• Bern Tan

How to practice, Part 1: Putting motor learning theories and principles to work for you

Cognitive science continues to help us make strides in understanding what is involved when we pick up new skills by motor learning. While in the area of sports, this area of study has grown pretty far and deep, in the world of singing and the voice, things are (by comparison) starting to take root. Two researchers worth paying attention to are Lynn Helding and Lynn Maxfield, both of whom were featured in NATS videos last year (available on YouTube here and here).


My intent in this series of blog posts is to cut to the chase and highlight a few things I've changed over the years in the practice room -- how I've applied motor learning theories and principles to my own practice.



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Before: I used to get so thrilled when at a masterclass or a voice lesson, someone made a magical adjustment that seemed to work so well in the moment.


What's changed: Don't get me wrong, I still get thrilled when this happens, but learning theories tell us that performance is NOT the same as true learning.


True learning has occurred when something becomes repeatable by us. Learning is a process -- it can be hard to pinpoint a specific moment of learning, and learning can be messy.

In contrast, when I all of a sudden perform better during a masterclass after executing an adjustment, I've delivered an improved end product -- this is just a freeze frame of where I am in a moment in time. It doesn't mean that what I just did is repeatable by me in the future.


Takeaway: Now when I attend a masterclass or a lesson where a cool adjustment happens, I run to the practice room immediately afterwards and play around with the new thing I just did. I dare to be messy with it, and do a couple rounds of trial and error. This messiness and trial and error is what helps my body and brain truly learn what just happened, and improves my odds of retaining it for future repeatability. And I find getting a quick practice session in right after, is still preferred over recording the masterclass/lesson and then trying to relive that moment a day or days later.


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Before: I would practice in longer chunks of time -- an hour or more, thinking that length of time meant more rigor, and that I had to follow some sort of expected order in each practice.


What's changed: Cognitive science tells us that just as we tend to retain better what we hear or read at the beginning and at the end of a chunk of text, we retain better what we practice at the start and concluding segments of our practice sessions.


Takeaway: I now practice in shorter chunks of time, perhaps 30 minutes at a time, multiple times a week and I try to squeeze in my own practice between other activities, like teaching my students. If the above paragraph is true, then breaking up your practice into a higher number of sessions that are shorter in length, rather than a few sessions that are longer, will help your brain and body retain more of what you worked on, since you've now introduced more starts and ends of your practice time.


I also try to use variable targets and interleaving -- but this is a worthwhile topic to address all by itself another time. See part 2 of How to Practice.


Shorter practice sessions that are spread out over time/days also means they are happening with sleep cycles happening between them -- and you already know how I feel about sleep and learning here.


Caveat: Preparing for a show or recital however, will require you to build up stamina for the show, and involves longer rehearsal times, which would be happening over and above these shorter practice sessions (in which your goal is to continue to work on your technique.) Understand that there is a difference between show rehearsal goals and the goals of your own, personal practice.


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Before: I got a little annoyed at myself when my growth journey in voice is not consistently linear, and when I showed signs of regressing!


What's changed: I've now come to expect a non-linear learning trajectory. Sure, we all aim for improvement over time — in the long view. But in motor learning, we need to understand that in the shorter-term view, we sometimes regress. Many of my singers cite 'placement' as an example of something that can annoyingly go backwards -- they think they're able to 'sing in the pocket' for a bit and then weeks later, they lose it again.


This happens -- it's part and parcel of how we pick up new motor skills.


Takeaway: Be patient with yourself, and tell yourself it's not something you're doing wrong, or that you are less worthy than others. It's more likely just that you're more aware of your own regression than the regression that others have experienced. Persist! Talk to your teacher for ideas on how to make a skill a little more sticky. Trust that your brain will sort things out, and you will be able to count on a new skill over time.


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I plan on revisiting the topic with other things I've adopted.