The Nature of Practice

Friday, 21 June 2013

We as musicians share a number of things. We love to play our instrument; whether that be drums, guitar, keyboards, voice; whatever, we just love to play. We also share common frustrations; the feeling that we are not getting anywhere, or not progressing as fast as we want to.

The reality is that, just like children growing into adults, our musical growth comes in spurts; musical growth spurts. Some days it seems like we just going through the motions without seeing any improvement and some days we seem to have light bulb moments where we make a quantum leap in some aspect of our musical ability.

From my own experience, I found this immensely frustrating and in fact it pushed me so far as to actually stop practicing during my teens, sometimes for weeks at a time. I wish I knew then what I know now, because I didn’t actually see that even during the developmental droughts, there was real work being done. It just didn’t appear that way to me at the time.

The realisation came to me when I was sitting in my back garden reading a book on a day off from University. I had stopped really reading the words in front of me and my mind was drifting. At the time, I was going through a bleak patch in my playing. It was such a momentous moment for me that I remember it clearly to this day.

I was thinking about why it was that I could feel on such a plateau for weeks at a time and then sit down to play one day and it would all just fall into place. As I pondered this it occurred to me that expecting to sit down each day and have a light bulb moment was unreasonable. With that single thought it dawned on me that the periods of drought were not in fact lean times, but simply a period of ‘re-wiring’. There was good work being done, just little to show for it. I’ll talk about this more in a little bit, but suffice to say I have discovered some research into the brain function recently that finally gave me a concrete answer to what I had suspected.

I became so enamoured with this idea that I started to think about what it was that was actually happening during these periods when I saw little development. I knew about ‘muscle memory’ and decided that this was probably what was going on. As a child we have to learn to walk. Sometimes, maybe as the result of an accident we need to learn this skill again. At first it is difficult and we have to focus on it; pour all our concentration into it. But as soon as that skill is ‘learned’ we do it without thinking; it becomes automatic. Taking this concept and applying it to my main instrument (drums), there were times when I would work on a technique and it would seem like a struggle. But at some point it would snap into place. It would become automatic.

Recently I have read an excellent book by Norman Doidge called “The Brain That Changes Itself”. The principal crux of this book is the concept of neuroplasticity. Essentially, the brain is capable of re-wiring to suit tasks that are practiced. For many years, medical science’s concept of the brain and its function revolved around a concept of regions, where each part of the brain is responsible for a particular function. This theory essentially reasoned that if a part of the brain responsible for fine motor control was damaged through accident or illness, that this motor control could only be restored if the ‘region’ of the brain responsible was fixed in some way. However, experiments are now showing that the brain is capable of taking over other areas of the brain not currently being ‘used’ as such and using them to repair an action.

There is a fantastic experiment that clearly indicates the power of the brain in practice and learning. In the early 1990’s, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a young medical fellow working at the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Strokes did a research project regarding the nature of learning. He used a process called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS in some research to cause movements in perfectly normal people by stimulating an area of the brain.

Later he then went on to conduct an experiment where he taught two groups of people, who had never studied music before, a series of notes. They were shown how to play them and heard the notes as they were played. He gave both groups a keyboard to use and they were sent away for five days of practice. However, there was a significant difference in how they practiced.

Group one, were told to sit in front of the piano but not to touch it. They were told to imagine playing the piece and hearing the notes, although they would actually hear and play nothing. Group two actually did two hours a day practice on the piece, playing the keyboard and hearing the notes that they played. Both groups had ‘brain mappings’ before, during and after the experiment to see what had changed during that period.

Mappings showed that by the end of the fifth day, brain mapping changes in the motor system of the brain were the same in both groups. It was expected that the motor system in Group 2 would change as they actually practicing; the surprise was that Group 1 who were just imagining it showed the same changes in the brain.

Once the experiment was over, each person played the piece and it was assessed for accuracy. Essentially, the group 1 who had just imagined were slightly behind group 2, but when group 1 was given just a single two hour session to practice, their level of performance came up the same level as group 2.

So what does this tell us about the nature of practice? I’ve been telling my student to visualise things before doing them for years without really understanding why. To be honest I felt it was a ‘settling’ technique for the frustrated student. It turns out that there is much more to it.

The nature of practice turns out to be much more than muscle memory. There is brain re-wiring going on at a fundamental level that allows us to learn and use new skills. Could this by why we see these periods of boom and bust? During the slow phases we are building up a new network of connections in the brain that allow us to perform some task. At some point down the line we have developed this network to such an extent that it allows us to start utilising that skill. I believe so, and from my own experiments with visualisation it does work for me.

In terms of measuring your improvement, I would strongly recommend moving away from some kind of daily chart. Mapping daily improvement on an exercise may be futile if the actual improvement of the skill as a whole does not occur over a 24 hour period. All we see in this case is the peaks and troughs that we are already all too familiar with. What about weekly or monthly? Using a drumming example; if I measure my ability to play a constant Left – Right – Left – Right pattern (a single stroke roll) at a given tempo for a given length of time and compare it day on day, I’m actually going to see ups and downs in my performance. However, if I measure weekly or monthly I will see a more representative view of my actual improvement. You don’t even have to measure providing you can be reasonable with yourself and stop looking at the day to day changes. Focus on improvement over longer periods and you will see a positive net gain as opposed to the ‘two steps forward – one step back’ pattern.

To sum up, we need to engage the brain during practice. If you are distracted by something else that’s going on then maybe come back to practice when you can devote full attention to it. If you can’t get to the instrument try some visualisation. Instead of slogging away for hours on end ‘going through the motions’ practice for a shorter more focussed period of time. Most of all enjoy and appreciate your longer term improvements; that’s what we are working towards in the end.

Simon Rigby, June 2013