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.
According to Christine Carter and Jessica Grahn, authors of the paper Optimizing Music Learning: Exploring How Blocked and Interleaved Practice Schedules Affect Advanced Performance, “frequent alternation involves more effortful processing, resulting in increased long-term learning.”
In the previous post, we examined Carter and Grahn’s research into blocked versus interleaved practice. In this post, we'll examine how we might apply an interleaved practice schedule to our daily practice session.
In practice that is based on repetition, also known as blocked practice, we complete one task before moving onto the next.
The times in this chart are approximate. We would, most probably, practice a piece until we executed it correctly before moving on to the next piece.
However, if we get bored with our practice schedule, or hit a plateau, it may be beneficial to mix things up. We might adopt an interleaved practice plan for a couple of days to keep mentally sharp and generate self-interest:
When we mix things up, different tasks are held in working memory at the same time. According to Carter and Grahn, if multiple tasks reside in working memory, "there is an opportunity to compare and contrast the different items, leading to a more elaborate and distinctive encoding for each item." Carter and Grahn also note that "switching from one task to another may induce forgetting of the previous task’s action plan." However, they add that "reconstruction of action plans upon return to prior tasks that leads to a stronger memory representation." This would suggest that an interleaved practice routine could be strengthened by concluding the session with a repeat of the pieces that were practiced. One might conclude the interleaved practice session by running through each tune:
This would serve to reinforce the things that we learned when we practiced the individual parts. It would also help to commit the piece to memory.
Ultimately, there is no magic pill that we can swallow that will make us proficient at piping. We only have tools that we can employ to help us along to our ultimate goal. Using interleaved practice, mixing it up, is a tool that we can use to help us to move along the path. If you find you have plateaued or stagnated, or you are looking to generate some mental interest during your practice session, employing interleaved practice, mixing it up, may be just the magic pill that you need.