Your brain on viola

One of the most interesting sessions at the AVS conference last week, at least to me, included two speakers, Molly Gebrian and Shelly Tramposh. The session was titled, "A Focus on Practicing," and I learned a lot of information that I feel I should have known by now! Though some information was familiar, a lot of it was new, and it has changed the way I've been practicing recently.

Molly's presentation highlighted neuroscience research on how the human brain learns, and she taught me that random practice, rather than blocked practice, forces your brain to reconstruct the material anew every time. Random practice is when you work on a small chunk of music for a few minutes at a time, then jump to another small chunk for a few minutes, then a third-- she used the following excerpt examples: the first page of Don Juan, Beethoven Scherzo, and Brahms' Fifth Haydn Variation. Blocked practice is the "more traditional" form, in which you work on one section over and over until it gets better, and then move on. Of course, a certain amount of block practice needs to happen before ramping up to random practice-- you have to know the notes and shifts and everything technical before trying random run-throughs!

In essence, when you practice randomly, you are simulating what happens in performance. We've all had those moments in performance where you wish you had a second chance at that one run. Well, in blocked practice you do... In random, you don't. So, as Molly put it, you have to practice what your brain needs to do... which is to get good at that hard lick on the FIRST run-through. 

I've been doing random practice since I got back from the conference, and I find it somewhat frustrating. The perfectionist in me doesn't want to go on to another section until I've fine-tuned the one I'm working. But, it also highlights how much time I do spend working on one tiny section (have any of you repeated a tricky run ad nauseum, only to flub it in performance?). So maybe getting it right the second time and then repeating it correctly five times isn't the best way of practicing. For a tricky run (and there are a few in the Bartok Concerto...), I've been playing it once, then "resetting" my brain by playing something else before going back to the run for another shot at it. Again-- a lot of block practice has to go in before trying this, but I can see how this kind of practice will make me a cleaner performer. Molly pointed out that our brains tend to remember the best performance as indicative of our baseline abilities, which is why blocked practice doesn't always serve us best. This all makes me wonder how different things would be if I'd been introduced to this idea ten years ago!

Shelly's presentation was a good dose of common sense. More on that soon. :-)

Happy practicing!

Molly and I were classmates during our Master's degrees at New England Conservatory. It was so great to see her again, after (gasp) 9 years!

Molly and I were classmates during our Master's degrees at New England Conservatory. It was so great to see her again, after (gasp) 9 years!