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  • Bern Tan

How to practice, Part 2: Putting motor learning theories and principles to work for you

This post is about breaking down the tradition block practice into smaller pieces.

Before: I used to do more blocked practice, where I would keep working on a particular task or skill area to try to seek mastery of that task, before I would move on to train something else.

For example, I would try to tackle a challenging song or aria from beginning to end, with the goal of delivering it in as flawless a manner as possible.

Another example: I would work on registration blending exercises (ala Cornelius Reid) for extended periods of time, to try to master the still of balancing my registers.

In other words, as a younger musician, I often would set out on my practice sessions with a rough sense of needing to improve X skill, or Y song. But I had no real game plan of how to actually approach my practice time in the most efficient manner possible. I just knew I needed to perfect a piece or a skill, and I would view such perfection as the goal.

What's changed: the literature on motor learning suggests breaking down your practice into smaller, interleaved and variable segments will yield better returns.

Let's define these different terms:

  • Interleaved = breaking apart a task into smaller pieces, and then scattering these pieces across one's practice time, so that you are not spending a long chunk of time on any one task.

  • Variable = introducing change and some randomness to the order in which certain tasks or skills are covered, so that your practice sessions don't always the same pattern day after day

We'll take the example of block practicing a difficult song, and use it to illustrate how to change that into interleaved, variable practice. Let's say in the past, I would work (in block practice mode) on a song for about 30 minutes. I might spend some time tackling the difficult segments of the song, but otherwise I would do multiple runs of the song, from beginning to end, and then evaluate what went well, what less well, and try to bring improvements to the things that didn't go as well by repetition.

To convert this to interleaving, I would first of all set time limits for a few different tasks/sections. For instance, I might speak my lyrics with proper underlying intent and then carry that over into singing for about 5 minutes. Then I might move to working on a whole different thing for another 5 minutes -- could be my go-to audition song, or some other vocalises. Then a few activities later, I would come back to this song, and this time work on a different area, such as the high, challenging parts in the chorus where I have to manage my open vowels well to help my voice turn over. Let's say I'm going to spend about 6 minutes on this.

The important things to know about interleaving are:

  • You are not looking for perfection, or flawless delivery. Instead, you are willing to put up with mess, and leaving things in a less-than ideal state when the time has run out. We expect performance to be more flawless, a beautiful snapshot in time. But learning is messy, and we want to encourage conditions in which learning can happen.

  • Allow the time limit to dictate when you start and stop, instead of when you think you are pleased with how well you've achieved a certain task or activity. This helps to shift your brain out of the mode of judging yourself (for anything less than perfect) to accepting that the process is what is important.

  • There are apps and online timers you can use that can help keep you honest with your time allocation: for example

  • Interleaving also means you have to sit down at the start of rehearsal and figure out what are the top things you want to work on that day (depending on the demands on your schedule), and how you're going to break those things up into small chunks of time. In a 30-minute practice session, for instance, my interleaved segments might look something like this:

3-minutes: SOVTs to get my breath coordinated. I might even run some of these SOVTs using phrases from the new song.
2-minutes: middle-voice vocalises to check-in with my tongue and vowels
3-minutes: extended range vocalise to practice singing through my passaggio, paying attention to how I'm balancing my registers
5-minutes: speak lyrics of my new, difficult song with proper underlying intent, and carry over into singing.
5-minutes: refresh a song for my audition tomorrow -- a familiar 32-bar cut that I already sing well. Evaluate what are some of the weaker things about that piece and zero in on those. Make sure that my lyrics are all still there.
6-minutes: go back to the new, difficult song and tackle a few phrases that are high and challenging. Today focusing on the open vowels above the passaggio and what I'm doing there, and in the jumping-off points (the notes leading up to the high notes).
4-minutes: in the new song, sing through the easier passages that I enjoy, paying attention to where I'm breathing, and which words I'd like to emphasize.
2-minutes: warm-down with a vocalise I had warmed-up with, but this time, spending time noticing what is different about how my voice works now that I've sung for a while.

Total: 30 minutes

What about variability, you ask? You bring some randomness to your practice sessions by allowing the demands of your week to dictate what you work on. And you also attempt to address different aspects of the song / tasks / skills you wish to tackle across the different practice sessions. For instance, you might focus on cleaning up notes and rhythms for a section of the song on one day, then breathing points and legato another day, then story-telling acting choices the next. As you approach the performance or audition deadline, you do want to set aside time to run the piece with your accompanist / track to get your body used to delivery the whole song as a complete entity. If you're newer to auditioning, I would even recommend making sure you practice singing the song in front of other people as well, since that requires a degree of conditioning. The net effect, then, is that your practice sessions tend to not involve you doing the same thing each time, and you've made sure you've come at a piece from multiple angles, because you've designed your practice to be varied.

In the remainder of this post, since this relates to breaking down tasks into more manageable chunks, I'd like to focus on the 4 S-es that Thomas Stern recommends in his book The Practicing Mind. They are useful principles to keep in mind when we go about designing the way we practice:

In short, his 4 S-es are:

  • Simplify = break down a complex task into simpler chunks

  • Small = break a large task into small chunks

  • Short = aim to practice in smaller spurts, no longer than 45 minutes. We are much more likely to get something done if it's for a short period of time. Things that are long may seem more insurmountable and off-putting.

  • Slow = go at a pace slow enough that you can be attentive and deliberate

In my life in general, I have found that things that I make into a big deal require a lot of effort and willpower on my part in order for me to rise to the occasion of actually accomplishing them. If I make my practice sessions too big of a deal (requiring a long chunk of time for instance, or requiring me to achieve some degree of perfection), then I'm actually more at risk of not even practicing. The smaller the pieces, the less big of a deal, the more likely I am to actually do it. This is one of the rationales behind Stern's 4 S-es above -- they help us break things down into manageable and surmountable chunks, and these smaller pieces are far easier to integrate into our busy lives. Simpler, smaller, shorter and slower things make it easier for us to successfully build habits.

I'd like to use two examples to illustrate simplify, small, short and slow:

1) When I have a whole show to learn and memorize, I break down the show into more manageable chunks. Some more obvious examples of this: chunk the learning into scenes and songs, each to be learned separately. (Small)

Less obvious example: break longer spoken scene down into short sections, so that each section only requires 5 minutes for me to start memorizing (short). This goes a long way in helping me make progress on the scene, if I don't think of it as a long, difficult scene. The same applies for monologues -- break them up!

Another less obvious example: if I consider a song hard, try to simplify this song: which parts are easy sings? Make sure to interleave those easy sings between the hard sections. What makes the hard sections hard? Is it that I can't catch a good breath? Then spend a session figuring out catch breaths, good breaths, and how to start with slower breaths and moving into faster catch breaths that still allow some degree of release / relaxation (slow and deliberate). Is it that they have challenging vowels in my passaggio? Is it that certain consonants are impeding flow and are getting my sound stuck inside? Address these individually more manageable pieces in my practice sessions (simplify). Intersperse the difficult things with easier things can help to keep my motivated and feeling good about myself.

2) As a busy performer and teacher, finding long chunks of practice time where I have access to a piano and a place to sing can be challenging. This may seem somewhat ironic since I'm constantly in and out of studios teaching students. Instead of requiring long practice sessions, I sneak my practice in across my days -- in small, short spurts. For example, I consider it practice when I familiarize myself with the melody of a song while listening to an OBC recording on my walk between the buildings in which I teach -- I don't need a piano for this, I don't even need a score, I can familiarize by just listening (simplify). I practice and memorize my lyrics and lines on the subway rides between home and the university. I sometimes memorize lyrics even before I've learnt the melody and rhythms (breaking the task into smaller chunks). I find new intentions for lines sometimes as I'm lying in bed, right before I fall asleep, not worrying about needing to get through all the lines, but just covering what I can before I doze off (short). The point is, if your singing time in a studio is limited, there are many pieces of practicing that don't require singing or a piano. You can separate out those pieces and more strategically tackle the things that do require a piano or a space for loud singing when you have access to these.


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