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Practicing without any progress? Here's a potential fix

As a string musician, the feeling of being stuck despite long practice sessions is all too familiar. You dedicate countless hours to practicing your stringed instrument, pushing your limits until you’re physically exhausted, only to find that the progress you made seems to vanish overnight. This discouraging cycle can make you question your abilities and wonder if you really have the talent needed to succeed.

However, the real problem isn’t you -- it’s the traditional practice methods that often lead to a plateau when learning to play an instrument. So, if you’re practicing without making any progress, getting better requires a different approach.

From frustrated to inspired

Violin with bow on a table, laptop and sheet music in background

The most widespread practice method is “blocked practice,” which involves repetitively drilling the same task until it is mastered. For instance, you might spend an entire session playing a single scale or piece repeatedly, leading to immediate improvement and mastery. However, when you practice the next day, you frustratingly find much of your progress has been lost. In essence, you are practicing without improving.

Blocked practice creates a false sense of accomplishment because it lowers brain engagement over time. Studies have shown that the brain becomes less active with repeated stimuli, which means the information isn’t processed as deeply as new information. Essentially, repetitive practice can bore the brain, leading to less effective learning and retention.

Different ways to practice

A much more effective method is “interleaved practice.” This involves breaking down practice sessions into smaller segments and alternating between different tasks. Instead of practicing a single scale for an entire session, you might switch between several scales every few minutes. This constant switching forces the brain to re-engage with each new task, leading to deeper processing and better long-term retention. This phenomenon is known as the "contextual interference effect," where the brain’s continuous engagement with different tasks enhances learning and memory.

Interleaved practice is very similar to the concept of “deliberate practice,” which emphasizes purposeful and structured practice. Research shows that mastery comes from deliberate, focused practice rather than natural ability. This means having a clear plan for each practice session, targeting specific areas that need improvement, and continually challenging yourself.

Implementing interleaved practice

To implement interleaved practice, start by selecting several different tasks to focus on during your session. Alternate between these tasks in short intervals. For example, you might practice the G Major scale for two minutes, switch to the G Natural Minor scale for two minutes, and then move to the G Major Blues (Mixolydian mode) for another two minutes. Repeat this cycle multiple times throughout your practice session.

Additional tips for effective practice

  1. Set Clear Goals: Define specific objectives for what you practice each session to maintain focus and motivation.
  2. Map Out Your Sessions: Plan your practice time in advance, outlining warm-up exercises, the main focus areas, and cool-down activities.
  3. Introduce Physical Challenges: Adding simple physical challenges, such as playing while standing on one leg, can enhance brain engagement and learning.
  4. Keep Supplies Handy: All necessary materials should be within reach to keep your practice smooth and uninterrupted.
  5. Work With Your Teacher: Your teacher is your partner in collaboration. They can provide guidance on your progress, helping you stay on track and identify areas for improvement.
  6. Reward Yourself: After a hard practice session, give yourself a reward to stay motivated and acknowledge your effort.

Setting and achieving goals

Practicing smarter, not harder, is the key to overcoming frustration and improving your skills. By adopting interleaved practice and deliberate practice strategies, you can make your practice sessions more effective and retain more of what you learn. So, if you find yourself practicing without progress, try these new techniques and you’ll be on your way to musical mastery.

Additionally, at some point you may have asked yourself this question: “how can a better instrument make you a better player?” Ask us! At Johnson String Instrument, we offer a wide range of stringed instruments and gear from benches to sheet music and wolf eliminators. Give us a call today.

Additional Resources

Carriage House Violins

Located in Newton, Massachusetts, Carriage House Violins is the instrument sales division of Johnson String Instrument.

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Johnson String Project

A charitable foundation whose goal is to provide high-quality instruments to children who live in under-served communities and who are participating in El-Sistema-inspired programs in Massachusetts.

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