Teacher’s Forum


An Alternative Approach to Practice

by Dan Macy

A typical practice session is often laid out in a format that sports psychologists call “block learning,” where you repeat the same skill over and over for a predetermined amount of time. If you’re practicing four different skills (A, B, C, and D) for, say, an hour, a block schedule would look like this: AAABBBCCCDDD. That could translate to fifteen minutes spent shedding rudiments, then left-hand lead, then double bass, and finally polyrhythms.
Research has shown that there’s a more effective way of practicing, called interleaving. A practice session using the interleaving technique would resemble this: ADCBDABCDACB. Instead of working on one particular skill for an extended period of time, you jump back and forth between skills.
Why is interleaving more productive? This approach teaches you (or your students) to think on your feet and prepare for the unexpected. There are bound to be surprises during a gig. A cymbal can come loose, a head can break, or the monitor can stop working. What do you do? Interleaving trains the brain to be flexible and perform well on the fly. Practicing this way combines building basic skills with the added element of surprise, which makes us better prepared for real-life playing situations. Numerous studies in a variety of contexts have shown that, in the long run, practicing in an interleaved fashion leads to better performances than practicing the same skills in larger blocks does.
Now let’s take a look at how you can put interleaving into practice. Here’s a classic exercise that focuses on learning different subdivisions of the quarter note.
Interleaving 1
To practice that exercise in an interleaved fashion, mix up the subdivisions so that they’re in a random order and are never played twice in a row. (If it’s too complicated to play each subdivision only once at first, try playing two beats of each.)
Interleaving 2
Another way to practice interleaving is to switch between several unrelated exercises every minute. You could have your students work on doubles for a minute, and then switch to a new fill. Then they could try playing doubles around the kit, followed by a minute of a samba groove. After that, switch to a groove using left-hand lead. Then work on paradiddles. Next, work on the fill a little longer. Follow that with a minute of a groove that’s already mastered, and finish up the session with more paradiddles. The key is to not spend too much time on each skill. Jump around.
As you’re incorporating this concept of interleaving into your practicing and teaching, make sure to mix in new and challenging material with old and familiar ideas. This process may feel haphazard and a bit out of control at first, but that’s the point. The goal is to learn to switch back and forth between various challenges in order to train your body to handle anything that could arise on the gig. Good luck!