Don’t Practice Until You Get It Right, Practice Until It Can’t Go Wrong

I was teaching a class of 7th grade band students today when one of them asked why I kept stopping the group and starting them over after they got it right for the first time. It reminded me immediately of this Tone Deaf Comics poster by by John Bogenschutz.

Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.

The following story may be apocryphal, but it makes a good point. Supposedly as a child W.A. Mozart would keep 10 marbles in one shirt pocket while practicing. If he played the phrase (or entire piece, depending on who is telling the story) perfectly, he would move one marble to another shirt pocket. If he played it correctly again a second time he would move another marble over and so on until all 10 marbles were in the other shirt pocket. But if he made a mistake, no matter how many marbles he had left in the first pocket, he would move all 10 back over. He had to play the music correctly 10 times in a row before he could move on.

This sort of idea isn’t just “folk wisdom.” A fairly recent study by Helen J. Huang and Rodger Kram, titled Reduction of Metabolic Cost during Motor Learning of Arm Reaching Dynamics (published in the February 8, 2012 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience) showed that even after mastering a complex motor task subjects showed additional improvement and efficiency by practicing more. The abstract states:

It is often assumed that the CNS controls movements in a manner that minimizes energetic cost. While empirical evidence for actual metabolic minimization exists in locomotion, actual metabolic cost has yet to be measured during motor learning and/or arm reaching. Here, we measured metabolic power consumption using expired gas analysis, as humans learned novel arm reaching dynamics. We hypothesized that (1) metabolic power would decrease with motor learning and (2) muscle activity and coactivation would parallel changes in metabolic power. Seated subjects made horizontal planar reaching movements toward a target using a robotic arm. The novel dynamics involved compensating for a viscous curl force field that perturbed reaching movements. Metabolic power was measured continuously throughout the protocol. Subjects decreased movement error and learned the novel dynamics. By the end of learning, net metabolic power decreased by similar to 20% (similar to 0.1 W/kg) from initial learning. Muscle activity and coactivation also decreased with motor learning. Interestingly, distinct and significant reductions in metabolic power occurred even after muscle activity and coactivation had stabilized and movement changes were small. These results provide the first evidence of actual metabolic reduction during motor learning and for a reaching task. Further, they suggest that muscle activity may not explain changes in metabolic cost as completely as previously thought. Additional mechanisms such as more subtle features of arm muscle activity, changes in activity of other muscles, and/or more efficient neural processes may also underlie the reduction in metabolic cost during motor learning.

A little more layman friendly discussion of their research was published in Science Daily last year.

“The message from this study is that in order to perform with less effort, keep on practicing, even after it seems as if the task has been learned,” said Ahmed of CU-Boulder’s integrative physiology department. “We have shown there is an advantage to continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance.”

So get those marbles out and start practicing. When you get all 10 in the other pocket you’re ready to move on – until tomorrow when you should start it all over again.

Tim Brown

I have used that technique – until I lost all my marbles. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 But seriously, maybe a briefer approach for us impatient students is to use three toothpicks. After all, how many of us are Mozarts?

Joe Walker

I have that “can’t get it wrong” quote on the wall in my guitar lesson studio. I try to get my students to play things perfectly four times in a row. Ten sounds extreme. Steve Vai does 21.

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