I had heard this at least a hundred times before.

“I played this much better at home,” Kimberly cried, her blue eyes filling with tears. Kimberly was eight, a precocious and lively child. But she could have easily been 18, or 28, or 38, and the sentiment would have been the same. I played this much better at home.

Educational psychologists have a term for I played this much better at home. It’s called “state-dependent learning.” State-dependent learning is learning that is dependent upon a particular state of mind or situation in order to be successfully retrieved from our long-term memories. State-dependent learning theory proves that context matters: we remember information better in the place (in the classroom, in the studio, on the piano) where we originally learned it. State-dependent learning is the principle at work when we blank out on Sally’s name from Tuesday morning yoga class when we run into her on a Friday afternoon in the grocery store. We know Sally, we really do, but out of the context of yoga mats and sweaty bodies, we can’t activate the schema in our brain where her name lives. That’s the power of state-dependent learning.

Turns out the implications for state-dependent learning theory go far beyond recalling the names of our yoga classmates. In fact, the applications of state-dependent learning theory may be quite relevant to how we think about preparing for musical performances and music lessons, or even how we negotiate the habits of our daily lives. Cognitive psychologists tell us that the richer and more varied information is encoded in our brains (musicians would call this “practicing”), the easier it will be to retrieve later, because more elaborate and creative repetitions give us more roads of access into our long-term memories. This rich, colorful encoding is really the opposite of that “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect” axiom we musicians have all be subjected to, which suggests that there is a single right way we should be practicing, or encoding, our work. Musicians can’t afford to become state dependent. We don’t want to only be able to play our music in the so-called “correct” way, because to do so implies that our performance situations will mimic our practice ones and we know this isn’t the way it works. Pianists perform on unfamiliar instruments. All musicians have to make adjustments of balance and dynamics to compensate for concert halls and performing situations. Sometimes we have to change articulations, tempos and musical characters at a moment’s notice. We don’t, in fact, want a single well-worn groove to our knowledge about our music that we practice ad nauseam, but which is dependent upon the wind never knocking us off course. Because there will always be wind. Trust me.

The last year of remote learning has given piano teachers some real insight to the claim, I played this much better at home, because during online lessons that is what students are doing. Literally. Playing it at home. And indeed, we have witnessed the power of state dependent learning because it is true: students often do, in fact, play it much better at home. However, unless you are always going to perform on your own piano in your own living room exactly like you practice every day—and I like house concerts just fine, don’t get me wrong—state-dependent learning is not really our friend.

But, ironically, this isn’t the sentiment breathed in the hallowed halls of our pedagogy. Instead, we preach this idea that there is a perfect way to practice, and unless we are adhering to every marking on the page at every moment we are committing a crime. Or at the very least, our students will be scarred forever. I don’t buy this. Cognitive research doesn’t buy this. Our brains are more flexible than that. And the dangers of state-dependent learning suggest that we ought to teach and practice in such a way that encourages our brains to be as flexible as possible.

True, we have to be attentive here, because to unlearn certain musical aspects learned carelessly is trouble for sure. I’m not a fan of learning incorrect notes or suspect rhythms. I like fingering learned thoughtfully. Maybe you recognize the student that says, “I like to add the F-sharps after I learn it.” Or the kid who announces that he’ll just “put in the fingerings later.” But other musical elements are less black and white. Dynamics occupy a grey area for sure. My idea of mezzo piano may not be the same as yours, nor will it work the same on different instruments in different spaces. How we handle articulations are part of how we create character and interpretation, which is subject to opinion. Even tempo choices are hardly set in stone.

Thinking cognitively for a moment, to practice in different ways—adding first this musical element, then subtracting that one—creates different connections in the brain, which encodes the material more deeply and undermines state-dependent learning. We don’t want to just know the music one single way; we want to know it upside down, and inside out, backwards, and forwards (in a box, with a fox, on a train, in a plane…).

There is no end to creative ways to rehearse our music. Pianists can practice “hands alone” (What are our hands really doing independent of one another? Do we even know?). We can displace octaves between our hands, messing with our ears and our sense of space. Musicians of all stripes can study the score away from our instruments, reinforcing our knowledge of a piece’s form and structure, harmony and tonal relationships. We can employ exaggerated rubato upon our phrases or impose a strict metronomic straight jacket upon our playing. From time to time, we can even experiment with the opposite dynamics or articulations (a mind twister to be sure!) or phrase with the opposite musical gesture as would be appropriate just to see what new insights this might offer. In spite of the conventional wisdom to the contrary, these practice strategies do not teach our bodies the “wrong” way to perform our pieces, they just teach us. They teach us not to become too complacent or reliant upon any one approach. They teach us flexibility and technique, and, in the end, make us better musicians. Plain and simple.

It has always struck me as odd that we have no problem with dialing back the tempo or practicing sections out of order when learning a new piece, but to remove or change the dynamics is considered blasphemy. However, just as our brains can understand that new music is being practiced under tempo without being confused as to what the final tempo eventually will be, we can also learn the mechanics of new music without the added complications of dynamics or balance or shaping and then add these layers later. Our brains recognize the difference between a cake that is frosted and one that isn’t. And by intentionally practicing differently—first maybe without any nuance, then later with dynamics and phrasing—we are building more complex pathways in the brain. Educational theorists agree this is a good thing.

The key, perhaps, is being intentional. If I am intentional about what I am or am not including musically in my work at the piano, then the deliberate simplifying of my practicing and focus is lovely. Cognitively, it builds strong connections in the brain; spiritually, it is like the meditative work of following my breath, which centers my wild thoughts, and grounds my attention and direction.

Of course, without this intention, ignoring dynamics, balance, shaping, or articulations is just sloppy. It’s no more helpful than all the hours of the day that I spend ignoring my breath and flailing reactively from task to task. And even with every good intention, any talk of creative, varied practice strategies ultimately begs the question: don’t we want to polish a particular interpretation?

“Repetitions are a good thing,” my yoga teacher reminds me, when I resist the discipline of multiple sun salutations in my practice. Repetitions build form and stability and teach my body to find the familiar grooves of correct alignment in my downward-facing dog or my triangle poses. Too often in our musical practice, however, we have relied on our worship of mindless, identical repetitions, at the expense of trusting the flexibility of both our brains and our artistry. But ultimately, we want both: the strength and security that is built by multiple repetitions done over time and the flexibility provided by creative, intentional exploration in our practice.

Perhaps we should, each one of us, sit down a make a list of musical elements that are OK to play with in practicing and those that are not. My play-around list would include dynamics, articulations and tempo, just for starters. The character and mood of the piece are fair game as far as I’m concerned, which reminds me of a favorite exercise we often play in performance classes where students get to suggest random and outrageous characters for each other’s pieces. The wackier, the better. If it leads to lots of laughter and some new musical ideas to boot then we all win.

It isn’t perfect practice by the old professional definition to be sure, but cognitively, it is much safer. After all, if we really know Sally, we know her: not just in yoga class, but also in the grocery store, or at the park, or when we run into her at the coffee shop. If we really know our music, then we know it: on this piano under these lights, on that piano in the dark. We know it played mezzo-forte and staccato. We know it played piano and legato. We know it when we play it scary or sad, happy or triumphant. We know it, not just in the comforting familiarity of home, but when we face it, knees knocking, fingers trembling, under glaring stage lights and in front of an audience. It is, in fact, really ours.

 

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