It’s conventional wisdom that practice makes perfect, but like much conventional wisdom, it turns out to be an oversimplification. Practice is important, but how you practice makes a big difference to whether you get better faster or slower. While there are no shortcuts to learning anything new, there are definitely things you can do to help you learn in less time, given you are already dedicated to practicing.
Most people equate practice with repetition – boring, soulless, zombie-like repetition, doing the same thing, over and over again, until it becomes an autonomic skill. We’ve all seen and maybe done it. Examples are learning scales on piano or guitar, or painting the same scene, the same way, using the same colour palette, over and over again, until you can perform those actions without having to think too hard about it. Unfortunately, mastery doesn’t work that way, according to recent research on learning. Boring repetition can actually make your skills and performance worse, especially if what you’re drilling includes bad, uncorrected habits.
Researchers at John Hopkins found that if you practice a slightly modified version of the task you want to master, you learn faster than if you pound on practicing the exact same thing, multiple times in a row. If every pass or repetition contains a minor variation, your brain works to affix those memories in your wetware using a process called “reconsolidation”, whereby existing memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge. Do only what the brain already knows, repetitively and reconsolidation doesn’t need to take place. There is no new knowledge, so no reason to recall the existing memory and revise it. The key is in giving your brain something new about something familiar.
Let’s say you’re trying to learn to play a new guitar riff. One way is to play it repeatedly, at the same tempo, on the same instrument, using the same amplifier and effects set up. Eventually, you will ingrain the motions into your muscle memory, so your accuracy and consistency will improve. In other words, you will stop making obvious mistakes and fluffing the notes. However, if you play it wrongly (let’s suppose you have a grave error in your technique, for instance), you’ll only learn to play it wrongly with fluidity.
The better, faster way to improve is to slightly adjust the conditions in subsequent practice sessions. Musicians always know that playing the riff slowly at first, but perfectly, allows you to incrementally increase the tempo, repetition by repetition, until you achieve mastery of the riff or lick at the required tempo. The best guitarists will finish off their learning by repetitions at speeds faster than they’ll need to play it in performance. However, even tempo changes can become dull and uninteresting. What else can you do to introduce new information to your brain, as it becomes familiar with the task?
I suggest that you’ll get even better improvements by trying the same riff or lick on a different guitar – perhaps one with a shorter or longer scale length, a different action, or tuned to dropped tuning. Alternatively, you could try to play it in a different key, or begin playing it on different strings. Even switching the distortion pedal off, or trying the riff on an acoustic guitar, instead of electric, can improve your grasp over what you’re learning.
Priming the reconsolidation pump is what helps you learn much more quickly.
The trick is in not changing things by too much, too soon. If the change you make is too dissimilar to the first pass, you simply create new memories, rather than reconsolidating existing ones. Then you lose the reconsolidation advantage. The modification between sessions needs to be subtle.
Spacing your practice sessions out appropriately is also important. Reconsolidation takes time. Researchers found that a six-hour gap between training sessions was optimal, because neurological research indicates it takes that long for new memories to fully establish. They found that if you practice differently too soon, you won’t have given yourself enough time to internalise what you’ve already learnt. Without a solid existing memory to recall and modify, the process of reconsolidation cannot take place. You have to lay down a memory and wait for it to settle, before you can recall it and reconsolidate it.
The key to continuous improvement is making small, smart changes, spaced apart optimally, evaluating the results (by recording your playing and listening back to it critically, in our guitar riff example), discarding what doesn’t work and further refining whatever does work. It’s a classic feedback loop. Try, evaluate, fix, repeat. When you commit to constantly modifying and refining something you already do well (or even adequately), you’ll find you can do it even better. That’s true mastery.
If you were learning a guitar riff or lick, now it becomes a part of your musical vocabulary, which you can apply at will, in a variety of musical contexts. It goes from simply being a piece you can play note-perfectly to something deeper – a fundamental building block of your technique. When it comes to improvising, being able to draw on this multiply-reconsolidated memory (and all the others you form, over time) will greatly enrich the range of expression you’ll be able to contribute, in any musical conversation.
So, here’s how to learn new things better and faster:
1. Rehearse the basic skill. Run through it a number of times, preferably under the conditions you’ll face when required to perform it for real. The second iteration will be better than the first, but going over it too many times will cause you to reach a point of diminishing returns. Each pass isn’t really that much better than the last. This is when you should end the session. You’ve done as much as you can to embed the initial memory.
2. Let it percolate. Give your brain the six hours minimum it needs to consolidate the memory from short term working memory into longer term storage. Sleeping on it is good advice.
3. Rehearse again. This time, you want to leverage reconsolidation. Go a little faster, even if you make more mistakes that way. You’re still modifying old knowledge with new knowledge and that’s laying the groundwork for improvement. Or, go a little slower. Going back to our guitar riff example, insert dramatic pauses for effect, swing the beat, concentrate on your vibrato and tone or vary your playing dynamics. Polishing these aspects of what you’re trying to learn is still leveraging reconsolidation. Break it up into small segments, discrete step by discrete step, picking one section to polish at a time. Deconstruction, fine-grained analysis and incremental improvement helps you master it. Then, put the whole sequence back together again and see how it hangs together. It’s probably more nuanced and delivered with more confidence, now.
4. Next rehearsal (at least six hours later), change something else. Use a different instrument, for example, or play it louder, or much quieter. Make preparations for the unexpected, so that you can handle them, if they occur.
While this works for learning a guitar lick, a similar process can be applied to almost anything you’re trying to learn. Use your imagination to adapt your practice so that you lean on the brain’s facility for memory reconsolidation (which is another way of saying “memory reinforcement”). It doesn’t have to be a motor skill that you’re trying to perfect. Reconsolidation can be applied to any mind skill.
If you already do something well, you can use these recall and modify technique to take your performance to another level again. You can hone and polish your technique, simply by deconstruction, modification of some small performance aspect (fast vibrato versus slow, deep vibrato, for example) reassembly and reconsolidation of the learned memory. Always leave time for the reconsolidated memory to percolate. Rushing it is actually the slow way.
Learning through leveraging memory reconsolidation techniques helps you learn much quicker than you can through simple, laborious repetition and it is also the fastest path to expertise and true mastery. Give it a try. I’m going to.