How To Practice Effectively, According To Science

Mar 6, 2017
Originally published on March 6, 2017 10:24 am

Practice is a physical activity, of course, but it's also hard mental work — if you're doing it right. A new video published by TED Ed gets down to the scientific nitty-gritty of what good practice looks like, and what it does to your brain. (Think axons and myelin, not "muscle memory" — muscles don't have "memory.")

As Annie Bosler and Don Greene, the creators of this TED Ed lesson, point out, this advice can apply to everything from music to sports. They define effective practice as "consistent, intensely focused and target[ing] content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of one's current abilities." That's another way of saying: Don't waste your time practicing the stuff you already know, just to fill up those minutes.

More of their specific advice, with each point bolstered by research:

  • "Focus at the task on hand." Shut off all those digital distractions. No excuses.
  • "Start out slowly, or in slow motion. Coordination is built with repetitions." Get it right at a slow pace and then work on increasing your speed while still playing the music correctly.
  • "Frequent repetition with allotted breaks are common practice habits of elite performers." Do what many pros do: split your practice time into smaller, super-concentrated chunks, working multiple times a day.
  • "Practice in your brain, in vivid detail." Visualize playing your music without actually playing it. Put yourself through the music, note by note. Imagine what it feels like to press that key, or take that breath, every step of the way.

Of course, their advice about practicing isn't new; quite a bit of it has been floating around for some time now, like in a series of posts published here on Deceptive Cadence a few years ago. But having a better understanding why and how it works is inspiring — and helps you reinforce good habits.

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