You likely know the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. As she scours the three bears' home, searching for comforts of food and rest, it takes her a few tries to find exactly what she's looking for. Too hot, too cold. Too hard, too soft. To large, too small. After too this or too that, we hear the phrase we're all waiting for, "Juuust riiiight." (Okay, I don't know if she ever said it quite like that, but that's how I imagine it, anyway.)
So what does Goldilocks have to do with practicing? Obviously, it's that eating more porridge will help you play better. Kidding. Rather, a principle I have learned in my own playing and then in my teaching is that when you can overdo and underdo something in your playing (it's okay to intentionally make mistakes!), you can find the sweet spot in the middle where that rhythm, or technique, or phrasing starts to feel "juuust riiiight."
Researchers Robert Kerr and Bernard Booth explored this in their studies on varied practice of motor skills. Kerr and Booth had two groups of elementary students toss beanbags at targets on the floor in their gym class. One group aimed the beanbags at a target three feet away, but the other group varied their practice by tossing beanbags at targets two and four feet away, but not three feet. Twelve weeks later, all students were tested on tossing at the three-foot target, and those who had practiced on the two- and four-foot targets outperformed those who practiced on the three-foot target, even though they had never thrown at a three-foot target!
Why is this? The authors of Make It Stick (an excellent book on the science of learning) explain:
"Varied practice–like tossing your beanbags into baskets at mixed distances–improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another. You develop a broader understanding of relationships between different conditions and the movements required to succeed in them; you discern context better and develop a more flexible 'movement vocabulary'–different movements for different situations."
When we rely too much on performing a task the exact same way every time, we limit our capacity to adapt our learning to other situations. It is advantageous to be able to perform something in numerous ways, so when the circumstances dictate a change, you can comfortably make the adjustment. I can think of several ways to apply this concept, but here are three main ways: 1) finding the best way to say something musically, 2) building technical understanding and facility, and 3) preparing for varied circumstances in performance.
Applying this concept
Examples of finding the best way to communicate something musically:
- Overdo a crescendo so you hear what it sounds like, then underdo it, then decide where it best fits in the middle.
- Slow down at the end of the phrase too much so you know how far is too far. Slow down too little so you sense the lack of musicality, then find the spot that says what you want to say.
Examples of building technical understanding and facility:
- Play double strokes too open, then too closed, as this teaches you (or your student) to hear and recognize the correct interpretation.
- Similar to the previous example, play too loud, then too soft. Explore the dynamic range to find just what "mf" or "pp" feels and sounds like.
- When searching to memorize the right tempo, practice it a little too fast, a little too slow.
- If you keep missing a note on a keyboard because you aren't reaching low enough, then overdo it and hit the note even lower than the right note.
- Four-mallet interval too wide for that 3rd? Aim for a 2nd, then aim for a 4th, then back to a 2nd, then find the correct 3rd, and it will probably feel more comfortable than it did before.
Examples of preparing for varied circumstances in performance:
- Practice with mallets that are too hard or too soft, too heavy or too light. What if your choice sticks break or are forgotten on the way to a gig? It might not throw you off much if you've practiced varied situations.
- Play on a head that's a little looser or a little tighter than you prefer.
- In an ensemble setting, perhaps the conductor or ensemble leader slows a spot more than normal. Are you prepared to follow? Or have you consistently practiced it really well, but exactly one way for the past month?
You can see how these ideas can be applied in many ways beyond what I have listed. While continuing to practice repeated fundamentals in order to keep them sharp is very important, varying your practice in order to learn on a deeper level should also be a part of your approach to practice. This helps with not only broadening your skills and understanding, but simply your comfort level in performance.
You move to a new town. Every day you drive the same path to work and back home. You quickly learn your way to the nearby grocery store, taking the same route each time. As a result of your routines and patterns, you begin to feel pretty comfortable in your new neighborhood and town. But a little bit of you wonders what's down that street just past the grocery store. What's around the bend in the next neighborhood over? You decide to explore the areas on either side of your neighborhood, going past where you normally go, and as you stray from your worn paths, you begin to gain a broader perspective on where it is you live. Now when you drive home from work, taking the same route you have always taken, are you more or less comfortable than you were before you explored all around your area? You are almost certainly more comfortable, because now you know your neighborhood. You can place your home in the context of a neighborhood and town, a bigger picture, a map.
That may not be a perfect analogy, but I hope it helps bring to light what I am getting at. Deepening and broadening your understanding of concepts goes beyond just memorizing a very specific sequence of motor skills, and the results are flexibility and ultimately a higher level of performance.
"Varied practice helps learners build a broad schema, an ability to assess changing conditions and adjust responses to fit. Arguably, interleaving and variation help learners reach beyond memorization to higher levels of conceptual learning and application, building more rounded, deep, and durable learning, what in motor skills shows up as underlying habit strength." (from Make It Stick)
So next time you are practicing, picture Goldilocks, and think "too ____," then "too ____," all on your way to that sweet middle ground that's "juuust riiiight."