Practice Time

This is in continuation of a discussion over at Hella Frisch on one of my favorite subjects: practice breaks.

One of the primary reasons that Bill Gates/Al Gore/God invented practice breaks is to avoid repetitive stress injuries (RSI). At least computer users these days have software such as AntiRSI for Mac OS X to remind them to take small breaks every eight minutes or so, and a good solid intermission each hour.

One of my main practice tools is an egg timer. I use it in conjunction with a good solid to-do list, block off my list into 5 to 20 minute increments, and make sure that in-between each task there is an appropriately timed break.

Using that break time effectively during the practice session is as important as the time spent playing the instrument. You are giving your brain and motor neurons time to absorb and process what just happened, helping you perform better and memorize. You are protecting yourself against RSI. In taking a break, you are actually enabling your mind and body to attain greater levels of endurance–you can practice longer.

Some of the things to do or to be aware of during these breaks include:

  • Relax and stretch your arms.
  • Roll your head around on your shoulders.
  • Meditate, if you are so inclined.
  • Breathing exercises – practice controlled breathing, especially if you don’t play a wind instrument.
  • Don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids, and grab an energy snack if you need it. Pracicing is a form of physical exercise.
  • Eye fatigue can be a problem. If you are doing lots of music reading, probably the break time won’t be best spent studying for your next final, playing video games, surfing the web, or reading a big old book on PHP programming. (I’m so guilty of this…)
  • Move around. Take a short walk, get out of the room, get some fresh air. This will help you loosen up.

I read considerable amounts of research back in college that showed that breaking study times into smaller chunks helped with retention. (And oh yes I wish I could cite some of those sources here but it has been like 15 years… Maybe I can do some searching and post an update later.) The theory was that there was a bell curve in a learning session, where the first ~10% and the last ~10% of the session held the greatest rates of information retention, and things sloped off somewhere in the middle. So the idea I had was that if you had an hour to practice, I had two choices: If I practiced non-stop for the hour, I’d do really well at remembering the stuff during the first ten minutes and last ten minutes of the piece I was trying to learn, but the middle might get a bit fuzzy. Or, I could break the hour into six 8-minute segments with a two minute break in-between each. Now instead of one big bell curve, I had six nice small ones. The result was that I found it much easier this way to memorize complex pieces of music. Add to that the bonus of avoiding tendonitis and giving my muscle memory more opportunities to pause and reflect, and one will really find this way to be more productive than just blowing through the piece for the whole hour. You practice for less actual minutes per hour, but the time spent is more efficient.

Here’s some related posts of mine on the subject:

2 thoughts on “Practice Time”

  1. This is fantastic – I’m so glad I brought up the subject, and to read your great suggestions about practice breaks. I didn’t really do the topic justice, since I didn’t even mention how often or for how long to break. I like your system, since it forces you to take regular pauses – and then get back to work – and it has some nifty science behind it. Now if only we could convince Wagner and Mahler that we need occasional breaks…

  2. You did the topic great justice just by starting the thread. This is one great thing about the weblog medium – someone can begin to explore an idea and it starts to develop as others respond in comments or on their own sites.

    Now I know that some verbose composers like Mahler and Wagner could use a lesson or two in white space. (Speaking of which, we’re playing Bruckner 7 out this way right now.) Even though they can seem a bit long winded, there are rests to be found, here and there, and we can even use those moments of pause to aspire for grander things.

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