Practicing for Lasting, Adaptable
& Creative Learning


/Learning Theory/

by Cynthia Pace

By “using your brains and your ingenuity,” wrote pianist Josef Lhévinne, variety in practice becomes an endless possibility:

Take the scale of C. It may be played in hundreds of ways, with different rhythms, with different speeds and with different touches. The hands may be varied. One hand may play legato and the other staccato.[i]

Piano and metronome dreamstime xl 28299858

This kind of “variable practice,”[ii] as some researchers call it, found favor not only with Lhévinne (1874-1944), but also with his contemporary, Josef Hofmann (1876-1957). Regarding practicing repertoire pieces, Hofmann admonished, “Do not play them…in consecutive repetitions.” Instead, “take one after the other.”[iii] 

Repeating Monotonously—The Worst Kind of Practice
Consecutive repetitions, or “blocked practice”— the mindless kind, particularly—met both pianists’ disapproval. “Repeating monotonously over and over again in treadmill fashion” is “the very worst kind of practice,” Lhévinne wrote.[iv] So, too, for Hofmann: “If you play every day at the same time the same sequence of the same studies and the same pieces, you may acquire a certain degree of skill, perhaps, but the spontaneity of your rendition will surely be lost.”[v]

Environment Affects Recall

Observations made by Hofmann and Lhévinne a century ago regarding study and learning, ,[vi] still resonate today. Some recent learning research, for example, parallels Hofmann’s theories on practice, and why recall becomes more reliable when something is rehearsed in several different settings instead of only one.

Hofmann explained this phenomenon by noting that when we first play a well-learned piece in a different setting, we unconsciously recall odd details of the previous environment—the color of the room’s wallpaper, for example. As we play, these earlier details conflict with those of the new environment, throwing us off and causing memory slips. Hofmann’s solution to this problem—practicing in a variety of places— was a form of variable practice that we take for granted today. Its function, he explained, was to “dissociate the wonted environment from the piece in our memory.”[vii]

Decades after Hofmann noted that ties between learning and environment could hamper recall in a new setting, theorists Bjork and Bjork similarly observed that material learned under “constrained and predictable” conditions might be “easily retrieved in that context” but not in different contexts and conditions.[viii] As did Hofmann, the Bjorks suggest:

Varying conditions of practice—even varying the environmental setting in which study sessions take place—can enhance recall on a later test. For example, studying the same material in two different rooms rather than twice in the same room leads to increased recall of that material (Smith, Glenberg, & Bjork, 1978).[ix]

Shared Conclusion, Diverse Interpretation

While many musicians and theorists might concur that “variety in practice is important,” as Lhévinne put it,[x] how this conclusion is interpreted varies widely, akin to how pianists Rosina and Joseph Lhévinne “agreed that each phrase must have one high point—but as to where that point was…often felt quite differently.”[xi]

For many musicians, variety in practice ties to creativity, “ingenuity,”[xii] and “spontaneousness, the very soul of art.”[xiii] On the other hand, for a number of learning theorists including the Bjorks,’ variety is important seemingly because it introduces “complexity” which, in their view significantly enhances learning. For variety’s sake, it is interesting to visit both sides of the fence.

The Hare and Tortoise: Immediate vs. Long-term Gain

Unsurprisingly, it is easier to play a musical passage the same way instead of differently each time. Typically, a beginner can block-practice one piece four times in C major and immediately show improvement. But variably practicing a piece, for example, "Skips and Steps" one time in each key of G, A, D, and Db major (Pace: Music for Piano and Creative Music Bks 1, pgs 4) demands greater attention.

At first, things may  improve in smaller steps with variable practice because variables add more material for students to process. But variable practice pays off. Learning theorist Robert Bjork says the gains from small steps of “interleaved [variable]” practice exceed “the sum of the leaps you would have taken if you’d spent the same amount of time mastering each skill in its turn [one at a time].”[xiv] Bjork calls variables and other elements that pose challenges but enhance learning “desirable difficulties.”[xv]

Variable Practice Rehearses Recall More Frequently: 

Variable practice helps students retain what they learn better than blocked practice does, according to many studies. In part, this is because variable practice rehearses recall more often than blocked practice does. Playing something that is different than what just preceded, as with Hofmann’s method of practicing repertoire or Lhevinne’s example of practicing scales, requires calling to mind at every turn what needs doing. The more recall an item gets, the more recallable it becomes for the future.[xvi]

On the other hand, because blocked practice repeats the same thing immediately, students must fully exercise their recall only the first time they play an item. On each repetition, they can imitate what they just played, instead of going through the process of calling to mind "from scratch” what they will play.

Because variable practice so effectively promotes lasting learning, theorists point out that it should be an indispensable tool for educators. As researcher Jeffrey Bye puts it:

Education is supposed to be about teaching knowledge and skills that students will use throughout their lives.  So it should go without saying that teachers should utilize methods that facilitate long-term retention…[xvii]

Unavoidable Change

Change is unavoidable in the sense that repeating the same thing never produces the exact same result. Whether variability is accidental—as with uncontrolled finger work, or intended—as when students practice expression by varying dynamics, timing-nuances, or feel, depends on how mindfully they practice. Even random “noodling,” when attended to, helps students build the technique to express the musical moment at hand—the spontaneity of rendition Hofmann spoke of.

Varying Items vs. Varying Activities

Variable practice comes in many forms. Recall Lhévinne’s example of the limitless ways a single item can be modified. In addition to varying a particular item, students can intermix different activities instead. Researcher Cheryl Coker calls this “inter-task” variation.[xviii]  An example of inter-task variation would be if a student were to:

  • Play once through a “tricky” passage or piece, then
  • Do some technique, or play a chord progression, write a theory exercise, or analyze,
  • Sightread or transpose a short excerpt,
  • Improvise or compose.

Going through a sequence like this four times in a different order every time, called "random practice,” produces four non consecutive repetitions of each activity. Random practice can be adapted for different ages and levels many ways, for instance, by shortening or lengthening excerpts/activities and numbers of repetitions, or by mixing together variable, blocked practice and other techniques. Students enjoy picking their own order for practicing items. If needed, they can use check-marks, tallies, game pieces, etc., to keep track of what they practice.

More Anchors for Learning

Mixing items or activities during practice helps students learn because it expands their network for anchoring information and skills in memory. For example, when students play a piece in a number of keys, not only do they encounter several different white/black key formations (instead of just one), they also gain an opportunity to compare the sound and feel of each key, along with the technique for playing these. Likenesses and differences that students discover let them relate what they learn to other new and already-learned elements.

Variable Practice Advantages Are Not Recognized, Studies Show 

Comparative studies of variable and blocked practice have discovered that people often don’t recognize the genuine advantages of variable practice. Many times, study participants have been found to incorrectly believe that blocked practice best prepared them for testing, when variable practice actually proved more effective for most participants.[xix]

Variant-based Practice Rehearses Adjusting for Change

Another neglected fact is that students who prepare for performance by practicing under performance conditions only, tend to perform less well than those who practice under a range of conditions that do not even include performance conditions.[xx] Among the studies demonstrating this is one on the pros and cons of practicing throwing-skills at the distance at which these would later be tested:

Common sense would suggest that the children who practiced at the tested distance would perform better than those who had never practiced at that distance, but the opposite was true….The benefits of variation…outweighed any benefits of being tested at the practiced distance [Italics added].…Many other studies have shown that when testing after training takes place under novel conditions, the benefits of variation during learning are even larger. [xxi]

Blocked practice that adheres to specific conditions, focuses us on what we need to do for a particular situation. Variant-based practice, by contrast, shows us a larger picture that includes differences (and similarities) in how we need to respond to one set of conditions or another. Beyond this, it rehearses us in adjusting for changed conditions.[xxii]

Tools of a Set
Blocked and variable practice are just two of many tools of a set, each to be modified and combined in limitless ways. The appropriateness of any technique naturally depends on many things. During a lesson, a challenge that energizes a student at one point, can be overwhelming or frustrating at another time. Seasoned teachers continually watch for cues. Are students intrigued or instead distracted? Is it a moment to visit something easier or already well mastered?  For students, too, knowing several ways to practice can make working on pieces during the week more interesting, as they apply the “best fit” as needed. This current article accentuates variable practice as a learning technique whose unique strengths are sometimes overlooked. But the more widely recognized blocked practice also plays a role in learning.

One Thing At A Time

Blocked practice fits into virtually any musical situation, because it needs no other materials to intermix with. Blocked-practicing by isolating and honing in on one thing at a time can:

  • Reinforce a basic sense of a piece or skill,
  • Help develop speed and precision,
  • Add confidence

Interrelated Diversity

Variable practice, on the other hand, works most effectively with a broad range of diverse but interrelated material. Variable practice:

  • Introduces a wide range of information and skills,
  • Provides many means for interconnecting and storing new learning,
  • Gives a big picture of skills and information that equips students to successfully meet new situations and challenges,
  • Encourages awareness of similarity and difference that helps “students acquire a feel for nuance” and, in turn, contributes to sensitive musical expression,[xxiii]
  • Rehearses recall and facilitates lasting, adaptable learning,
  • Exemplifies and promotes creativity.

The Price of Oversimplifying

The notion that difficulty or complexity in a learning sequence always means weakness, can overshadow the advantages of variable practice. While material can be beyond the reach of a student, it can also be oversimplified to the point of restricting students from making important connections to other knowledge. Effective variable practice asks students to take in a wider array of material in a way that enhances rather than overburdens.

Comprehensive Concepts

Jerome Bruner, many of whose theories surround lifelong learning, is known for his idea of a spiraling curriculum. Students continually build on global concepts that intertwine new and previously acquired information, and enable students to become independent, creative learners. Bjork, too, notes the importance of broadly relating the “skills you interleave,…in some higher-order way.”[xxiv] Teaching approaches based on materials and activities that are varied but interrelated through over-arching concepts, are ready-made for the benefits of variable practice.

Creativity Needs Opportunities: 
A Piano Series That Provides These

Many educators today use variable practice and the “complexity” it introduces as a sort of resistance training for building long-term memory. Instructional books often do not include variable practice as part of their curriculum, however. Theorists Taylor and Rohrer observe, for example, that in math education, “despite the potential benefits of interleaving [variable practice], most mathematics textbooks rely primarily on blocked practice.”[xxv]

In music education this is also the case. Many piano approaches present only one tonality at a time, for instance, focusing on a single key for an extended period before adding another. Students thus miss the opportunity to learn about tonalities in a context of differences, similarities, and uniqueness.

Genuine Multi-Key Intermixes Multiple Tonalities
A piano series that provides an exception to this rule is that of Robert Pace, where variable practice is structured in, throughout. This series is sometimes called “genuine multi-key” because it truly intermixes multiple tonalities at all levels. The series’ well-known success in fostering long-term learning is due, in part, to its integration of variable practice. But variable practice is not simply a means for “encoding learning,” in this approach.

Variety Introduces Creative Opportunities

In the Pace Series, variety is meant to introduce creative opportunities.[xxvi]  The series’ broad spectrum of musical styles, activities and experiences equips students to discover “hundreds of ways” of playing a C major scale;[xxvii] experience “spontaneousness, the very soul of art;”[xxviii]  and look toward musical expression that is more than the sum of its parts.

Pace believed that all people can be creative, but not without encouragement and opportunity:

We must not assume that creative behavior will emerge automatically—quite the contrary, we must constantly nurture creative responsiveness with an infinite variety of ongoing opportunities for expression and development.[xxix]

Creative Study Enhances the Longevity of Learning
as Well As the Nature of Learning

In Pace’s view, it was the responsibility of educators across disciplines to teach children “the skills of creative problem solving.” But, he observed, “pressures to ‘memorize this’ or ‘remember that’” too often leave children “less and less creative as they become more and more enmeshed in …daily learning routines.”[xxx]

“Elicit[ing] creative thinking rather than meaningless repetition and drill”[xxxi]  and promoting lifelong learning were central goals for Pace. Riffing, taking off, extemporizing, expanding upon, modifying and transforming are essential to the Pace Piano Series, because variation fosters and is part of creativity. By bringing out students’ creativity, variety enhances not only the longevity of learning, but the nature of the learning, too.

© Copyright 2014 by Cynthia Pace. All Rights Reserved.© 
No reproduction of this material permitted in any form without written permission of the copyright holder.


[i] Lhévinne, Josef. (2013-04-09). Basic principles in pianoforte playing. Dover Publications. Kindle Edition. Chapter 6, Section 3, para. 1. Earlier editions go back to 1900.

[ii] Also called “interleaved practice” or “varied practice.”

[iii] Hofmann, Josef (2011-05-14). Piano playing: with piano questions answered. Kindle Edition. Chapter 2, Section 11.
Earlier editions go back to 1907.

[iv] Lhévinne, J. Basic principles. Chapter 6, Section 3, para. 1.

[v] Hofmann, Josef. Piano playing. Chapter 2, para 7.

[vi] Along with the ideas of many others of that time and earlier.

[vii] Hofmann, Josef. Piano playing: Chapter 2: General Rules, para 9.

[viii] Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (pp. 56-64). New York: Worth Publishers. pg. 58.

[ix] Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself. pg. 59.

[x] Lhévinne, J. Basic principles.

[xi] Lhévinne, Rosina. (January 11, 1971). Foreward to the Dover Edition. In Lhévinne, Josef (2013-04-09). Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing. Foreword, para. 6.

[xii] Lhévinne, J. Chapter 6, Section 3, papa. 1.

[xiii] Hofmann, Josef. Piano playing. (2011-05-14), Chapter 2, para. 7.

[xiv] Sundem, Garth. (January 28, 2012). How To Learn -- From Robert Bjork, Director Of UCLA Learning And Forgetting Lab. Excerpted from Brain Trust: 93 Top Scientists Dish the Lab-Tested Secrets of Surfing, Dating, Dieting, Gambling, Growing Man-Eating Plants and More (Three Rivers Press, March 2012).

[xv] Bjork, R. A. (2013). Desirable difficulties perspective on learning. In H. Pashler (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the mind. Thousand Oaks: Sage Reference. pg. 1.

[xvi] Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself. pg. 63

[xvii] Bye, Jeffrey K. (January 4, 2011). Desirable Difficulties in the Classroom Education. Psychology in Action: para. 8.

[xviii]Coker, C. A. (2004). Motor learning and control for practitioners. Holcomb Hathaway, Publishers; Second edition (June 10, 2009). Chapter 9: “Practice Schedules.”

[xix] Birnbaum, M., Kornell, N., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Why interleaving enhances inductive learning: The role of discrimination and retrieval. Memory & Cognition. Concluding Comment.

[xx] Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself. pg. 59.

[xxi] Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). pg. 59.

[xxii] Schmidt, Richard A., and Craig A. Wrisberg. 2007. Motor learning and performance. Champaign, IL [etc.]: Human Kinetics. pg. 272.

[xxiii] Pace, Cynthia (Nov/Dec 2011). Author Response. In Clavier Companion Magazine. pg. 46.

[xxiv] Sundem. How To Learn.

[xxv] Taylor, K., & Rohrer, D. (September 01, 2010). The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 6, 837-848. pg 846.

[xxvi] Along with analytic opportunities, for which the series is also well-known.

[xxvii] Lhévinne, J.

[xxviii] Hofmann, J. Chapter 2, para. 7.

[xxix] Pace, Robert (1999), Improvisation and creative problem solving. Lee Roberts Music Publications, Inc. pgs. 1-2.

[xxx] Pace, Robert (1999), Improvisation. pg. 2.

[xxxi] Pace, Robert (October 1982) Position paper. National Conference On Piano Pedagogy. Madison, WI. pg 3.

© Copyright 2014 by Cynthia Pace. All Rights Reserved.

No reproduction of this material permitted in any form without written permission of the copyright holder.