When I did my research project about learning and practicing music, I learned that practicing encourages the growth of layers of myelin around neural circuits. The myelination response is targeted to the neurons involved in the activity that you practice, activated by repetition and by struggle. After the project I continued to read about this topic, and really enjoyed the book, “Make It Stick” by Peter C. Brown. He explains that learning is deeper and more durable when it is effortful. When learning is harder and slower it doesn’t feel as good, but when you work hard to recall a memory, you actually strengthen it. High school and university students like highlighting and rereading textbooks, which is easy and feels good and gives them the illusion of knowing something. But testing yourself, practicing retrieval, while it feels much slower and more difficult, is demonstrably more effective at strengthening the memory. The act of retrieving a memory changes the memory and makes it easier to recall it again.
This is also applicable to the use of interleaved practice versus massed or blocked practice, which I first learned about on The Bulletproof Musician blog site and discussed in my project writeup. There is ample research in various kinds of learning that shows that the increased effort needed to remember after forgetting actually strengthens the memory. You don’t want so much forgetting that you have to relearn the material, just enough to increase the effort and struggle. But the forgetting is actually essential for the learning.
I have found that tunes that I learn easily and quickly during class are quickly forgotten. Tunes that require more effort are easier to retain. Sometimes the technically difficult part that I had to practice more is the part that I remember best. Also, if I learn something from sheet music, my brain knows it is there on the sheet and doesn’t work to keep the memory. Music I have learned by ear is much more likely to stick. I work to repeat new tunes every day or so until I convert them to long-term memory. First I play the recording and play along. After the tune memory gets stronger I play a few notes of the recording and then play the tune on my own. Finally I am able to think of the whole tune on my own from the name. I find that I can do this easily with some tunes, but that others take more work to recall. I practice recalling tunes from the list of names, because now I know that this activity strengthens the memory and facilitates the retrieval of the memory.
Key points are that:
- Difficulty is a key part of learning and can be beneficial
- Errors are natural and to be expected
- Failure is an essential experience on the path to mastery
- Practice helps