More on The Art of (Slow) Practice

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Back nearly ten years ago Bruce Hembd posted here a brief series (in two parts) on The Art of Practice:

I was reminded of them as I recently saw a link to an article with data from a recent study related to the topic of slow practice. Over at Bulletproof Musician the article is:

Feel free to read it all, but what particularly caught my eye was the premise of the article and also a study cited within the article.

As to the premise, doesn’t everyone practice things slowly and work them up to tempo over the course of practice? Our natural assumption (especially as teachers) is that all would practice like we do, but actually it is not, some of you (and your students) practice in a very inefficient manner. What you do is just sort of slam away at the music until it is better, more or less at full tempo.

There is a better way, demonstrated in a study using school children and beanbags. Basically, they were first all tested for throwing accuracy, and then split into two groups for practice. From the article,

Over the course of the next few weeks, the students received a weekly 15-minute practice session, where they practiced throwing beanbags at a square target taped on the wall, again from 5 meters away.
One group of students (the error-reduced or “imperfect practice” group) threw towards a large, easy target area in week one (2.4m x 2.4m), a medium-sized target in week two (1.1m x 1.1m), and a small target in week three (.45m x .45m).
Another group of students (the error-strewn or “perfect practice” group) went in the reverse order, throwing at the small difficult target in week one, the medium target in week two, and the large target in week three.
And then a week later, they were tested on their throwing accuracy and form once again, just like they were at the beginning of the study.

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The first group practiced in a manner analogous to practicing slowly and speeding up the tempo, and the second group practiced in a more random manner. The results?

In terms of accuracy, the error-reduced group (i.e. where they progressed from easy to more challenging standards over the course of training) made significant strides in accuracy from the beginning of training to the end. On the contrary, there wasn’t a significant improvement in performance for the error-strewn (i.e. perfect practice) group.

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So, there you have it in black and white: slow practice works! If you are not making use of this technique, you need to try it ASAP, and if you teach it might be worth being sure your students understand this essential principle of The Art of Practice.

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