Imagine a situation where you have to fetch water using a bucket. The problem is your bucket has a few holes in it, and on the journey from the well to your bathtub most of the water leaks away. You’ve got two choices – either make dozens of journeys before the tub is filled, or fix the bucket!

Now imagine you are preparing a recital or examination programme, and there are holes in that. That part of your fugue where you know you haven’t organised a good enough fingering, those few bars on the third page of your Schumann that always seem to trip you up, and you’ve never quite sorted out the coda in the first movement of your Beethoven sonata. Of course, you will finally start practising your scales soon, it’s just that there never seems to be enough time to practise the pieces…

How tempting it is, having become aware of these issues, to carry on playing with thoughts like: “Oh darn, that keeps happening. Still, let’s hope it will correct itself tomorrow”. This is rather like trying to enjoy a bicycle ride in the countryside aware you have a slow puncture or your saddle is loose.

The Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle, or the 80-20 Rule, is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who had a eureka moment when he made two unrelated observations. He noticed that during 1906, 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and that 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pea pods! This principle is widely used in the fields of business- and time management, and is very useful to know about in relation to practising the piano.

The general idea is that 80% of our results will come from 20% of our efforts; most of what we do when practising has a smaller impact on our results than other much more significant things. The problem is how do we determine the most important 20%? We need to work out where the largest gains can be made and focus on those. Prioritise exactly what is important in any one practice session, rather than wasting time going over parts you know or can play well just for the gratification. How many repetitions of something are necessary?

Not everything we do in our practice session is equally important, and this needs to be reflected in how much time we give it. Because you have spent 30 minutes practising something does not mean you will have twice the results than if you had spent 15 minutes practising it. It might only take 15 minutes to achieve the result you are looking for, after which we need to factor in the adverse effects of The Law of Diminishing Returns, or even The Law of Negative Returns. Know when you’ve done enough! If repeating a section 3 times produces a result, practising it 30 times will not improve this result tenfold. There will come a time when these extra repetitions will have a detrimental effect on your result. If we want to implement The Pareto Principle into our practising, we need to bear the following in mind:

The Important 20%: Any weaknesses that prevent your strengths from being used to their maximum effectiveness must be dealt with first, as priority. This might be a specific technical problem that needs addressing, a passage in a piece that you have been skimming over, an area such as sight reading, and so on.

Quarantine

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If you take a chain and pull hard enough on it, it will snap at the point of least resistance. If there are weak links in your programme, you risk an accident or even a total breakdown on the day. Make a list of these problem areas and put them in quarantine for a few days. Quarantine should be a designated activity in your practice diary that you return to many times during the course of a practice session. Think of this as an intensive care unit in the hospital for patients who need constant supervision for a while until they are strong enough to make it by themselves. You can attend to each of these excerpts not only before you practise the piece in question but also in between pieces and other activities in your diary. The quarantine list will change regularly as patients recover and can be discharged. You may be sure, however, that the ambulance will arrive soon enough with fresh ones.

Interleaving Practice

The concept was crystallised for me fairly recently, when I read a post from the excellent Bulletproof Musician blog on blocking v. interleaving practice. I have been using interleaving in my work instinctively for years, but it is always good when scientists come up with an explanation for how it works. Very simply put, blocking is where you spend a chunk of time practising one particular passage and then moving on to another. All your work for the day on a given piece or section of a piece happens in one block of time. Interleaving is based on achieving the same number of practice repetitions, but instead of doing them back to back you interleave them with other activities. In other words, spend a few minutes on your quarantine areas from Piece A, move to Piece B (or another practice activity), return to your work on Piece A, then move to Piece C, and so on. So instead of AAAA/BBB/CCCCC, our practice session might look like A-B-A-C-B-C-A-C-B-C-A, etc.

According to researchers, this gives a better long-term result even though blocked practice feels better to us as we practise. The reason it feels good is that after a while we get into a flow, giving us the false impression we have mastered the skill. How disappointing to discover the next day that the fruits of our labour have vanished and it feels as though we are back to square one. We don’t have half an hour’s noodling with a passage before we can play it to our satisfaction, we have to be able to pull the rabbit out of the hat on demand and get it right the first time.

Here is Robert Bjork (Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles) speaking on the benefits of interleaving practice (although not specifically with regard to the field of instrumental music):

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