Thursday, October 13, 2011

Guest Post on "The Neuroscience of Practicing"

If you have seen my recent post about the MYC West conference that I attended in Princeton, you may have noted that I had the wonderful opportunity of learning something about the "Musical Brain" through a presentation by Tara Gaertner, a fabulous MYC teacher in Vancouver whom I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know. I'm so excited about this post today which was inspired by one reader's request to share more about the "Musical Brain" (Thank you BusyB!). I decided to check in with the source and so thrilled that Tara has graciously agreed to provide a guest post that summarizes her points on the topic "The Neuroscience of practicing" she discussed at the conference.

Here's a little bit about Tara. Tara leads a double life. As "Dr. Tara", she is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC), teaching Neuroanatomy in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. She holds a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Texas in Houston. As "Ms. Tara" she is a piano teacher to young children, offering Music for Young Children classes to young beginners and private lessons in her studio. She has two school aged children of her own.

Without further ado, I am pleased to introduce Tara as the guest contributor for today's post on the topic "The Neuroscience of Practicing" featured below. I'm sure you will all find this an interesting read with her points validating the optimum conditions for effective practicing that we all know and discussing how memory is formed and retained in the brain.

By Dr. Tara Gaertner

I recently gave a talk at the MYC West Fall Conference, in Princeton BC.  The topic was “The Neuroscience of Practicing”.  Here’s a summary of what I wanted to convey to people:

1.         There are two main types of memory systems:  explicit memory, for facts and events, and implicit (motor) memory, for skills and habits.  We use a lot of implicit memory in playing the piano.  We don’t have to think about every single note every time we play it.  However, we should not let the performance of a piece get too automatic.  We can do this by forming explicit memories of the piece alongside the implicit memories. 

2.         Automatic processes play a part in performing, but practicing should always be conscious and deliberate.  The reason for this is that attention is required in order to learn anything.  Studies have shown that if our attention is distracted while trying to learn a motor task, we learn much more slowly, if at all.  This definitely applies to learning the piano.  If your mind is not on your practicing, you are almost wasting your time.

3.         A number of recent studies have shown the role of sleep in memory consolidation, both for explicit and implicit memories.  Consolidation is an important stage of memory formation, in which recently formed memory traces are strengthened, made resistant to interference, and transferred to widespread areas of the cerebral cortex.  Studies have shown that memory consolidation is disrupted by sleep deprivation.  Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis is probably the best thing you can do to improve your ability to learn.

4.         It is well-known that people learn better if learning sessions are distributed across time, compared to learning in one big massed session.  This is called the Spacing Effect.  For instance, it’s better to practice once a day rather than one big practice session once a week.  But what is the optimal spacing of our practice sessions?  It seems to me that the optimal length and spacing of practice sessions will be determined by the material that needs to be practiced.  A beginner student might benefit by practicing her short pieces in one-minute sessions, while an advanced student needs to spend more time at each practice session in order to really “get into” the practice and make some improvements.

5.         Did you know that random organization of practice material leads to better learning, even though performance during the practice session is worse?  Researchers believe that this is because mixing up the material during learning makes the learning harder, and so we have to use alternate strategies.  This idea leads to some interesting conclusions about how we might structure our piano practice sessions.  For maximal learning, we should mix up our practice material.  The downside is that it might not be as satisfying to practice this way, because our performance during the practice session would be worse. 

There is still much research to be done to understand the best way to retain what we practice, but these keys points are a good start for maximizing our practice time!

My sincere thanks to Tara for a wonderful insight to the "Musical Brain". I'm delighted to introduce Tara's new blog "Training The Musical Brain" that is dedicated to sharing a neuroscience perspective on teaching and learning music. Tara has written her first blog post that delves deeper into the first point about explicit and implicit memory and will be writing a series of posts that expands further on each of the points above. I think there is so much we can all learn from Tara's knowledge and expertise in this subject. Hop on over to say hello and be sure to follow her blog..


  1. Thank-you so much for following up on this subject. I am really going to think, think, think about these points. I especially want to consider the idea of mixing ip the practice material. I often recommend a practice agenda and this can lead to thoughtless routine. I can throw off student so easily by asking them to start with, let's say, improvising instead of a scale. The resistance to change of routine is understandable because the student must do some rethinking. Not a bad thing at all.

  2. My pleasure Busy B, I'm learning lots from Tara too.

  3. Thanks so much Wendy and Dr. Gaertner

    I think this will help a lot of students and teachers. We only have so little time with them every week. The main challange is for the students to go home and practice what was discussed during the lesson.

    Thanks again :)

    Susan from San Antonio !!


Thank you for your comments and thoughts, I enjoy reading them

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