Improving Your First Performance
I was reading a book called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning which explores effective strategies to learn, well, successfully without wasting time and energy. In one of the chapters it talked about the difference between massed practice and interleaved practice.
Massed practice refers to when we spend a long time repeating learning the same materials in the hope that it will stay in our head, while interleaved practice involves mixing different materials during studying, instead of spending a great amount of time focusing on the same thing.
The benefit of massed practice is that we can see immediate improvement during the same practice session, while interleaved practice doesn't produce immediate improvement because of the significant less amount of time we spend on the same materials.
However, in order to improve our first performance as musicians, interleaved practice is much more beneficial. Here is a scenario I believe most musicians can relate: sometimes we spend hours practising the same piece in one day thinking that we have finally got it under our fingers, only to realise the next day in frustration that it has slipped away from our fingers.
But why does that happen?
Make It Stick offers an interesting explanation from cognitive scientists. When we engage in massed practice, we are storing information in our short term memory which is why we see immediate improvement. On the other hand, interleaved practice encourages forgetting between each time you practise the same passage, and whenever we go back to that passage again, it requires more cognitive effort to retrieve the information, which in fact helps learning go into long term memory.
In short, forgetting -> more effortful retrieval -> long term memory.
During a performance, musicians have to perform the best they can on the first go. There is no second chance. And our skills at retrieving information at the first go is dependent on what we have stored in our long term memory. When we engage in massed practice, we are repeating the same thing until it feels good, but it means that we are only getting better at improving things in the short term, instead of playing well the first time.
If we want to get better at our first performance or learning things in the long term memory, perhaps we should practise it, fix and improve it and leave it. Do something else, then come back to it later. There is no point wasting hours practising the same thing! (But of course, there are always exceptional circumstances such as a last-minute concert where we need to cram things in, but it is best to avoid being in that situation!)