Practising strategies and memorisation
Improving the efficiency of piano practice – ‘spaced repetition’ method
This article focuses on applying short-term and long-term memory types and the ‘spaced repetition’ approach to improving piano practice efficiency (it also applies to any musical instrument). It describes some of the common approaches to practising – found among beginner students – and suggests various ways of improving their productivity.
Part One: Two common approaches to learning new pieces.
Part Two: Short-term vs. long-term memory types, ‘spaced repetition’ theory.
Part Three: Improving piano practice efficiency.
Part One: Two common approaches to learning new pieces.
Based on the student’s verbal feedback and observation of video recordings of students practising at home, I have noticed two distinct ‘linear’ practice strategies they often employ.
I would like to describe both of those frequently used approaches and suggest their possible strengths and weaknesses.
Both of the strategies discussed below relate to simple note-learning from the moment of first sight-reading through the piece to the fluent performance in a slow to medium tempo. This is usually achieved during the first lesson, after a one-week of practicing.
I have assumed that a student is given a composition of appropriate difficulty. Any method will most likely yield good results if the piece is too easy. If it is too complex, the learning process will be slow regardless of the selected approach.
Due to its complexity, in this article, I will not be addressing memorization – this will be covered in a series of separate blog posts.
In this strategy, the student reads through the piece from the beginning to the end many times over with very little time spent practicing smaller sections. This learning strategy is often used by absolute beginners.
In this approach, student measures their level of satisfaction and accomplishment by their ability to complete the entire task (in this case, going through the entire piece from the beginning to the end) rather than the quality of the work itself. The piece learned this way is often played very slowly throughout but lacks confidence and reliability.
One of the main advantages of this method lies in the constant sight-reading of the piece (as opposed to practicing it) and in the relative understanding of the composition as a whole. This way of practicing may benefit students’ sight-reading skills and result in a performance where most sections of the piece are known to a similar level.
The progress of more complex and challenging passages is usually slower than that of the easier ones because each section of the piece is given a similar amount of practice/reading time. Furthermore, the tempo may become unstable because the student needs to slow down in more complicated sections.
Such a continuous (or ‘linear’) way of learning can also cause mental fatigue and boredom. More frequent ‘stopping points’ would allow the student to assess their current progress and set new goals for the following sections.
In this approach, the student practices the first beat, bar or section (for example, the first phrase) many times over. Once a definite improvement to the fluency has been made, the student moves on to the next beat, bar, or section and repeats the same procedure.
Students who prefer using this method often return to the beginning of the piece to combine already learned sections together and play through all of them fluently.
The feeling of smaller chunks learned well gives the student an immediate boost of satisfaction and gratification, even if it took them a considerable amount of time to learn each section.
If a student could commit a sufficient amount of time to practice each section, the musical text is usually learned well and reliably.
Using this strategy often results in a first lesson performance characterized by the first part of the piece being played very well, the middle sounding less confident, while the ending is not learned at all. Sometimes students feel discouraged/lack of motivation because they have spent a long time studying just a few sections but feel overwhelmed by the work that still lies ahead (even though the parts they have worked on were digested well).
I hope you find the description of the two learning styles useful and consistent with your own observations. In the following section, I am going to investigate the theory behind the process of learning new skills.
Part Two: Short vs long term memory types, ‘spaced repetition’ theory.
The graph below (based on articles written by McLeod, S. A. in 2009 and 2017) shows a comparison between the two memory types discussed in this section:
As can be seen on the graph, short-term memory is limited in capacity and longevity. At the same time, it is lightning fast, and it can be used to store and access data instantaneously. Long-term memory – on the other hand – needs time and practice to be accessed, but it allows us to store vast amounts of information with no apparent time limitations.
Short-term memory has yet another essential task not mentioned on the graph. It functions as a gatekeeper to our long-term memory. What is stored/entered into the short-term memory for long enough, and repeated often enough, is eventually granted permission to enter the long-term memory.
I consider the ‘spaced repetition’ very important because it tells us – with a reasonable degree of precision – how often and for how long a piece of new information should be stored in the short-term memory before it can be preserved by its bigger brother.
This understanding directly impacts our ability to improve piano practice efficiency.
‘Spaced repetition’ theory
According to Wikipedia, ‘Spaced repetition’ is:
“a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.”
This system is frequently used in vocabulary learning, but its application is becoming more frequent in practicing a musical instrument.
I have created a simple graph to summarize the principles of the ‘spaced repetition’ technique. The drawing below shows that a single repetition/rehersal of the studied material does not allow for it to be preserved in long-term memory.
Blue lines indicate how long the studied material remains available in our memory. With every next day of practice and every next repetition, the skill we are trying to acquire becomes better imprinted in our long-term memory. On the other hand, the longer we postpone our next repetition, the less likely we are to remember the studied material.
The importance of ‘spacing’
If the time between repetitions is too long, our brain will start forgetting what it has already learned. During the next study session, we might have to begin the learning process all over again.
If the space between repetitions is too short, our practice becomes counter-productive. By giving our brain an insufficient amount of time to consolidate the information we have just learned, we would be forcing it to work against the natural learning process.
This does not mean that practicing something one hundred times in a single practice session will not yield results. It only suggests that the amount of effort necessary to commit a new skill to long-term memory in a short period is more significant than if the same goal was achieved by spacing the same hundred repeats across several days.
In the following section, I will focus solely on the practical application of the factors described above, aiming to speed up the learning process, and increase the efficiency of time spent at the instrument.
Part Three: Improving piano practice efficiency.
I would like to begin this section by outlining ‘Strategy Three’ for improving the practice efficiency. This approach is based on the ‘spaced repetition’ theory and principles of short-term and long-term memory types outlined earlier.
Strategy Three – based on principles of ‘spaced repetition.’
The ‘Strategy Three’ approach can be easily applied using the five steps delineated below:
- Divide your piece into manageable chunks (single bar sections are a good starting point);
- Pick a definitive number of repetitions per each section (I tend to ask for ten);
- The daily practice time should allow for the repetition of every section of the piece;
- Do not run through sections already practiced;
- Every 2-3 days, double the section length (Day 1 and 2: single-bar sections, Day 3 and 4: two-bar sections) until the entire piece can be performed fluently.
To aid fluency, always overlap practiced sections (e.g., start a section on the first beat of a given bar and finish it on the first beat of the following bar).
If there are any sections of the piece of much greater complexity, I suggest a more significant number of repeats (for example, 15 or 20) or shortening of a section length (instead of a complete bar, I ask the student to divide it into beats).
Sample practice timetable
If we assume that the studied piece is 5 minutes long, and repeating each section ten times would amount to 50 minutes of practice time, the sample practice schedule might look like this:
Please note that it is going to be difficult to follow this plan with a less advanced/unmotivated student. Various adjustments can be made, but the scenario outlined above incorporates the principles of ‘spaced repetition’ as well as short-term and long-term memory characteristics when applied to the instrumental practice.
Piano practicing strategies compared
The table below illustrates the differences between the three strategies for improving piano practicing efficiency discussed in this article (studied piece length: 5 minutes, number of repetitions: 100):
|Strategy type||Strategy One |
(repeat 100 times from the beginning to the end, limited by the daily practice time)
|Strategy Two |
(repeat a single section 100 times or until it feels learned, then move to the next one)
|Strategy Three |
(repeat a single section 10 times, then move on to the next one)
|Section size||The entire piece||Single beat, bar or phrase – up to the teacher, depending on the difficulty|
Sections are joined together as soon as they are considered learned
|Single beat, bar or phrase – up to the teacher, depending on the difficulty|
Every 2-3 days/practice sessions, sections are doubled in length
|Goal/satisfaction factor||Play the piece from start to end||Learn fewer sections but learn them very well||Make a small improvement in all sections of the piece|
|Fluency/continuity of performance||The piece is played continuously, depending on the sight-reading level of the student||Fluency is accomplished immediately as soon as the section was practiced 100 times or until learned||Fluency is accomplished only after several days of practice – when each|
the section is learned well enough to be connected with other ones
The repeat of each section happens every 5 minutes when the piece is played again.
|None or very little spacing
100 repetitions follow immediately one after another with no considerable breaks in-between
During the first ten repeats, very little spacing is given, but spacing increases with every next practice session.
|Short-term memory capacity: 7 items||Every time the piece is played through, each bar stays in the short-term memory storage only for a brief moment until the seven storage boxes are full. The bars that follow immediately take the place of those|
stored there just a moment ago.
The imprint of each bar is insufficient to be stored even partially in long-term memory. When the particular bar is repeated after 5 minutes,
|For the initial 100 repeats of the section, short-term memory is bombarded with the same information, making a strong impression on short-term memory and transferring a substantial chunk of this information into long-term memory. |
There is an insufficient amount of rest between the 100 repeats to store those sections in the long-term memory indefinitely, and they will have to be reinforced in the following days
|Each section is practiced ten times in a single run to create a good imprint in the short-term memory and transfer some information to the long-term one. |
When the capacity of 7 sections is full, and the 8th section is repeated ten times, it pushes some of the previously learned sections away.
The imprint created during the initial ten times is sufficient to preserve some aspects of this section in long-term storage. When the section is repeated during the following practice session, some information has already been preserved and is reinforced for even longer storage
|Results after seven days of practice||Uneven confidence and understanding of the text.||Practiced sections are learned well, but confidence is lower towards the end of the piece||Relatively even confidence across the entire fluently played the piece|
The file with the PDF version of the table can be found here.
For clarity, the three piano practice strategies were delineated in a slightly exaggerated manner to highlight the differences between them. They can and should be adjusted depending on the student and the repertoire.
Irregular practice routine
If a student practices irregularly and skips days of practice, repeating only ten times per session might be insufficient to create a memory imprint strong enough for it to be retained until the next practice session. After a 2-3 day break, the student might have to restart the entire process again. In this case, Strategy Two, with its solid initial imprint, might be a lot more successful. Even if a student takes a 2-3 day break, some of the information from the first 100-times practice will most likely still be available in the long-term memory.
Lack of satisfaction
My students very often reported that during the first few days of applying Strategy Three, they felt an insufficient level of success and satisfaction from their practice. They were often frustrated by not being allowed/able to play the piece through. They also felt upset that the small sections they have studied did not improve well enough for students to a sense of accomplishment.
In this regard, Strategy One and Two have a distinct advantage. In the first case, students will enjoy the ability to perform the piece from start to finish (albeit very slowly). In the second case, they will feel that each small section they have practiced was learned very well (albeit achieved with a considerable time investment).
I feel that one of the main obstacles for students who would like to employ Strategy Three lies delayed gratification. The clear benefits of using this method can only be seen after a few days of practice.
Conclusions and summary
I believe that there are still a lot of aspects of our brain we do not understand, particularly in the area of skill acquisition. I hope that through an application of ‘spaced repetition’ theory, and some of the knowledge regarding short and long-term memory types introduced in this article, the reader will be able to improve their piano practice efficiency. Today’s content was a mixture of my own teaching experience and the research findings I apply in my everyday pedagogical work.
Which category do you and your students fall into? Do you often mix those approaches? Maybe you use Strategy 1 more often when the performance deadline is approaching?
If you have any questions or requests, please leave a comment below or contact me via Facebook or Twitter (see the links in the right sidebar).
Happy practicing and teaching everyone!
PS. I purposely avoided a discussion about practicing hands separately and hands together, as well as the application of this method for memorization. Those will be addressed in future articles.
6 thoughts on “Improving the efficiency of piano practice – ‘spaced repetition’ method”
This was a very useful article; even though my main interest is jazz improv, the ability to master drills and lead sheets quickly is important, and the method you describe looks very applicable. I also liked your Hanon piece. Do you have a piece on fingering (thumb over vs thumb under)? I could not find one, but it seems like a natural for someone with your analytical ability. I hope you are still working on this web site, and that you do get around to posting on YouTube as promised on your home page. Thank you for the excellent work and clean, functional design.
Thank you for your comment and encouragement. I would love to dedicate more time to this site but life gets in the way sometimes.
That is an interesting question (the thumb under and thumb over). I have been preparing a video about most common issues related to learning to play scales in an even way (no accents, just smooth with consistent articulation), and the use of thumb plays a crucial role in the process. I will do my best to finish it soon.
Thank you for visiting.
It somehow help, but as a psychological student, I have to say the Forgetting curve is being tesify and prove to wrong idea. Based on memory, it is like a scratch which store in your memory, and what we can do it to enhance the connects between nerves.
And also the first time input is important.
Thank you for your comment! Would you be able to point me towards an academic writing or a study that suggests that the idea of the forgetting curve is incorrect? Thank you.
Hi. Classify every unique movement of a piece as a variation. Like Beethoven 32 variations.
each one a different rhythm/harmony. Each is a milestone. Like Dvorak Dumka. about 5 variations. No cognitive confusion. They focus on one area, and achieve self satisfaction. When pianists are practicing sonata or grand sonata, they are at higher level.- advanced learners.
Using spaced repetition flash cards, for music theory is great benefit.
Plus warming up arpeggios in the key played. Maj/Min/Dim.
Visual, Tactile, and Ear…
A great article by Wozniak.. about the 20 rules of space repetition
Can be applied to students for music theory
Spaced repetition tools like supermemo, and Idorecall, are easy to use for music theory.
There are simpler tools, even powerpoint, for music theory. Spaced repetition for music, has 3 components. Visual, Tactile, and Audio (ear). And also moods, from the Book Calm Energy. Calm Energy, Calm Tiredness, Tense Energy Tense Tiredness.
Thank you so much for commenting and for your valuable input into the discussion on memorising music – much appreciated. The article you linked is very interesting. I only had a brief look at it but many of the ideas mentioned there can be easily applied to music. Terrific resource.