Distributing Practice Over Time

“Sir, when should I practise? Practise only on the days that you eat.”

-Shin’ichi Suzuki

Memory is more effective when learning is distributed over a period of time rather than in one hit. This process of memory consolidation is known as the spacing effect and was first recognized more than a century ago.The benefits of the spacing effect apply to so-called ‘muscle memory’ as well as cognitive memory. Hence, musicians should practise regularly for shorter periods (distributed practice) rather than less regularly for longer periods (massed practice). For example, one hour per day for six days a week is more effective than six hours one day per week, and two forty-five-minute sessions per day is more effective than one ninety-minute session.

Massed practice, like cramming, might be effective for tomorrow’s examination or performance, but a considerable memory loss occurs over the days and weeks that follow. Memory formation takes time to make the transition from short-term recall to long-term memory. Pioneering psychologist William James considered cramming a poor way to study and incongruent with how the brain functions:

 “Cramming seeks to stamp things in by intense application immediately before the ordeal. But a thing thus learned can form but few associations. On the other hand, the same thing recurring on different days, in different contexts, read, recited on, referred to again and again, related to other things and reviewed, gets well-wrought into the mental structure. This is the reason why you should enforce on your pupils habits of continuous application. There is no moral turpitude in cramming. It would be the best and the most economical mode of study if it led to the results desired. But it does not.” 

Distributed practice is more successful for the longer term because between each practice session, what has been learned is forgotten at least partially, and must be retrieved. Paradoxically, forgetting is the friend of learning. Forgetting requires relearning, which sets memories more securely. The more times we are required to retrieve or generate answers, the stronger the neural circuitry of the learning becomes. Therefore rest times between practice sessions are not only important for mental regeneration but also to engage us in the ‘forget and retrieve’ process. The efficiency of distributed practice means that students should need less total practice time to achieve the same long-term learning results as those yielded by massed practice. Similarly, within a given practice session, passages can be targeted in a blocked or spaced manner.


from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin

“A must buy for every music teacher and music student” – William Bruce, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, UK.

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Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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