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What is Interleaving Practice?

Updated: Jul 27

How it can help you become your best. Imagine that....

Interleaving is a learning technique that musicians and even non musicians use daily to enhance their ability to retain information.

The simple non music definition: To interleave - to mix topics or subjects while studying in order to retain more information and enhance learning.

For me, this method will always keep that fresh mind while beginning a “new” section, the act of interleaving practice (although it takes more mental energy) helps one's memory and focus and (as far as I am concerned) creativity as well.

Whereas in Mass Practice a student studies one topic, say an hour or more, and then moves onto another topic for an hour or more. I remember doing this type of study in college and would wind up falling asleep in the library or I would play the same scale for 2 hours while looking out the window. I always felt that I just couldn’t focus on one thing.

But, I was just bored...

Then I found out about Interleaving Practice and that changed everything for me. Although (as I wrote earlier) I do remember playing my Carl Flesch scales for hours, I believe I was on autopilot most of the time. When I was practicing, being on autopilot was pretty much the norm. Now that I am a teacher and college prep coach, I can see this in most of my students and that was when I started interleaving “practicing and teaching” them. Although, I do not do this at every lesson. If a student is playing a piece for me, more often than not, I let him or her finish unless there is a giant train wreck in the middle of a Mozart Sonata and it becomes something that they just cannot recover from.

The Theory of interleaving practice proposes that if you are learning more than one related topic, it is better to alternate between the two (or more) rather than exclusively working on one concept for a long period of time. This will be about using your energy and focus back and forth between subjects in short bursts instead of trying to hold onto one for a long period of time.

This study strategy has been linked to improvement in memory and it has gathered quite a following due to its beneficial effects that have been documented by different organizations (the Chartered College of Teaching to name one).

Here is a quote from the University of Arizona’s Academic Affairs page: “Interleaving has been shown to be more effective than blocked practice for developing the skills of categorization and problem solving; interleaving also leads to better long-term retention and improved ability to transfer learned knowledge. This strategy forces the brain to continually retrieve because each practice attempt is different from the last, so rote responses pulled from short-term memory won’t work. Cognitive psychologists believe that interleaving improves the brain’s ability to differentiate, or discriminate, between concepts and strengthens memory associations. Because interleaving involves retrieval practice, it is more difficult than blocked practice. It is important to remember that effortful studying feels worse but produces better long-term results.”

See for yourself , they even have a few videos on this topic! 🙂

How I use this method during my practice.

Personally, I like to break different pieces and exercises into 10 minute increments.

If I am practicing the Beethoven Violin Concerto, I will always incorporate the D Major scale and arpeggios as a warm up. To do this, I like to use my Flesch and Galamian scale book with the Galamian rhythm book.

~ 10 minutes of a D Major scale with different rhythms.

~ 10 minutes of an etude (something relevant to the piece I am working on)

~ 10 minutes of listening to the Beethoven (sometimes I will add some visualization with that)

~ 10 minutes of arpeggios

~ 10 minutes of a section of my Beethoven (something challenging - lots to choose from in this piece!) If I am practicing a fast section, I will use different rhythms to mix things up a bit.

~ 10 minutes For memorization, I might play a bit of Beethoven on my piano while singing.

= 60 minutes (I take a break; a walk or lunch hanging out with the fam.)

And then later, I go again. I really like to practice early in the morning and before I go to sleep.

For me this helps as I can give my shoulder a break in between each section. The best thing about this form of practice is that you can mix and match your 10 minutes. You can even take 10 minutes to work on a few measures that are a complete challenge for you.

What do you do for your practice sessions? Do you use interleaving while teaching your students?

Let me know and feel free to sign up for my Get In! FB Practice Room Page AND my Free 30 Day Practice Planner!

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