3 – Varied Practice

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Try multiple variations of the same exercise, weather in time, speed, rhythm, posture, fingering or anything it comes to mind.

Real time performance implies unexpected stuff to happen. The perfect conditions to perform are only available in our heads so we should be ready for surprises, last-minute changes and panic attacks.

Multiple repetitions should be substituted by multiple diversities. Challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zone and be wild. Try something new. Try something different. Don’t settle. Change things before things change you. Vary your practice and leave your habits outside the practice room.

Varied practice is quite the opposite from constant practice, the kind of practice where, for instance, the basketball free throw shooting distance stays the same.

In Varied Practice the created motor programs are more robust, challenging and demanding. This allows your brain to generalize and transfer the moves into similar or analogues situations.

So, the next time you grab your guitar, change your metronome settings, play the tune slower and faster, play it in 4/4 and 3/4 and beyond, standing or sitting, with your acoustic guitar or electric guitar, with different bass-mid-treb amplifier equalization, in an even eights or swing feel, bossa nova, rumba, percussive style, play with your pick or your thumb or both!

Also, change the pitch (move an octave higher or lower), intensity (play louder or softer, with more legato or staccato) and duration of each note. And when it starts feeling comfortable once again, change it one more time, start over and let it sink into your brain.

How many different variables can you think of when it comes to improvisation and comping? How many different ways can you play a melody? Share your thoughts on the comments section bellow.

Practice “smarter, not harder.”

Remember:

  • Practicing longer periods of time doesn’t necessarily lead to better results.
  • Increasing repetition has no impact on long-term learning progress.
  • Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes PERMANENT. If you practice the wrong way the worse you will perform. The more you correct your practice trials in a practice session, the higher your performance will tend to be.
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2 – Random Practice

27b - Random Practice

Re-order your topics and subjects in an interleaved fashion. This way you’ll prevent yourself from boredom and continuously trigger your brain to new things.

In the long run switching randomly through subjects will improve your ability to acquire and retain the new piece of information at hands. It’s like tasting a bit of every chef’s dish to refine your palate instead of stuffing yourself with eating only one dish per meal. Trust your mind. It will reorder and complement all the new pieces of information gathered.

Randomizing your practice subjects is absolutely crucial to your performance development and this is explained by neuroscience. Our brain reacts more effectively to change, rather than repetition.

Repetition makes you bored and dull. The process of habituation leads to autopilot actions, meaning, non-deliberate practice, non-mindful practice, therefore repetition leads to mindless practice.

Change makes you attentive and alert because new stimuli activates the brain and keeps it activated for longer periods of time. So, every time you feel loosing your attention, instead of re-focusing on the task at hands, why don’t you introduce a new element into that task  in order to feel a burst of novelty? Change leads to deliberately engaged focused practice.

Repetition based practice is called Blocked Practice. Each exercise is scheduled in a row, favouring muscle memory. Play lick nº1 ten times; play lick nº2 ten times; play lick nº3 ten times; etc. AVOID THIS PRACTICE! It will make you feel more comfortable and momentarily improved, but it won’t last long. This is called cramming (remember those frantic study sessions right before a test? How much information did your brain retain in the following days? Close to none, probably? 😉 )

This is the method that favours performance optimization, not learning optimization. This process can be better suited as a warm up before a concert but does not make your practice durable. Blocked practice is just a way for you to feel stronger and capable during practice.

If you are focused on long-term results you must invest on learning optimization. Random Practice improves the quality of your learning abilities, not your muscle memory. Prepare your muscles with repetition. But prepare your mind with change, novelty, alternation and arbitrariness.

Repetition will only improve your playing DURING practice, and then the improvement fades away. Change will improve your learning and retention AFTER practice and endures through time.

Random Practice also motivates you to set goals. Try it! It looks like this:

  1. Pick a few topics to work on (ideally up to 4 is better for your brain, not more);
  2. Randomize and alternate the tasks at hand;
  3. Set an alarm clock to remember it’s time to change exercise and keep you engaged.

1 – Spaced Practice

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Spaced Practice is the process of using small numbers of repetitions spaced several times through the course of a day, week or month.

Think about it this way. You ask a foreign friend how to say “I Love You” in their language. Will you repeat the expression endlessly for the next minutes and then disengage, or will you repeat the expression several times during the course of the day? Which method do you think it will help you to remember the learned expression after a week, month or for the rest of your life?

Plato’s theory of reminiscence said it perfectly: “Learning is nothing but remembering.”

Mindless repetition for a period of time may not even get you to remember the new language over the next day. But if you try spacing out the repetitions, you are telling your brain this is new good stuff that needs to be preserved. This is called recall, the process which we reorder, reframe and reinstate the musical fragment, lick or melody in our own words, in our own space and time.

Spacing your practice is the way to remember yourself constantly and the best way to let your brain keep practicing when you’re away from your instrument.

So, if you want it to stick and prevail through time don’t force your short-term memory, it won’t work. Move it to your long-term memory via spaced practice. When it becomes second nature to you tweak it a little bit further. How so? Check this out:

When we compare experts with non-experts practice process, two things keep them apart:

  • Setting specific goals;
  • Identifying causes of failure.

A thoughtful reflection process before and after each practice session is imperative and it is self-generator of new and improved tactics towards excellence. When you identify a cause to failure you start setting new goals, and so on. Give it a try. Monitor yourself (both in real-time and also through recordings).

Stop for a moment, describe your playing, critique, analyze and solve problems thoroughly. What is the produced result of your playing? Why did it go wrong? How do you fix it?

Keep in mind that the mere knowledge of this process does not generate results except when it is actually utilized. Start thinking, planning and directing your practice and you will see the results. Ask yourself “what do I want to achieve?” and “why isn’t this working?” Be creative, focus on the PROCESS and try different approaches and solutions.

“Without knowledge action is useless and knowledge without action is futile.” 

– Abu Bakr –

When we think about Spaced Practice one question immediately comes to mind. How many hours a day should be dedicated to practice?

Top performers often describe a 4-hour (or less) daily practice as desirable. Too much practice is as bad as no practice at all and taking some days off to rest is indispensable.

But the question only seems to be relevant when we are NOT engaged in mindful practice: Focused, goal oriented, evaluative practice. Mindless repetitions are not productive… at all. Avoid them. Turn off the autopilot. If you need a break, take a break. Resume mindfully whenever possible. That’s the essence of Spaced Practice.

Mindful practice is very demanding and it can be mentally draining. It requires your undivided attention to details, constantly. Keep your practice sessions limited to a duration where you can stay fully focused. If your mind wonders it is time for a break. If your attention span is limited to 10 minutes, space several 10 minutes sessions throughout the day, instead of cramming it all into one big session.

Remember you are solving problems to build better practice habits.

Getting Results: Short Term Vs. Long Term

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Proper practice prevents poor performances.

Top performers aim to grow as human beings so they work their craftsmanship. Great performance is the main goal, so we practice to perform better. But the way top performers reach their peak and enhance their abilities is through learning.

My high school Portuguese teacher once told me “Learning is what remains AFTER studying or practicing”Teacher Pechincha died a few years ago. This article is dedicated to this wonderfully wise human being, Maria Gracinda Pechincha.

It’s not the hours that you put in; it’s what you put in the hours.

Effective learning is not only about getting more, faster, right now. It is also about durability and flexibility.

Durability means to still be able to play accurately and effortlessly later on. Think about Basketball free shooting: any time of the day you grab the ball, you shoot, you score.

Likewise, anytime you grab your axe you’re able to play that lick flawlessly. Anytime, anywhere.

Flexibility means to be able to play in any kind of environment, regardless of any internal conditions (nerves, headache, soreness, tiredness) or external conditions (cold or hot room, string tension, noise). Think about Michael Jordan’s winning game in Utah, for the 1997 NBA Finals where he played with the flu. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIzrYcgfOH4

Likewise, forget about the unfriendly audience, the string buzz on the fret board, the faster than usual tempo set by your drummer, or the out of tune string… and nail it. Anytime, anywhere.

It’s all about preparation, not only performance preparation, but also learning preparation. Are you aiming for performance excellence (short-term) or improving your durable and flexible learning skills (long-term)? Are you focused on (short term) results or the (long term) process?

Preparation leads to better practice which leads to the best performance. In other words, if you want to be at the peak of your performance skills you have to practice better by preparing yourself the right way.

In order to do so, start focussing on the process. Pay attention to the learning process. If you are actually learning (mindfully, purposefully) you are going to apply what you have learned when time to perform arises.

Repetition is the process we usually choose to perfect or master a lick, passage or technique. We know that practice makes perfect and we interpret that as “keep doing it until it works”. Eventually it starts working rapidly, but does it endure? Does it stick to you? Does the lick come to mind when you’re on the spot, performing?

One thing is to master a move; other thing is to keep it safe in your body, mind and soul in a way that it becomes a part of you. It becomes, not only what you do, but also what you are as a musician.

So, in order to achieve higher performance plateaus should we learn how to practice better or how to learn better? Notice that learning occurs even without practicing. And practicing (aka: mindless repetition) can represent zero learning whatsoever.

Top performers are not the ones who practice more. Top performers are the ones who learn through their practice process.

“If we learn something slowly, we forget it slowly” (Itzhak Perlman)

There are 3 main practice strategies that enhance the learning process. This vital process is based on the acquisition of durable and flexible performance tools and the one that leads you to peak performances through time and time again.

1 – Spaced Practice: Smaller number of repetitions spaced several times through the course of a day, week or month.

2 – Random Practice: Re-ordered topics and subjects in an interleaved fashion.

3 – Varied Practice: Multiple variations of the same exercise, weather in time, speed, rhythm, posture, fingering or anything it comes to mind.

The following weeks of “Maximizing Performance: The Mindful Practice Process” we will dig deep into those practice strategies. Until then, focus on your learning to keep improving! Remember:

Learning is what remains AFTER studying or practicing.”