Expert music practice methods: “work and runs”

What does an expert’s practice routine look like? The Practice of Practising undertakes a series of case studies of professional musicians, beginning with cellist Tania Lisboa. One feature of her music practice immediately leaps out when we look at which bars of a piece she practices (horizontal lines) over time (vertical axis):

Work and runs
From The Practice of Practising, p. 14. Click for full size.

Inspection of figure 1 shows that practice cycled between section-by-section practice, in which I focused on individual sections of the Prelude, and integrative practice, in which my goal was to connect the various selections into a unified and coherent performance (Chaffin et al. 2010). This kind of alternating pattern within a session has been referred to as work and runs (Chaffin et al. 2002, 116-126). The pattern has been noted in several studies of expert music practice (Miklasewski 1989; Williamon et al. 2002). Our study is the first to observe the same pattern on a larger time scale, across practice sessions. Student musicians, in contrast to experts, are more likely to simply play through the piece (Lisboa 2008).

The vertical lines in figure 1 represent my reporting of the beginnings of main sections and sub-sections. Inspection shows that I often started and stopped at these locations. The intersections of horizontal lines, representing practice, and vertical lines, representing my reports, show that I used the formal structure of the music as a framework for practice. This is another characteristic of expert practice (Chaffin et al. 2002; Williamon et al. 2002).

(Emphasis mine.) This is exactly the practice structure that Piano Practice Assistant aims to scaffold, with its nested interleaved practice mechanism based on the structure of each piece (along with an element of spaced repetition on longer timescales). In this practice method, a piece is first broken down into sections and subsections. As quoted above, understanding and using this structure is an important characteristic of expert learning — see also Chapter 2 of How Learning Works, titled “How Does the Way Students Organize Knowledge Affect Their Learning?” (Summary here.)

The musician practices the subsections of one section individually (“work”), then integrates them with practice of the entire section (“runs”). This pattern repeats itself with sections as the “work,” then groups of sections or the entire piece as the “runs.” The “work” segments are not always in order — the focus, especially later on, is on segments which require the most attention.

Do experts tend to practice this way by coincidence, or are these effective music practice methods that help explain their expertise? The answer seems to be the latter, based on case studies like this, as well as research on learning in general.