Content-dependent behavior in musical practice
Individual practice is the primary context in which musicians develop their musical and technical skills and learn new repertoire. The pedagogical literature (including books, websites, articles, and treatises) has treated the subject extensively, offering advice on how musicians should practice to optimize their efficiency. A central theme in this body of literature is the need to tailor one’s approach to the specific challenges presented by the music; that is, to use different strategies to practice different kinds of problems.
Prior research in musical practice seeking to explore how student musicians regulate their behaviors during practice has examined students’ knowledge and, to a limited degree, their use of specific behaviors. However, existing studies often rely on self-reporting or employ a case-study methodology. Studies that have used controlled observation to examine how and when musicians employ specific behaviors typically observe individuals working on a single example. These approaches preclude a direct comparison of whether or how musicians modify their practice behaviors in response to different types of musical material, nor do they allow for an examination of how any such modifications change as musicians develop expertise in the activity of practicing.
In the present study, violinists of three experience levels (high school, collegiate music majors, and professional) practiced three excerpts characterized by distinct technical challenges (string crossings, shifts, and syncopated bowing patterns). Results show that musicians do indeed selectively employ or omit certain practice behaviors in response to the material they are learning, apparently representing the modified approaches that many pedagogues prescribe. However, the rates at which participants employed these strategic behaviors were low; whether these behaviors are potent problem-solving tools that need only be applied sparingly or whether the behaviors were under-utilized is unclear. Musicians of different experience levels choose similar locations within the music to practice, suggesting that groups do not differ in the problems within the material they identified. However, between-group differences emerged in the use of specific behaviors, suggesting that musicians’ ways of working on a particular problem changes as they gain practice experience. Less experienced participants were more likely than more experienced individuals to exhibit ratcheted practice, apparent attempts at extended or event complete performance trials interrupted by small backtracks, possibly representing in-the-moment error corrections.