appear to make during the acquisition phase of a skill isn’t necessarily the best reflection of how much learning is actually taking place. It might feel like you are making rapid progress and be very satisfying, but don’t confuse the temporarily high “accessibility” of the correct motor program with the underlying “habit strength” of that motor program.

Don’t just practice with the metronome at one speed. Try practicing slower and faster than the target tempo. Louder and softer. With vibrato and without. Sitting and standing.

Change things up, throw in a range of variations on a theme, and enhance your ability to nail the passage even if the performance conditions aren’t exactly like the practice room (because when was the last time a performance felt like the practice room?).

What are some other ways in which you have incorporated variable practice into your students’ lessons or practice sessions – perhaps even without realizing it?

photo credit: dview.us via photopin cc

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About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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