As musicians, we rely on repetition to learn the tricks of our trade. We have all sat down and pounded out G-D-E triplets until our fingers hurt. Practicing pieces over and over is a time honored tradition in all musical disciplines.
As Christine Carter and Jessica Grahn note in their paper, Optimizing Music Learning: Exploring How Blocked and Interleaved Practice Schedules Affect Advanced Performance, “repetition is the most commonly used practice strategy by musicians.”
According to Carter and Grahn, practice that is based on repetition is called blocked practice. We complete one task before moving onto the next. In contrast, when we practice multiple tasks, frequently alternating between each task, it is called interleaved practice. We might think of this method as "mixing it up."
While repetition is a mainstay in the practice room, recent research in motor skill learning and sport psychology suggests that an interleaved practice schedule can have benefits. “Frequent alternation involves more effortful processing,” according to Carter and Grahn, “resulting in increased long-term learning.”
Carter and Grahn noted that blocked and interleaved schedules had been tested in many other disciplines. For example, several studies demonstrated the benefits of interleaved practice for baseball, badminton, and snowboarding. Research in music, though, was limited. Carter and Grahn tested the affects of blocked versus interleaved practice by giving a group ten clarinetists one concerto exposition and one technical excerpt to practice in a blocked schedule. The clarinetists were also given a second concerto exposition and technical excerpt to practice in an interleaved schedule. Each clarinetist sight-read the four pieces prior to practice and performed them at the end of practice and again one day later. The sight-reading and two performances were recorded and given to three professional clarinetists for evaluation.
Carter and Grahn’s results were mixed. They noted that the ratings for pieces practiced using the interleaved method were always superior in comparison to the to pieces practiced using the blocked method when averaged across raters. They added that the results were not great enough to be significant.
The authors did cite research that had “found that fifth and sixth-grade beginner clarinet students who practiced 3 simple 7-note musical stimuli in an interleaved schedule were able to play faster at retention than those in the blocked schedule.” But they also referenced studies that “seventh-grade clarinetists and saxophonists who practiced 8-measure musical stimuli in blocked, interleaved, and a hybrid schedule showed no effect of schedule for technical accuracy, and, curiously, both the blocked and interleaved schedule groups performed more musically than the hybrid group at retention.”
What might this imply for us as pipers? The evidence is not conclusive, or shall I say statistically significant, that would favor one practice method over the other. It would not make sense to rush out, discarding one's practice habits based on repetition, and change everything to an interleaved schedule. However, we should not discount the interleaved method.
The interleaved method of practice is another tool that we can apply to our practice routine. If you find yourself stagnating, or bored with your practice regimen, it may make sense to "mix it up" in the practice room. Rather than focusing on practicing an entire piece, practice the first part for a short period of time, then practice exercises for one minute. Follow that up with the second part of the piece at a slower tempo. Then another minute of exercises, focusing on embellishments that are giving you fits. Then practice the first part of another piece at a rapid tempo.