When is Not-Practicing Practice?

Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.
Confucius (551-479 BC), The Confucian Analects

Only the curious will learn and only the resolute  overcome the obstacles to learning. The quest quotient has always excited me more than the intelligence quotient.
Eugene S. Wilson


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Deliberate Practice is a term coined by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer in 1993 and developed in whole slew of other studies, some of which I’ve mentioned in this blog. The work these people have done is fantastic and has revealed a lot of important details about how people learn, how practice is most effective. One thing that is often noted in their work is that deliberate practice is inherently unpleasant, something that I reacted to the first time I read it and it’s a conclusion I still question, and one I often ask fellow musicians. A new piece of research shows that this “inherently unpleasant” idea may not be entirely true. In fact, we may continue to learn when we’re doing something completely different from that which we’re practicing.

This comes from an elegant study published in the September 22, 2010 issue of the  Journal of Neuroscience, titled “Enhancing Perceptual Learning by Combining Practice with Additional Sensory Stimulation,” by a Northwestern team of researchers led by Beverly Wright, with assistance from Andrew Sabin, Yuxuan Zhang, Nicole Marrone and Matthew Fitzgerald. Here’s how the study worked.

The question was to discover whether actual practice was better than other methods of engagement. They looked specifically at the ability to tell the differences between pitches. There were 4 groups and each group “practiced” in a different way. I used practice in quotes because part of the treatment involved doing a completely different task while the sound was still heard. Only adults 18-30 participated in the study, and the results give us further evidence that we can learn, and learn effectively, into adulthood. Before receiving the treatment, the participants were measured to see how small a difference they could hear from standard tone. Then they received a week of practice using different conditions.

Here are the 4 groups:

  • 1:  Twenty minutes per day for a week practicing a pitch-discrimination task.
  • 2: Twenty minutes per day with the same practice; plus an additional 20 minutes doing an unrelated puzzle task while the tone was heard on earphones.
  • 3: Forty minutes per day on the pitch-discrimination task.
  • 4: Forty minutes per day, only working on the puzzle with the standard pitch heard in the headphones. (this doesn’t sound like much fun to me. I hope it was an interesting puzzle and an exceptionally beautiful tone!)

So, what do you think? The researchers chose the 20 minute sessions because they determined that this isn’t quite enough time to produce “real” learning. On that score, they were right. Groups 1 (20 min. practice) and 4 (40 minutes puzzle + tone) showed no improvement in their ability to tell the difference between pitches. Group 3 (40 min practice) did show improvement with their extended practice time. And here’s the cool part: Group 2 (20 min practice, 20 min puzzle) showed the same amount of improvement as group 3! And the order of the treatment–practice-then-puzzle, or puzzle-then-practice–didn’t matter.

So imagine that you’re trying to learn Clifford Brown’s fantastic solo on his blues tune Sandu (full tune, buy mp3).  But of course you’ve got other pressing tasks to do, too, like responding to e-mail, or cleaning the house, and/or writing your dissertation. Well, if you’ve only got 20 minutes to practice, then you can put in that 20 minutes, then go about your other tasks but keep the music playing in the background, or over your headphones. The study above suggests that you’ll continue to learn and will have as much progress as someone who practiced 40 minutes and didn’t get any of  those other tasks done. Of course, this hasn’t been proven, but it’s a study that would certainly prove interesting, and possible incredibly valuable. You researchers out there can put this on your list. It’s on mine.

Here’s a video of Clifford Brown in action. By all accounts he was a fantastic human being who didn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs when many of his colleagues in jazz did all three to excess. He died at a tragically young age and there isn’t much footage of him. Here he’s playing Lady Be Good and Memories of You.

Have fun, and good luck with your practice!

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Related Links

5 Comments Add yours

    1. Thank you! You’re welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.