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Interview with Dr. Molly Gebrian on the Neuroscience Behind Block vs. Random Practice

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Molly! Can you tell us a little about your background in teaching and neuroscience?

Thank you for inviting me to do this, Danielle! I was a Suzuki kid myself (I studied with David Einfeldt at the Hartt Suzuki Institute from the time I started at age 7), and I’ve done some Suzuki teacher training, but these days, I’m a college professor teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I’ve been teaching for about 15 years, from 4-year old beginners, all the way up through graduate students. As far as neuroscience goes, I was a double-degree student at Oberlin College and Conservatory, majoring in viola performance and neuroscience. I had no plans to continue with neuroscience (it was just something I found fascinating, that I did for fun!), but when I got to New England Conservatory of Music for grad school, something was missing. My roommate at NEC, who had also been at Oberlin with me, participated in a study at Harvard looking at musicians’ versus non-musicians’ brains and when she came home and told me about the study, I got really excited and knew that I had to continue to be involved with neuroscience research in some capacity. At NEC, I did a number of independent studies looking at music and the brain. When I got to Rice University, where I did my doctorate in viola, I was able to take many graduate-level classes in neuroscience, I worked in a lab for a long time, and I was the assistant director for two interdisciplinary symposia on music and the brain. Now in my current job, teaching viola and music theory at UW-Eau Claire, I also teach a class on music and the brain. I’ve published papers, in both scientific journals and music journals, on music and the brain, and I frequently give presentations on this topic at schools and conferences all of the country every year. Readers curious about my work in this field can visit my website at https://mollygebrian.com/writing/


When I listened to your session at the Suzuki conference you explored the idea of the more traditional "block" practicing vs. "random" practicing. Could you explain what the differences are between those two types of practicing? 


This has been one of the most revelatory changes I’ve made in my own practicing. So traditional “blocked” practicing (or “massed” practice) is the way many of us were taught to practice: doing something many times (correctly) in a row to solidify it, or practicing a specific section or piece for a set period of time before then moving on to the next section or piece, and then not returning to that first section/piece until we practice it again the next day. The problem with this type of practicing as our only method of practice is that we are never going to get this luxury when we perform: you don’t get to practicing playing a passage a few times before you tell the audience to listen. We have to go on stage and do it perfectly the first time. That's where “random” (or “interleaved”) practice comes in. When we practice in an interleaved manner, we are constantly switching between sections and pieces, not spending too much time on any one thing.


At first glance block practicing seems, to me, like it would be the most logical way to practice. Why does random practicing work better?


Definitely, and the name “random practice” evokes a chaotic, unfocused practice session that couldn’t possibly be productive. On the contrary, to practice in an interleaved way successfully, you have to do more pre-planning of your practice session and be even more focused than when you do massed practice. Random practicing is training for performance reliability and consistency. It is much easier for our brains to reproduce something we have just done than to remember how to do something perfectly on the first try, that we may not have done yet today or in the last hour or in the last five minutes. If we are only using blocked practice, we are training our brains to do the same thing over and over again. But when we use interleaved practice, we are forcing our brains to reconstruct from scratch how to do it with no mistakes on the very first try, which is exactly what our brains are going to have to when we get on stage. If we don’t practice what our brains will have to do, then it’s like getting on stage not having practiced what our bodies will have to do. It seems obvious that if we don’t practice the right fingerings then our fingers won’t work so well in a performance situation. The same goes for practicing what our brains have to do.


Should we only do random practice? Or does block practicing still have a place? 


Blocked practice definitely still has a place because it helps solidify skills to get them to the point that they can be tested using interleaved practice. If you can’t reproduce something successfully a certain number of times in a row, you definitely won’t be able to do it the first time perfectly with no preparation. Blocked practicing is what I do predominantly early on in learning something new, but the closer I get to a performance, the more random practicing I’m doing. Before I learned about this, I used exclusively blocked practice (which I think most of us do), and then I would wonder why things didn’t go as well as I’d like on stage. The feeling of “I wish I could get a second chance at that!” or “It went so much better in my practice room yesterday!” come from doing too much blocked practice and not enough random practice.


What would an example of random practice look like? 


It can take many forms, so I will just give you a few examples of how I use it in my practicing that have proven successful once I get on stage to perform. One thing I like to do is pick 4-7 spots in my music that are my hard spots that I need to make sure I nail in the concert. I will take mini sticky notes and put one at each spot in my music. Then I play the first spot and if it’s perfect, I make a tick mark on the sticky note. Then I play the second spot, give myself a tick mark if it’s perfect, and so on until I’ve played all of the spots I’ve chosen. Once I get to the last spot, I go back to the first spot and play it again. If it’s perfect, I get a second tick mark on that sticky note. If it’s not, not only do I not get a tick mark, but I have to erase what is already there. I continue going through the spots I’ve chosen in this way, with the goal being five tick marks on each sticky note. But if I make a mistake, I have to erase all of the tick marks I’ve accumulated on the sticky note for that spot. The spots I choose are sections of the music I have already solidified using blocked practice methods (clicking up with the metronome, doing them in different rhythms and bowings, doing them a certain number of times in a row perfectly, working backwards, etc.) and now I am testing how solid they actually are using random practice.

Another thing I like to do is to use an interval timer in my practicing. You can set this type of timer to go off every x-number of minutes/seconds/hours (rather than only once after a designated period of time). There are many free apps you can download for this. To use this method, before I start practicing, I will pick a section I want to make sure I can absolutely nail in performance. When I start practicing, I will turn on my interval timer and go about my regular practicing, whatever that may be. Whenever the timer goes off (I set mine to every 5 minutes), I stop whatever I am doing, perform the section I have picked out ahead of time as if it’s a concert, and then return to whatever I was practicing before. What this does is simulate what it’s going to be like to get up in front of an audience and do it perfectly the first time. Often I will record these as well so I can listen back later. When I practice in this way, I quickly learn 1) what I have to focus on to perform it perfect the first time and 2) which parts aren’t actually as solid as I thought they were. For these parts that are still maybe a bit shaky, I will make a note of them so I can go re-practice and re-solidify them later on.

Sometimes, I will set my interval timer to go off every 5 minutes (or less sometimes) and when it goes off, I have to switch to practicing something completely different (different piece, different section, different scale, different etude, etc.). This forces you to identify the most important thing to practice in whatever you are working on in those five minutes. If you are working on a three-octave scale, for instance, probably the top octave is what needs the most work, so you should just start with practicing the top octave. Or maybe it’s the shifts that need work. But it’s likely not the bottom octave, and so it doesn’t make sense to just start at the beginning of the scale as usual because you have limited time, so you need to start with what needs the most work.

I want to add for your readers that random practicing can be VERY frustrating at first and can almost seem counterproductive. When we do something over and over again, we get lulled into a false sense of competence (psychologists call it the “illusion of mastery”) and that definitely doesn’t happen with random practicing. But the science on this is very strong. They have done studies on every sport imaginable, on musicians, on little kids, on the elderly, on learning word lists, on studying in general, on learning completely strange and novel tasks (like knocking down pins using specific arm movements) and every single one shows the same thing: random practicing results in superior performance. This has definitely been true for me and for my students, so I urge you to give it a try.


Thank you so much for your valuable insights, Molly!

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