Feb 7, 2016

Any music instructor will tell their student that they won’t get very far without practice and repetition. As the ballroom dancer Stephen Hillier once quipped, “The amateur practices until he gets it right. The professional practices until he cannot get it wrong.”

Repetition is the diet and exercise of music mastery. It’s unsexy and at times quite boring, but there are no shortcuts. However, there is no shortage of various schools of thought on just what kind of repetition is most worthwhile. Kind of like almost every gym rat has an opinion on leg days, there are plenty of varying opinions on practice blocks and schedules to maximize your musical gains.

A brand new study out of Johns Hopkins University might make a case that slight variation mixed into practice regimen can help musicians learn a tricky passage or technical skill faster than just simply repeating the same thing over and over.

In an experiment, researchers divided 86 participants into three groups. All three groups were asked to complete a computer-based task that involved squeezing a device to move the cursor to various on-screen locations. Their performance was measured on speed and accuracy. All three groups were given an initial training session on the task. The control group stopped after that first training session while the second group repeated the exact same session six hours later — which is the amount of time scientific literature suggests it takes to consolidate a memory. The final group completed a second training session, but the task was slightly modified to require squeezing the device at a different pressure to move the mouse cursor correctly.

Finally each group returned to take a test where they tried to complete the original task. According to researchers, the group who had a training session on a modified version of the task showed almost twice as much improvement as the group who repeated the exact same training session when compared to the control participants.

“What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row,” said senior study author Pablo Celnik.

What researchers were looking to test is the concept of reconsolidation. Consolidation of memory refers to the process of how short-term experiences are strengthened and stored through recall to become long-term memories. Reconsolidation is similar except that when those memories are recalled, they are modified and updated with new information — like having to perform a task in a slightly different way. The process is an understood one, but there has been very little research into how this affects motor skills and muscle memory — key components in tasks like performing music.

The experiment shows that reconsolidating memories through variation might lead to faster learning of a task than just consolidating through repeating the exact same task, however, Celnik also said that changing the task up too much will hurt this process.

At the heart of this experiment is a question about how we think about music practice and performance. In his 2011 paper, “Repetition without Repetition,” John Paul Ito of the Carnegie Mellon School laid out two competing philosophies in the music community based on the work of Ivan Pavlov and Nikolai Bernstein. In short Pavlov — best known for his experiments with his dogs — pioneered an idea of classical conditioning. Essentially, repetition can cause the same neural inputs to result in the same physical outputs.

Ito argues that many studio teachers think about human movement in Pavlovian terms. If there’s an orchestra audition coming up, then we should focus on only those audition excerpts and keeping all factors the same so that when the time comes for performance, the result is consistent and almost automatic. The problem with this line of thinking that demands exact repetition, Ito writes, is that it focuses only on musicians in the practice room. Performance conditions are never idealized.

The Bernstein school of thinking is often compared to a child learning to ride a bike. If you watch the handlebars, you’ll see hundreds of micro-adjustments to keep the wheels pointed on a straight path. Over time those adjustments become less obvious, but they are still there. Even when the final desired result is the same, the task is not simply the same neural inputs turning into the desired physical outputs. Rather, mastery is about learning to solve a problem faster.

Ito writes that renowned solo violinist Itzhak Perlman attributed “his superior intonation not to greater accuracy in placing his fingers but to quicker corrections of position after placing them.” Ito describes seeing Perlman perform Dvořák’s Violin Concerto as an example.

“His performance was, to my ear at the time, perfectly in tune, including the extended passage in octaves near the end of the concerto,” Ito writes. “Before playing an encore, he started to retune his violin, and the instrument was so out of tune that the audience burst into laughter.”

In this case, Perlman wasn’t replicating the exact motions he had done in the practice room but instead applying principles he had mastered. Practically speaking, the Bernseinian model that Ito describes might be applied through regular variation in how a musician practices — changing articulations, introducing uneven rhythms, rapidly alternating dynamic level — and by selecting those variants on the fly.

There is something artistically satisfying about this school of thinking when it comes to how we learn and perform music. Musicians are not robots bound by rote muscle memory that is fed inputs to produce outputs. The physical and technical performance of music is an ongoing act of creative problem solving. Practice is not an act of Pavlovian programming, rather it’s akin to a mathematician working through hundreds of equations so that they can solve a new problem no matter what variables it involves.

As researchers continue to better understand what happens in our brain and body, musicians might be able to transfer the science of variation to make faster strides in the countless repetitions on the road to mastery. Or if like the author of this piece that sounds like an awful lot of work to you, we might just appreciate the work of researchers in the field of neurophysiology to sit in the audience and look at the musicians onstage with a little more awe and a bit more wonder.