When Repetition Isn't the Best Practice Strategy

Many music students hear, “If you can play it correctly three times in a row, you’ve got it!” Not so fast, says researcher Laura Stanbaugh.

Repetitive practice may not be the best approach for young musicians.

In a recent study, Stambaugh looked at “the effects of blocked and random practice schedules on the performance accuracy, speed, temporal evenness, and attitude of beginning band students” in a group learning setting.

Motor learning researchers have compared blocked practice order, where a task is repeated several times before going on to the next task, with random practice order, in which the learner constantly switches among tasks.

In some studies, blocked practice order was shown to help students learn faster (acquisition), but random practice order resulted in superior memory of the musical passage (retention).

Stanbaugh’s study, which included 41 beginning clarinet players split into smaller groups to learn some short passages she created, revealed that there was no difference between the blocked-order and random-order groups at the end of three practice sessions.

However, 24 hours later, the random group was able to play the passages significantly faster than the blocked group without sacrificing accuracy.

Bottom line:  Don’t rely exclusively on repetitive drills. Vary task order, and teach students to structure their home practice this way.

Adapted from Laura A. Stambaugh, “When Repetition Isn’t the Best Practice Strategy,” Journal of Research in Music Education, January 2011, Vol. 58, no. 1, pp. 368–83.

NAfME member Laura A. Stambaugh is an assistant professor of music and director of music education at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro.

Ella Wilcox, January 12, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (www.nafme.org)