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Beth Blackerby
"The Neuroscience of Practicing"

Hi everyone, I read this post on a blog by one of our members (Wendy Chan). She attended a conference, and here is a summary of one of the presentations by Tara Gaertner, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC), teaching Neuroanatomy in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.

Here is Wendy's blog.
Beth Blackerby
8 Responses
Posted: October 14, 2011
Last Comment: October 16, 2011

Posted: October 16, 2011

Thanks Beth and Wendy Chan for sharing Dr. Tara Gaertner’s interesting information.

I have experienced exactly the situations explained in her presentation, sometimes you just don’t know where to find the following notes on the score.

Dr. Gaertner’s consolidation of both memories and not to rely only in the automatic trainee fingers is a good idea; so, when one of the memories fails you have the help of the other to continue.

Incidentally a few days ago, I separate in two pages the parts of a piece of music to be played twice but with different endings, I highlighted with a yellow marker the note reading “Page 2 of 2” to make the difference more noticeable with the purpose of avoiding not knowing where I was when my “implicit memory” fails. Then, use the score only for guiding my “explicit memory” the correct order the phrases are to be played.

As Dr. Gaertner posted in her “Training The Musical Brain” blog --When learning music, it is important to form explicit memories along with implicit memories.


Beth Blackerby
Posted: October 16, 2011
That's awesome, Eileen. A lot of performers I hear about "mentally" practice when they are not in a place to pull out the the airport...on the plane..  So I imagine this has the same effect. Just looking at the music, making analytical statement to oneself is going far to creating explicit memory.

Caurus, I hear what you're saying.  I wish I could cram about 2 years worth of work into a few months and finish my "training syllabus" . I have started, though, and the purpose is to answer exactly what you stated: to provide "solid direction on what to practice for how long, and when (to) move on".  My basic advise to you and others is to pick
  1. 1 performance piece well within your playing level
  2. 1 performance piece slightly outside your playing level
  3. 1 or 2 etudes that are good companions to the performances pieces you are working on, i.e. if your piece has tricky string crossings, then find an etude that is based on the technique of string crossings.
  4. 2 scales per week, alternating day to day (Monday G major, Tuesday A major), then the next week (Monday F major, Tuesday G minor), for examples.
  5. 1 or 2 per practice period: very short exercises that focus entirely on one technique. The Scale Studies Videos are good choices.
  6. sight reading/rhythmic studies.
  • For the performance piece within playing level, work on for wonderful intonation, bow control, beauty of phrasing, etc.  Basically this piece should be something that does not present technical difficulty so that all your attention can go towards a controlled, polished performance. This is where you work on expressive playing and dynamics, etc.(3 to 6 weeks)
  • The challenging piece is where you advance your skills.  There is no agenda for this piece. No time table. Play it, practice it, woodshed it, until you feel like you've done all you can do..then you move on (2 - 3 months).
  • The etude or etudes should take 2-4 weeks to get all that you can get from them.
  • Short technical exercises rotate every day.
  • Scales never end/but rotate every other day.
  • Sight Reading, and Rhythmic studies never end, but rotate daily/weekly.

This is how I will be structuring the manual/workbook/syllabus (don't know what to call it), more or less, with some theory units thrown in. You can plan out a syllabus for yourself for the next 6 months, and write down the pieces and Etudes that you want to include.  I know it is difficult to even know which pieces are appropriate, but if you live with something for a few days, you'll be able to tell whether it is "within your technical range", a "little far reaching", or "impossible at the present time".

If you  (and anyone else) would like to post the current pieces you're working on, I can suggest Etudes and other books that would compliment.

Posted: October 16, 2011
Beth, that was a very interesting and helpful blog on learning music. I was quite pleased to read that random selection of practice material was a good thing because one learns better. But as Ms. Gaetner says, it's really frustrating to practice this way. It drives me crazy that I can't seem to follow a single plan for more than a couple of days. My unpredictable schedule doesn't help. I've been on the hunt for some solid direction on what to practice for how long, and when do I move on. I know this are unanswerables, as the learning seems to come together in fits and starts, but if anyone has a 'this is going to get you where you want to go' practice plan (intermediate beginner) I'd surely like to hear from them.

Posted: October 16, 2011

Hi Beth,

Thank you for posting Wendy's blog.  What I will be taking away from this is analizing my practice time more and try to build random organization into that time.  Perhaps, writing what I want to practice on seperate pieces of paper and pull out what the next section will be?  Anyway, thanks again.



Posted: October 16, 2011
There's a piece we occassionally play in church that is not a comfortable piece for me to play.   I "Love" the tune.....but it's NOT fun to play.   Yesterday at practice I got, what I call, "stupid" nervous because I saw that we were going to be playing this one and my brain rebelled and switched off.  I didn't even get the time signature right and could NOT get on my game with it at practice.  It's in Eb maj

This morning I had an hour and a half before anyone else got to the church so I went over it slowly.....fixed in my head that it was a 3/4 time signature and when I was supposed to come in......went over carefully the switch up to 3rd/4th and 5th position and some other spots in that general area.....and then the key change at the end where I have this big ole solo/piano part adn the timing gets tricky.   I believe what I was doing (without realizing it)....was putting all that into that "explicit" memory that Tara was explaining about.  It worked very well because I got through the entire piece...even hit the position shifts perfectly and got the timing down in that last section.......however....I messed up towards the a very noticeable spot where there was no place to hide  <-(   .....and when I went back over that later in my head I realized that I had not payed as much attention to that spot while I was going over it all before the service.  It was NOT in my "explicit" memory and when I got there....there was a bunch of notes all together and all I did was trip over one .....which caused me to trip over all the other ones after that....and crash and burn right there in front of everyone.   Eh....keeps me you can be sure I will, when I get the change, go over that little section again and put it down in my "explicit" that I know just what that is !  ;-)

Beth Blackerby
Posted: October 16, 2011
It is very interesting. I have experienced that exact thing she mentions: where I have learned a piece well by feel, i.e, my fingers just sort of automatically go to the right spot without me thinking about it.  Then in performance, a little thought flits through my mind like "Hmm, do I know what that next note is?", and sure enough, I'll miss it.  I used to think it was just the insecurity brought on by self doubt, but her blog helped to shed light on that. I hadn't put that particular spot to explicit memory.

Once I miss something, I always go back and analyze what exactly it was that I missed, thereby creating that explicit memory of that particular measure. I usually never miss it again.

Posted: October 15, 2011

Wow.  she has a great blog.  those are hard to keep up and interesting.  (she also mentions violinlab in a previous post) I enjoyed reading it.

Posted: October 15, 2011
Hi Beth,
It was great information. I believe, those studies apply to learning violin as well.