When it comes to what ought to go on in a practice session, we would do well to recall the saying attributed to the famous pedagogue, Theodore Leschetizsky: “Think Ten Times and Play Once”.

In his excellent (but now out of print) book, Practising the Piano, Leschetizky’s student, Frank Merrick, recounts some advice in one of his last lessons with the master.

I advise you very often to stop and listen when you are practising and then you will find out a great deal for yourself.

Frank Merrick: Practising the Piano

Merrick suggests we should sing through a phrase (or musical unit) before we play it – in real time, not at fast-forward speed. If the music lends itself to actual singing, then so much the better; if you feel more comfortable imagining the phrase, that’s fine too. But sing or imagine it in as much detail as you can before you play it, so you have something tangible to aim for when you play. After you have played the phrase, stop for a moment and reflect. Did your playing match your intentions? If not, in what ways and where – precisely – did it fall short? This moment of reflection is a very important part of the practice session, and critical to the learning process. However, it is all too easy to skimp on this because we pianists tend to believe that piano practice is all about physical manipulation of the keyboard – that every second of our allotted time should be filled with sound. 

According to new research, National Institutes of Health team members found that by taking a short ten-second break our brains may solidify the memories of new skills we just practised a few seconds earlier. The results highlight the critically important role rest may play in learning.

Everyone thinks you need to ‘practice, practice, practice’ when learning something new. Instead, we found that resting, early and often, may be just as critical to learning as practice.

Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D.

The experiment involved healthy volunteers who were shown a series of numbers on a screen and asked to type the numbers as many times as possible with their left hands for 10 seconds, take a 10 second break, and then repeat this cycle of alternating practice and rest 35 more times. The leader of the study, Marlene Bönstrup, M.D., had assumed the widely-held belief that the brain needs longer periods of rest (such as a good night’s sleep) to strengthen the memories formed while practising a newly learned skill. But as they analysed the data from the experiment, they found the volunteers’ performance improved primarily during the short rests, and not during typing. The rests seemed to play as critical a role in learning as the practising itself. The volunteers’ brains were consolidating memories during the rest periods – short ten-second breaks improved performance and consolidated learning.

Merrick’s book is worth searching for. It contains excellent information, apart from the chapter on injury (very out of date).

I have been recommending Frank Merrick’s threefold practice ritual – plan, play, judge – for many years, and it is always heartening to find scientific evidence for how it works. When we apply this rigorously our practice session should be punctuated by regular periods of silence. Rather than hack away repeatedly at a difficult passage until we somehow wrestle it into shape, or repeat a phrase because we’re not happy with the way it sounds take a few seconds to imagine how you want it to sound, and how you want it to feel, before you plunge into the keyboard again. 

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