Pay Attention to Chunking: How To Practice

One of the most important and simplest practice techniques is called chunking, which as the name suggests means that while you practice you “group individual bits of data into meaningful larger units” (p. 254 Educational Psychology, Woolfolk).

Why chunking?

Chunking allows us to give our full attention to one task at a time, with the important feature of allowing us to progress through more and more complex stages of understanding as we chunk more and more information together. Practicing in this ’Zone’  where we are challenged, but not overwhelmed has been called the “zone of proximal development”. You can think of this concept as simply taking the next appropriate, yet challenging, step.

Analysis of violin music for ease of practice is based on chunking (for instance D. Wilson Guide for Kreutzer 42 Studies, and O. Sevcîk Analysis of Paganini’s violin concerto in D). Experts can be said to have highly developed mega-chunks of information, which is one reason why it is sometimes difficult for experts to explain how they do something, the order in which they do things, or what the original ‘chunks’ of information were. Through practice they have created knowledge that they can access and use on demand (the autonomous stage) without the distraction of ‘seeing’ the tiny bits that make up the whole.

Attention and memory

When we consider how to set up an individual practice session or a long series of sessions, we must consider how we are best able to remember what we have learned. Spending all that time working on something only to forget what we have learned the next day, does not sound inspiring or productive. As we understand how our memory functions, we can develop a highly effective strategy for practicing music. But first, some definitions:

long-term memory – permanent storage of knowledge

long-term working memory – memory that holds strategies for pulling information from long-term memory into working memory.

procedural knowledge - knowing the order you must do things to get the desired result

elaborative rehearsal – keeping information in working memory by associating it with something else you already know.

elaboration – adding and extending meaning by connecting new information to existing knowledge.

decay – the weakening and fading of memories with the passage of time

distributed practice – practice that occurs in brief periods with rest intervals

autonomous stage – the final stage in learning an automated skill, when the procedure is fine-tuned and becomes “automatic”

Because we are limited in our ability to pay attention to a difficult task for extended periods of time, chunking is a necessary process for learning a complex task like playing violin.

“An analytic study of the separate parts of a work is essential to guarantee a safe reproduction of the whole. Only by these means technical, dynamic and other effects are to be gained.” Ot. Sevcik, Preface to the Concert Studies Op. 17-21.

A Practice Sequence Overview

When we are practicing a piece of music, we can play it in whole or part, concentrating our efforts on a single aspect/technique of the music, or a combination of aspects/techniques. When we are practicing a technique (eg. staccato bowing), we should explore that technique in as many different situations as possible using various studies, scales (different keys/positions/strings, etc.) and pieces. Here are a few steps we will explore further in a later post:

1. Use a checklist to identify the boundary of your understanding. This will clearly identify the zone of proximal development – those things which will challenge and expand your knowledge, but not so difficult that they are impossible. Keep this record of your progress: as a skill becomes autonomous, check it off and move to the next level.

2. Each day practice a variety of things. Don’t get stuck playing the same things over and over. For instance, if you are practicing a bow technique from a section of a piece that is challenging, don’t play only that phrase from the piece: transfer that bowing technique into a scale or arpeggio (maybe in a different key from the music), a study, and/or another piece you know well. This way you create flexibility in your technique, and you can begin to see how the same technique is applied in different contexts. More examples: play fast passages slowly with a metronome; play slow passages using rhythmic détaché (eighth notes/sixteenth notes) instead of long-held notes.

3. Practice intensely then take a short break (distributed practice). 15 minutes at a time may be enough to begin with, then take a 2-3 minute break to reconnect and rebalance your body and let go of any tension built up in your hands, arms, neck, shoulders, and back. As you can manage longer stretches of practice, increase the break time as well – keep it at about 10-20% of the amount of time you practice. Don’t practice for more than an hour without taking a break. Chances are you have lost your focus, are distracted from your goal and are ‘playing’ (not practicing) at this point. Use a timer to create urgency, stay on track and to help convince yourself of the importance of getting to work and focussing on the task at hand.

4. Set up a program to prevent memory decay. Once and a while revisit pieces and studies you have played, securing them in your long-term memory.

- DW


Educational Psychology, Woolfolk 5th Edition (Note: references are from 2nd Edition and page numbers may not match)

Otakar Ševčík, Concerto Studies: Op. 20, Paganini: Allegro-Concerto I, D major. (12MB – Click to Download)

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