Practice Assistant FAQ

Is this only for piano?

It’s for all instruments and styles! I’ve even heard from people who use it for things like dance and poetry. My main instrument is piano, so that’s what the flavor is oriented towards, but the basic principles are broadly applicable. Piano Practice Assistant (Android) and Music Practice Assistant (iOS) are fundamentally the same—I just changed the name for the newer one because of how useful other musicians were finding it!

Is there a tutorial?

Yes, there’s a walkthrough, from adding a piece to practicing. It uses the Android version, and the iOS version is very similar.

How does the scheduling algorithm work?

The app schedules pieces according to priority with a random factor. Within each piece, it then does the same for sections, and then again for subsections of each section. So you end up practicing the subsections of one section, then integrating them into the section as a whole. You then do that for the rest of the sections of a piece, and then turn to the piece as a whole, before moving on to the next piece. This is how we scaffold interleaved practice, with a form of work and runs.

If you have the relevant settings enabled, then items (pieces, sections, or subsections) above the “mastery threshold” will be skipped during practice. This is how spaced repetition is implemented.

In your repertoire list, you can customize which items are “in rotation” by toggling individual pieces, sections, or subsections.

Each item has a “forgetting rate” and a “practice effectiveness” (or “ease”). The forgetting rate determines how much mastery decreases over time. The practice effectiveness determines how much the forgetting rate changes with practice. The idea is basically that practice gives longer-lasting improvements for easier items, so if you keep using the “Great!” button, then the app will understand that you don’t need to practice as often to maintain your progress on that item.

Can I manually change an item’s parameters used by the algorithm?

Sure—there’s an “advanced user” option to edit mastery, forgetting rate, and practice effectiveness for an item (and optionally for all its sub-items) by tapping the edit/detail button for the item in the repertoire list.

How do I customize my app’s settings?

For Android, you can access the settings such as the mastery threshold from a drop-down menu from the home screen of the app. You can also toggle randomization and whether or not the mastery cutoff is applied. For iOS, you can change settings from your device’s Settings app.

How should I use the mastery slider?

I recommend using the slider to specify where you are in that learning process relative to your overall goals for the piece. If your chief goal is to bring a piece up to ♩=100, then if you practice without errors at ♩=80, then you’d set your mastery to 80%. More generally, you might want to take a more holistic, qualitative view of your progress. If you’re preparing it for an eventual performance, then 100% would mean you could give a successful performance right now.

How should I use the practice rating buttons (Hard/OK/Good/Great!)?

I recommend using the buttons according to your sense of how hard it was to remember/maintain the progress you made last time. If your previous progress came back to you effortlessly, say “Great!”, and if you’re backsliding, use “Hard”. You can also use the number of days on the buttons to choose according to how long you think it will take for you to forget the improvements you made this time. See below for details.

What do the different practice rating buttons do, technically?

The Hard/OK/Good/Great! buttons affect both practice effectiveness and forgetting rate. In particular, the Hard button “resets” these numbers so that you’ll be asked to practice every day for a while. This is useful if the algorithm has gotten off track, for example if take a long break from a piece, or if your goals for the piece change.

What is the number of days on the practice rating buttons, really?

The number of days displayed is the time until the mastery falls to below 80% of the New Mastery that you set. So if you set your new mastery to 80%, then the Hard/OK/Good/Great! buttons say how long it will take for it to fall to 64% if you use that button. If you rate your mastery as 100%, and you use the default mastery threshold of 80%, then the number of days is how long the item will be skipped by the scheduling algorithm until it starts reappearing again. If you’re already below the threshold, the item will continue to appear, but the button can still say “5 days”—it’s still giving a sense of “on what timescale will the gains I’ve made start being lost”. This isn’t a sharp threshold in reality, but from feedback and experience it seems to be a decent approximation to “forgetting”.

How is the app different from Anki?

One essential difference between PPA/MPA and Anki is that PPA/MPA wants to accommodate learning on a continuous scale, not just memorization. Another is that it’s designed with the structure of music in mind, as well as more of what we know about effective practice. It’s a little more similar to Anki if you always set your mastery to 100%—besides several tweaks to the algorithm, an interleaved “work and runs” order of practice, and the ability to easily choose which hierarchical sets of items are “active”. With Anki, the usual advice is never to make flashcards for things you don’t already understand; also, however hard a flashcard is to remember, there should be a binary outcome (right or wrong). With MPA, the aim is to design for a gradual learning process in addition to maintenance. So rather than effectively setting mastery to 100% every time you practice, it lets you specify where you are in that learning process relative to your overall goals for the piece.

Does the app distinguish between memorization and learning?

When you add a new piece to your repertoire in the app, you can specify that you’re learning it for the first time. It starts with a different forgetting rate and practice effectiveness, meaning that you’ll be asked to practice daily for longer before the item stays above your mastery threshold.

Are you planning to add more graphs and statistics?

Yes! This is one of the most requested features. But you should know that these apps are a personal side project, and I want to take the time to do this right.