Up Your Practice Game

We all want to get better at what we do. How we do that is the challenge. This month I have three words for you: specificity of learning.

Say what?


Time to get nerdy! The specificity of learning hypothesis is a 1968 chestnut from the field of motor learning.  I can already see your eyes glazing over, but bear with me a minute!

To shamelessly over-simplify, the specificity of learning hypothesis proposes this: For best result, your practice should look like your performance.

Motor learning is more complicated than that (1968 was a long time ago, and we’ve learned a lot since then), but I think specificity of learning is worth revisiting because it speaks to a phenomenon I’ve observed time and time again in my years as a performer and teacher:  

Most of the time, we get better at exactly what we practice- and we don’t get better at what we don’t.

Sure, there’s some carryover. Practice the alto and you’re in a better position to pick up the tenor.  Practice one sonata by Handel and you’ll have a better understanding of his style when it comes to tackling the next one.

But more frequently, in order to make efficient progress, you need to think in a granular way about the specific skills you want to rehearse.  If you don’t do this, and decide that practice is practice is practice, you’ll likely become frustrated when you happen upon a gap in your skill set.  

If you’ve never practiced sight reading with a whole note beat, for example, you’re going to be hard pressed to do it under pressure, even if you’re a quarter note ace.  I find that students who encounter a difficulty like this often over-generalize: they decide they are bad readers, or that playing with a whole note beat is inherently too difficult.   

In fact, this is a lesson in specificity of learning: in order to improve reading with a whole note beat, you need to practice reading with a whole note beat.  Students who decide a whole note beat is too hard are. forgetting about the years of practice they’ve already put in reading music with a quarter note beat- practice that worked! 

In my own playing, I’ve found that I’m much weaker in sharp keys than I am with flats.  After almost thirty years of practice, four or five or even six flats is not problem.  But five sharps? Run! This is a direct result of specific practice: recorder music tends to be written in flat keys, so over the years I’ve put in infinitely more hours with flats.

The payoff to thinking about specificity of learning is that you’re empowered to improve your skills. I spent a lot of time in sharp keys this summer- and I definitely improved my facility!  My students who have trouble with a whole note beat get more assignments with a whole note beat- and they improve!  Trouble with bass clef?  Practice bass clef. Trouble performing?  Practice performing.  Trouble finding your place again when you get lost? Practice finding your place again when you get lost.

Becoming a better recorder player isn’t a straight shot. It’s a million small -and marvelous- journeys.  Happy traveling.

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© 2016 Anne Timberlake