Artist development

Tips on developing a healthy practice routine

Being a musician is a choice, a gift and most of all, the product of hard work. Whether it is songwriting, playing an instrument, singing or performing…all these skills require practice and lots of trial and error.

In today’s post I am sharing my recommendations for practice routines that might help you stay on track so you can see some improvements and results.

First, let´s discuss some neurobiological factors, before breaking things down into actual strategies.

How do we learn a new skill?

Learning a new skill is a complex neurobiological process in the brain. Not going into the details too much, our brains basically take in new information all the time through sensory input. The sensory memory stores any incoming signal for as little as 2 seconds. Only a little amount of all incoming signals gets processed and forwarded to our short term memory which stores the information for another 10 seconds or so, before they get forwarded to the working memory, which ultimately decides whether to delete, store or forward the information. Depending on the importance of the new information those get stored in our long term memory. Constant revision or emotional experiences that are linked to an emotion means the information is of importance. Also, forming associations can add meaning. Now, with actual practical skills there are other areas of the brain that are being activated to help store the new learnings, than there would be for storing theoretical knowledge. Skills like playing the piano require motor, visual and auditory processing as well as emotional evaluation. When learning a skill we do not necessarily need theoretical knowledge, but rather are we aiming for what´s often referred to as “muscle memory”. We want to be able to handle these tasks automatically. Whether that is driving a car or playing and instrument. We want to reach a skill level that allows us to go on autopilot.

Now let´s break down three tips for learning a new skill effectively:

1. Repetition 

For something to sink in deeply, we need to repeat things over and over, until the process of say playing a chord shape shifts from being a very conscious action (thinking of which notes to play and where they are located on the keypad) to being an automated action that no longer requires our “full” attention. Constant repetition signals our brain that what we are feeding it, is of importance and needs to be “remembered”.

2. The bigger context 

Next to that, putting what you´ve learned into a context works really well for some people.

In fact, we all think with both sides of our brain (the left and the right hemisphere), and yet there´s some typical left-sided ways of thinking and right-sided ways of thinking. When people speak of left-sided brain activities they refer to analytical, sequential and logical thinking, whereas when they speak of right-sided activities, they usually address more intuitive, contextual, holistic and visual-spatial thinking patterns.

Now, as I said we never use “just one” side of the brain; however there might be a preference, or say an emphasis on which parts of the brain are activated during the thinking process.

If you fall among the first group, who are well trained in using the left hemisphere, you will do well by learning one thing at a time and repeating it over and over. Remember, these people are time aware, sequential and structured. If you are more prone to think with the right hemisphere, these strategies might not bring you the results you are hoping for quite as fast.

Instead, you will do extra well by bringing in context. E.g. Take the chords you learned and then apply them to a song. You will go slow, but the context of a song and playing them to a melody will help memorize the shapes more easily. Repetition is helpful as well of course, but your brain will only want to store the information if it knows “what for” so to say. If there is context. For those learners it can also be helpful to visualize sounds. E.g. as a singer, visualize high and low notes and think of shapes when singing a melody.

I remember teaching myself to speak Spanish. To learn new words I would put sticky notes on all my furniture and items in the house, so I could see them time and again (and  in context).

Whenever I learned a new word, I would try to form 3 sentences with the new word. I applied the “new” word I just learned in creative ways.

3. Frequency of practice sessions 

The third big factor to consider is the amount of practice, how often you should practice and when to rest.

In regard to that, keep in mind that your brain is a part of your body. It works much like a muscle. And like in sports, you will want to build up capacity step by step.

Instead of practicing an hour once a week, it is usually more effective to practice 20 minutes/ 3 times a week. Smaller chunks bring better results. Why is that? It´s not just a way of bringing in more repetition over the course of the days, but like an athlete, whose muscles grow on the rest days, so does the brain do the actual work while you rest. Think of it like this:

If your neurons constantly fire, your brain will need a lot of energy to compensate and it can do so for a while until our concentration fades. After a long practice session you might feel exhausted. Over-exhausted brains don´t store information well. It´s a matter of finding the right amount of stimulation.

Still don´t believe that short sessions do the trick? Not sure whether your brain really does the work while you rest? Maybe, let´s picture this: You practice a couple of chords over and over, challenging your brain to follow you. Your brain will feel a little exhausted. After you are done practicing your brain will think: What the hell was that? I don´t want this to happen to me again! I barely caught up and was totally soaked in. I should rethink of what just happened and store the information in case this happens again. There you go…your brain starts processing the overload of information or extensive practice to prepare for the next “attack”. The next time you practice, things will be a bit easier. Sleep is a big factor in the learning cycle. We build and strengthen a large amount of synoptic connections while we sleep.

Now, as opposed to waiting a week to practice again, give your brain the same task every  day or every other day but only for a couple of minutes (e.g. 10 to 15 minutes). That way it knows the skill is of importance. It seems to be relevant every day and since you are not over-exhausting your brain in the practice session, it has more capacity to process afterwards. Pretty simple, right?

It is recommendable to play around with different lengths of practice sessions and find out what works best for you.

Summary: 

I suppose that a combination of small dosages of repetition and applying what you have learned to certain songs is the best way to see fast results in general. But there´s no evidence in science for that theory yet.

All in all, there is no right or wrong way to learning new skills. I am an advocate for trying different methods and going with whatever works. I am also not a neurobiologist. The information I am sharing is a result of research online and offline and years of observing my own practice routine and results. So this is merely my personal recommendations.

What´s most important in my opinion is, to set realistic goals (something challenging, but not too challenging) to stay encouraged, celebrating little successes and applying whatever you have learned to something that´s fun! Knowing what you are learning it for!

That will help you stay motivated and motivations goes much farther than mere discipline!

With that said, happy practice and come back soon!

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