THE PIANO BRAIN: REPETITION FOR SKILL DEVELOPMENT

Article by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

The inflexible and automatic knowledge gained through repetition is the foundation of expert performance.  A warning has to be issued, however.   The learning brain does not distinguish between good and poor habits, but learns whatever we repeat. Repetition creates permanence, and habits are difficult to correct. In particular, it is essential to pay attention to rhythmic accuracy as rhythmic patterns are robustly set in the memory and difficult to alter once in place.

Inexperienced learners struggle with the discipline required for repetition and get lulled into a false sense of mastery when they judge themselves as having played a passage reasonably well. Without sufficient repetition, however, the learning soon unravels. It’s best for teachers to practice in front of students, modeling the “how” of repetition, and give young musicians a specific number of repetitions to aim for in their practice.  As students become more mature learners, they regulate repetition, depending on the complexity of the passage. Experts repeat short passages of music again and again.

Most musicians stop repeating when they play a passage correctly, but it is crucial that they keep repeating after this point. Brain connections strengthen and consolidate with myelin, a substance that insulates the axon of a neuron; it is known as the white matter of the brain. Myelin development seems to be a key for learning and maintaining skills because it increases the speed and accuracy of data transmission. Myelin formation is more important than the number of neurons in the brain. Albert Einstein’s (OBM) brain, for example, had no more neurons than the average brain, but it had twice as much myelin. Experts have more myelin build-up on the neural circuits pertinent to their domain than do non-experts. In 2005, a Swedish professor found a positive correlation between myelin development and the number of hours professional pianists practiced. Myelin is a product of activity and is one aspect of brain plasticity, a term that refers to physical changes in the brain.

Brain plasticity includes an increase in myelination and an increase in the number of connections between neurons. In musical learning, increasing repetition of a phrase after one plays it correctly builds myelin, which supports consistent and accurate performance.

“The amateur practices until he gets it right. The professional practices until he cannot get it wrong”. – Stephen Hillier (MGBH)

The amateur stops repeating when he gets it right. The professional repeats well after to consolidate the myelin coating of the axon sheath. – Michael Griffin

It is common to confuse temporary performance effects with long-term learning. The teacher or parent may mistake the phrase “but I played it better yesterday” as a white lie, and the student might be disillusioned because he or she will think the blocks of repetition should have been sufficient for more permanent learning.

There are two issues here. First, even with spaced repetition, the consolidation process takes time. We cannot predict how much repetition it will take to master a skill, but human nature almost always underestimates this. If a passage a student thought he or she learned yesterday is a muddle today, the student must repeat the repetition process. Try not to be despondent. This is a natural part of acquiring skill. Memories do not just form at the point of learning, so it may take several sittings for neural connections to become strong. Some people seem to learn faster than others, but learning is not a race, and we are all capable of complex skill development through repetition. It may take one person six hundred repetitions over two weeks to consolidate a phrase, while it may take someone else only three hundred repetitions in one week. Students must learn to be patient and trust in the power of repetition.

Blocked and Spaced Repetition

 

Recently I was watching television when a commercial break interrupted my program. Commercials are annoying at best, but this set of five commercial spots really got under my skin. This is because one of the commercials played three times, not in a row, but with a different commercial in between. Just when I had forgotten it, back it came to haunt me. And I thought rondo form was just a musical concept!

A B A C A

The repeated commercial A was deliberately interspersed with other commercials. The arrangement was cleverly designed to make me forget and retrieve, and I found it difficult to dislodge the commercial from my attention for some time afterward. I had to acknowledge that this marketing technique was really successful. I had “learned” the commercial. I turned this irritant to my advantage.

A German psychologist – Hermann Ebbinghaus (OBM) – famously revealed the “forgetting curve”, proposing that students forget 90 percent of what they learn within thirty days. Further to this disheartening finding, the most significant memory loss occurs within the first hour. A memory becomes more robust when the information is repeated in timed intervals. The more repetition cycles, the better for learning, and the more spaces between the repetitions, better again.

Imagine, you have thirty minutes available for practice and have decided on three passages on which to work. How would you distribute this amount of time? You could practice the target passages in three blocks consecutively.

Passage A—ten minutes          Passage B—ten minutes          Passage C—ten minutes

Or you could practice them in the following manner:

Passage A—four minutes         Passage B—three minutes       Passage A—three minutes

Passage C—four minutes         Passage B—five minutes         Passage A—three minutes

                                        Passage C—six minutes             Passage B—two minutes

The first method is referred to as blocked repetition. The second, like the television commercial example, is known as spaced repetition.

Blocked repetition refers to sticking to a single practice task until it is effectively learned, then progressing to the next learning task. Spaced repetition switches between different tasks during the course of a single practice session. In both methods, one encounters the same material for the same amount of overall time, but as with the distributed practice concept, spacing the repetitions exposes one to learning the task repeatedly over a longer time span.

Blocked repetition is a useful technique for introducing new skills to create a foundation. It is effective for beginners as it allows them to concentrate on a single task. Even for advanced musicians, very difficult passages require a single focus and attention that might be disrupted if one switches frequently between tasks. However, blocked repetition requires the intense engagement of the learner. If concentration wanes during blocked repetition, progress can stagnate and possibly deteriorate. It is essential to remain attentive and fully alert during practice.

Provided that the practice time is not restricted and that the learner has the metacognitive ability to determine practice goals, spaced repetition is more effective than blocked repetition. Varying practice tasks frequently creates interference, which leads to a degree of forgetting. As with distributed practice, the benefits of spaced repetition relate to stronger memory formation due to the principle of forgetting and retrieving. When one revisits learning material a neural reconstruction takes place leaving a deeper impression on the brain.

Spaced repetition can be frustrating because it involves more frequent failure and more mental effort, but the rewards are worth this extra effort. Marketing teams and musical learners use spaced repetition, as do professional athletes. For example, golfers are required to play shots of varying distances. Whereas blocked repetition drills require a golfer to hit many consecutive balls to one distance marker before practicing another distance. Spaced repetition alternates distance replicating the real demands on the golf course. In skill-based endeavors such as piano playing, drills can provide an illusion of competence. Most teachers have heard their students say, “But I could play it yesterday!”

Spaced repetition can work in concert with blocked repetition, so music teachers should model how a practice session might alternate between the two. Practice technique also should be modeled to students in ensemble rehearsals. In any given rehearsal, I aim to revisit the passages that require the most attention at least three times throughout the rehearsal. I answer initial squawks from students (“But we’ve already practiced that piece!”) by explaining the rationale behind spaced repetition. Teachers cannot expect students to integrate these learning concepts if they do not exhibit them in their own methodology.

 

An excerpt from “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” by Michael Griffin. 

About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, author, and pianist. He has delivered keynote presentations in about 270 conferences and schools in 25 countries. His core topics are practice, mindset, metacognition and intrinsic motivation.

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