Trial by Fire – The Secret to Learning an Instrument




Podcast Synopsis:

Hello students and visitors and welcome to my podcast on the topic of how to learn more efficiently. She’s a beauty of a day here in the Great White North. It’s currently 31 Celsius according my home weather station, 38 with the humidex. For our American friends that is roughly 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Thank goodness for all the beautiful lakes around us here in Kenora, Ontario. I’d like to talk you about another hot topic and that is how to learn more efficiently so that you can become an expert on your respective instrument in less time than it took me. I’ll start this off with a few questions. Ask yourself the following: Are you serious about learning in the most efficient manner? Are you tired of spending an entire day playing the same couple passages or practicing the same technique for an entire day just to wake up the next day and realize you are only a few measures further than you were yesterday after all that those hours? Do you have a gig coming up loaded with new material and you are afraid you won’t have enough time to memorize your lyrics or guitar solos? Maybe you’re a student and you aren’t feeling confident about your theory exam coming up in just two weeks. Would you like to spend less time learning and more time playing those songs you’ve been dreaming of performing? If you said yes to any of these then you’ll definitely want to know about interleaved practicing.

Folks, what many music teachers don’t teach or simply don’t know is that the quality of your practice session is just as important, if not more, than the quantity (length) of your practice session. That means that the age-old assignment of spending 30 minutes each and every day playing or singing the same major scale up and down is not the most efficient way to learn. So why do so many teachers, respected ones included, swear by this method? Well, the truth is because it is easy and in a way is a feel-good method to make you believe that you are progressing rapidly, but I’ll speak more to that later.

Before I get into how to do interleaved practicing you must first understand a basic concept that I teach to all my students; you must practice deliberately. What does this mean? This means that you must approach your practice time with a calculated intention of improving. How do most DIY learners practice an instrument? Let’s say you really want to improve your alternate picking speed and accuracy so that you can play freely across all the strings at blistering speeds like your favourite flat-pickers. The typical student would take a scale or a lick and play it over and over until it starts to feel okay. Eventually the passage will become more fluid and the student will get immediate satisfaction from their results. The student will likely continue to reward themselves with the sweet sound of their fingers tickling the fret wires. They may even pose in front of the mirror for a half-hour – guitar dangling between a pair of contorted legs in a precariously planted power stance blasting out their new favourite lick to an imaginary astonished audience. For the next week the student continues to play that same new learned skill. Feels good, eh? Sounds familiar, eh? Yeah, we’ve all been there.

Now, I admit that I am a little misleading here, there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. This is how most people tend to learn and it is also a method that is taught to us by our parents, in school and by our private instructors. Deliberate practice, however, would have been to stop once you’ve accomplished that specific speed or fluidity and move on to something else that is presently more challenging for you. I like to think of it as disciplined practice. There are a few things the student would need to do differently.

First, the student would set specific goals that they can quantify, that is to say record and monitor, so that they can track their progress. Sports and fitness coaches use this method all the time. So let’s say you wanted to play the first 8 measures of a new piece of music by memory. You may set out a few goals, as you achieve one you move on to the next i.e., Goal 1 play measure 1-4 by memory without mistakes, Goal 2 play measures 5-8 by memory without mistakes. You can easily jot down your progress in a practice log so that you can readily track your improvement.

Second, you should then repeatedly practice similar problems that are within your ability and understanding or that require just a small bit of guidance from your teacher over the course of days, weeks or months.

Third and most importantly, you must be motivated to improve your skills. That means that you are making a genuine effort to go through the required difficult steps to improve your skills eventually becoming an expert. This is the blood sweat and tears so many accomplished experts talk about. Practicing is not always fun. In fact, it is the practice that isn’t so psychologically rewarding that usually proves to be the most effective.

So to recap there are a few things to do differently than your plain old play until you can’t play anymore approach when practicing deliberately.

  • You must be motivated to improve your skills. This means you will work on the problematic areas and not only repeat the technique or passages that you have already made great progress on.
  • You must be able to easily track your progress – my students use a practice log that I monitor daily.
  • You must continue practicing similar skills that are easily within your understanding based on your current level of achievement.

So let’s imagine that the same student also had a few other techniques or passages of music they were trying to master; the student wanted to improve two-note per string alternate picking, three-note ascending economy picking and a rockabilly lick they have been working on using hybrid picking. What the student would do is set out a goal for each and as soon as one is starting to improve they move on to the next instead of rewarding themselves for the remainder of the session or day with the one skill they improved. Here is a possible practice schedule scenario using deliberate practice:

Weekly Practice Log

Practice Log 1 (Monday)

20 minutes – two-note per string minor pentatonic lick 1a @ 90bpm achieved with an eventual goal of 140bpm

15 minutes – three-note per string ascending economy picking scale @ 80bpm achieved with an eventual goal of 90bpm

25 minutes – 2 out of 8 measures of a rockabilly lick memorized and achieved desired tempo of 110bpm

Practice Log 2 (Tuesday)

30 minutes – 6 out of 8 measures of a rockabilly lick memorized and achieved desired tempo of 110bpm

20 minutes – two-note per string minor pentatonic lick 1a @ 115bpm achieved with an eventual goal of 140bpm

25 minutes – three-note per string ascending economy picking scale @ 90bpm achieved

Practice Log 3 (Wednesday)

5 minutes – three-note per string ascending economy picking scale @ 90bpm a few times for warm-up

40 minutes – two-note per string minor pentatonic lick 1a @ 130bpm achieved with an eventual goal of 140bpm

15 minutes – 8 out of 8 measures of a rockabilly lick memorized and achieved desired tempo of 110bpm

Practice Log 4 (Thursday)

10 minutes – rockabilly lick @ 110bpm for warm-up

40 minutes – two-note per string minor pentatonic lick 1a @ 140bpm achieved

10 minutes – three-note per string ascending economy picking scale to finish off the practice session

Practice Log 5 (Friday)

15 minutes – Improvised around the neck using the two-note per string alternate picking skill and the three-note per string economy picking skill

30 minutes – NEW MATERIAL

15 minutes – Rockabilly lick in original key and in new keys

Hopefully now you understand the basic idea of deliberate practice. At this time I’d like to talk about what interleaved practice is and how, using deliberate practice, we can get away from the slow but superficially rewarding process of practicing known as block learning for more significant long term results.

In the practice log examples you will notice that relatively long periods of time were spent on each task. This is what we call block learning where you take a single topic or problem and practice it consecutively until you are pleased with the result. You get immediate satisfaction and a nice dose of dopamine to the brain as a tasty reward. Interleaved practicing is not such a stimulating experience. The idea is to take, say, those three different skills that were being practiced (alternate picking, economy picking and hybrid picking) and practice them in a non-linear and random fashion. How might we do that? Well, on easy method is flash cards! You could create 9 flash cards with unique passages for each technique with a total of 27 flash cards. You mix them up in a bag and then take them out of the bag and assort them in their random order on your desk or across your music stand. You will work on each problem until the moment at which it starts to feel fluid and immediately move on to the next problem until all 27 are completed. I can guarantee you that you will believe that you are not making as much progress as the old block learning method of learning. But studies have proven that long-term recall is many times over more effective using interleaving practice than your usual block learning.

A 2006 study done by Doug Rohrer and Kelli Taylor The Shuffling of Mathematics Problems Improves Learning showed that during practice sessions people who block just one subject together into long periods of study performed better during the actual practice session but when it came time to recall that information on a test (imagine a gig, for us musicians) the ability to recall the information was more than three times as poor than the subjects who shuffled or interleaved their various topics during each study period. Results showed that practice performance (that is to say the immediate success during practice sessions) had an 89% accuracy score where those who used interleaved practice only experienced a 60% accuracy score, however, when it came time for actual testing of recalling that information, the people who used the block learning method shared in an average of only 20% accuracy on the test whereas the interleaved learning group scored a whopping 63% accuracy. It would seem that mixing your practice with good deliberate practice methods results in more durable and long-term recall.

Of course, some block learning is necessary to learn the rudiments and basic principals or techniques. I don’t aim to inspire my students to avoid block learning altogether but rather to enlighten them to the possibilities of interleaving practice and the powerful potential for learning that lies within each and every one of us when the method is used as a supplement to our traditional learning habits. You may be saying to yourself at this point, “Okay, that’s great, Mitch, but how do I know when it is time to use it?” Well, have you ever found yourself practicing a simple three or four note lick with the goal of increasing your accuracy and speed and eventually everything just synchronizes and it is almost like the proverbial stars align as your brain powers down and enters a state of nirvana and you stop having to focus so intently on your technique as your fingers fly across the fretboard? And the next time you grab your instrument and try to wail out this new lick it sounds like shoes in a dryer. I’m not surprised if many of you are nodding your heads in accordance. Well, actually, that is precisely what is happening. Basically, your brain realizes that you are repeating the same short passage over and over and can coast on auto-pilot by just simply doing what it has already been doing previously instead of actually having to recall any long-term memory. This is precisely what you want to avoid! What I tell my students is that this sensation is your indicator that it is time to move on to something else. So imagine if you had set up those flash cards and within the first 90 seconds you are feeling this sensation with the first problem (passage/lick) presented to you. You must immediately move on to the next randomized flash card waiting for that same sensation to occur on each card before you move on to the next.

It is important to note that you do not want to be using this technique on material that you lack the required understanding to perform. For example, if you are a brand new guitar student and you just learned how to properly hold the pick and play a down-stroke it would not be feasible for you to use a set of flash cards that involved hybrid picking, sweep picking and alternate picking. It would instead be more beneficial to work on down-strokes on different strings and then move on to up-strokes and eventually alternating the pick back and forth. The idea here is that the student must already have received the necessary instruction and understand how to solve a problem before they can practice the given technique. That being said, a student can often learn intuitively how to solve problems that would otherwise only take a small amount of instruction to solve. Typically speaking, it is the music teacher’s judgment that is required when including these types of problems in our hypothetical flashcard scenario. Folks, for any of you that know me or may have already studied with me, it will come as no surprise to hear me say that this is why it is so important that you study with someone who actually knows how to perform the techniques you wish to learn. I have students come to me so often from other instructors who had set them up with all sorts of challenging licks and techniques that the instructor themselves was not able to perform. You can set up as many flashcards as you’d like with the most epic difficulty of licks and techniques but if in the end you do not know how to solve the problem, it would take a minor stroke of genius to work your way through. This is why what I learned in my first 10-15 years as a guitarist and vocalist only takes my most dedicated students 3-5 years to learn. Like anyone else without guidance my method was to learn by trial and error when I should have been learning with trial by fire.

It is worth noting the importance of including already completed etudes, technique drills, excerpts/songs into the mix of your routine. So for example, let’s say you have four unique ideas that you are currently learning and wish to improve, A B C and D. You may have to begin with some typical block learning whereby you might practice AAA followed by BBB, CCC and DDD. Once you have the basic understanding and the motor mechanics figured out you can immediately move on to mixing up the practice routine. You might now follow a sequence like ABCD,ABCD,ABCD or maybe a more randomize flash-card type approach of ADCB,BDCA,ACDB etc. Now let’s assume that you complete all of this in a week of study. You now have three new things you are learning, X Y and Z. You may include A B C or D in your practice routine every now and then. This is excellent to take advantage of what is known in learning as spacing effect whereby the durability of your memory recall is more robust when studying is spread out over time as opposed to one high volume practice session. In a scenario where Student A practiced 7 hours on Sunday and Student B who practiced 1 hours a day Monday to Sunday, Student B would have a much more accurate ability to recall the same information. In fact, I’ve noticed with my students that even studying half as much time but more frequently yields stronger results. Furthermore, according to Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., & Willingham, D. in their paper Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, there is an actual the opportunity to calculate how far apart you should space your learning depending on how long you wish to remember something. It is observed that in order to remember something you have learned, the ideal length of time between revisiting the song or exercise is 10-20% the length of time that something needs to be remembered. So for example, if you wanted to remember a song for a week you should revisit it every 16-33 hours, or if we round it to periods of a half day, every 12-24 hours. Be careful, though! There is one major catch with this. This method works best when the intention is for a deeply entrenched and long-lasting ability to recall. As someone who spent the better part of a decade studying in a university setting I can attest to the ineffective nature of cramming all the knowledge into our brains the night or even week before the exam. The evidence is more or less conclusive that that this is the worst way to study for long-term recall. If I had a dime for every time I heard somebody say that they forgot everything they learned after they wrote the exam. You may pass the exam but one thing is certain, the durability of your memory recall on the subject is unimpressive. Spacing your learning overtime is basically a surefire recipe for success.

Before I conclude I would like to briefly speak about the importance of testing and why as musicians we must hold ourselves to higher standards than what is typically expected of us in school. Despite most people’s genuine displeasure with testing and the E for Effort culture that pervades our public schools here in Canada, studies are quite conclusive that testing in and of itself is one of the most if not the most effective means of learning. The high stakes nature of testing makes for a generally unnerving experience but the good news is that whether the testing be “high stakes” (an official exam) or “low stakes” (practice tests) the resulting benefits are enormous! Studies have shown that the ability to freely recall information can be twice as efficient just from using this method alone! Now, a lot of traditional academic tests involve multiple choice questions, true/false and and similar type questions. The ultimate test for musicians is a performance. As we all know, there are no multiple choice or true/false scenarios in performing music. We must reiterate what we have learned using our own unique but accurate interpretation of a piece of music. Remember those essay questions on your English exam? No fun, right? Well, unfortunately, that’s what we do on the stage. Not only that, we really need to know our material and there is not much room for error, certainly when playing music people already know and love. The good news is, with the advent of modern smart phones and tablets we can create and run “low stakes” practice tests any time we feel so inclined. The excellent news is that the results from these types of low-pressure tests are still enormous! I suggest to all my students to constantly record yourself. You can use an audio recorder or video recorder application on your smart phone or tablet. Eventually, with many practice tests you will be so prepared for the stage that it no longer feels like a “high stakes” test. I cannot stress enough the importance of recording yourself and performing for an audience. I have learned more in those experiences than I could have ever dreamed to learn from any other method.

So to recap on what you can be doing to improve faster and remember songs and techniques longer with less time practicing and more time performing you need to do the following:

  • Learn the method for solving the problem, in our case, the actual techniques to performing a piece of music
  • Avoid the trap of your brain going on auto-pilot
  • Practice Deliberately
  • Interleave your exercises and songs
  • Revisit already learned etudes, exercises and songs
  • Get on the stage, in the studio or on the camera and play!

I hope you enjoyed this podcast. With any luck it will be the first of many to follow. If you have any questions or ideas that you might like answered please contact me through my website Who knows, I may just make a podcast about it! Thanks for listening.

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