Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Make It Stick: How a Book on the Science of Learning Can Make You a Better Musician

As a musician and a music teacher, I'm often drawn to books on how to learn and practice more effectively. Music requires life-long learning, yet once I left school I had precious little time to practice. I needed to make that time count! Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning is not a book specifically about music, but it does offer some amazing insights into how we learn, retain knowledge, and develop true mastery. I hope to apply these insights to my musical practice and encourage my students to do the same.

Make It Stick challenges some of our basic assumptions about how learning and memory develops. The authors note that we want learning to feel easy, but learning requires effort. In fact, the more effort we put into retrieving our memories, the more long term memories we build. For example, "massed" practice, which the book describes as practicing the same thing over and over the same way, feels like it helps us learn. But it is actually not as effective as we think it is--according to science, it's among the least effective strategies for long term learning. Have you ever practiced a piece over and over again, then went on stage to perform it and had everything fall apart? That's what happens when we use massed practice--we mistake fluency with true mastery.

So what does work? The authors lay out a list of techniques that actually make a difference. The first is retrieval practice, which is recalling facts from memory (e.g., using flashcards). I started using this with my students who were preparing multiple pieces of music for a graduation recital. I had them play through their music cold--no looking at the book, just playing through their program immediately after they warmed up. If they made a mistake, I refused to allow them to go back to the music, but insisted they try to figure it out (with a few hints). My students did struggle at first, but by the next lesson, their memory had greatly improved. Of course, for beginning students, flashcards with musical notes or terms can make an excellent retrieval practice as well. 

Another technique is "spaced practice." We often want to practice a new technique or piece all the time until we feel we've really learned it. However, it's actually more effective to interleave different kinds of techniques or pieces, because when you get a little rusty between practice sessions, you have to work harder to retrieve your memories. The effort you spend in remembering helps to build long term memory. For example, suppose you are learning a Bach Violin Sonata, and Mozart Concerto, and a Paganini Caprice. You might be tempted to spend a few weeks practicing the Bach until it felt fluent, then another few weeks focusing on the Mozart, then the next few weeks on the Paganini. But it's much more effective to interleave practice of the different pieces, for example, by doing a different piece each day, or switching pieces every hour. This type of practice can feel frustrating--you just got going on the Bach, and now you need to switch to another new piece you haven't mastered? Yet science demonstrates it's far more effective for long term learning. Teachers often have a hard time of interleaving in lessons; all too often we focus excessively on a single piece for far too long, instead of offering students a variety of different pieces to work on all at once.

Make It Stick is full of other learning techniques that seem counter-intuitive, but are scientifically proven to help long-term learning. These techniques are invaluable to any musician, and the book itself is easy to read and engaging. I'd strongly recommend this to anyone who's interested in making their practice effective and efficient, and helping their students master develop long term memories and skills.

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