You CAN improve without practicing much.

August 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

piano practice

Burning the midnight oil.

I have a number of students who don’t practice. Yet they continue to improve at the piano.

Yeah, right, you say. It’s a semantic problem: no practice must mean putting in several hours a week.

Wrong. Their idea of no practice is NO PRACTICE. I know they are reporting the truth, because they are often out of the country when the no practice occurs. Hard to practice when you are working in a hospital around the clock in Africa.

They come to their lessons religiously and work hard when they are here. And they continue to improve. Some are rank beginners, some are playing the Chopin Ballades.

I’ve never had a rational explanation for this phenomenon, but my teacher shocked me when he told me about it.  When I began teaching, he said, “Don’t worry too much about practice. If they come to their lessons every week, they will get better”. I didn’t really believe him until I  heard it with my own ears. But it is hard to convince anyone else that this happens. It seems at least self-serving, or maybe delusional.

But  science is coming to my rescue.  Here is a little article that describes a similar phenomenon in auditory perception.

I think the best summary of the findings was by one of the authors, Beverly Wright: “Our work suggests that you can have the same gain in learning with substantially less pain”. Less pain and more gain is what all musicians are looking for.

Which group do you think did best on the sound discrimination task in the study? You have a choice between 1 group who practiced listening for 20 minutes every day and then spent 20 minutes just passively listening to the sounds while they did something else. The other group spent twice as long but only practiced every day.

After a week, it was test time. The winners were not the heavy practicers but the ones who spent just 20 minutes “working” and another 20 minutes fooling around with puzzles with the relevant sounds piped into their ears.

This is like my students who leave for Africa after their lesson and come back in two weeks playing noticeably improved.

“It’s as though once you get your system revved up by practicing a particular skill, the brain acts as though you are still engaged in the task when you are not, and learning still takes place,” according to Wright.

Now, if you read the  research article you will find some ifs, ands and buts, especially if you are trying to extrapolate to Chopin. For example, the researchers found no difference in the heavy practicers and the light ones when they delayed fooling around with puzzles phase more than a few minutes. This doesn’t exactly correlate with the trip to Africa.

Still, science is taking some steps to clarify what exactly improves  learning. Does more work always mean more progress?  My students’ improvements are not just a  fantasy. They really do get better. The lessons keep the connections going, their brains keep learning something about piano playing even away from the piano and my teacher was right: I don’t have to worry too much about students’ practicing.

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§ 2 Responses to You CAN improve without practicing much.

  • Cherry says:

    In re the contradiction noted between this post and that dated June 14, 2011, the following quote from Niels Bohr may be pertinent:

    “There are two sorts of truth: trivialities, where the opposite is obviously impossible, and deep truths, which are characterized by their opposite also being a deep truth.”

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