What do Circuit Training and Practicing the Violin have in common?

Why should students mix it up when practicing the violin?

Many adults have tried the gym’s circuit training section.  It consists of several different exercises, each done for a short period of time.  It’s a plan to help cut down on boredom and increase physical fitness.

Bass player Paul Robinson reports in Strings (August 1, 2015) that the same concept found in circuit training can be applied to practicing an instrument. He likes to get his students to mix it up when practicing a musical instrument.  He bases his ideas on brain research and maybe a little common sense:

~Bored brains don’t learn much.~


Robinson: “Keep It Random”

Robinson uses “out of the hat” exercises.  Students randomly draw cards requiring a three-to-five-minute focus on a particular skill or piece of music. Of course for a preschooler, drawing from the hat would be fun to do just to change-up the order of things since their practice sessions are so brief.

Older students can practice for longer periods.  But there is a benefit to varying activities and also breaking up the practice into shorter sessions.



Another idea from Robinson: Do not repeat the same exercise until it is perfect.  He suggests practicing a section you are trying to learn and then doing something different, then returning to the part you are trying to learn again.

This may be more difficult to do, but the brain has to stay on task and as a result doesn’t get bored. The idea of “desirable difficulties” is that making practice more difficult can actually increase long-term retention.


Why do musicians resist this way of practicing even though they may find that what they practiced yesterday to perfection seems to disappear overnight?  

People in sports use this approach, called “interleaving practice,” more than those in education or music have.

The question is why do students resist “interleaving practice,” or variable practice strategy?

Students feel, and it is true, that a block of practicing the same thing for a longer period of time has good results.  BUT the results are not as long-lasting as when people use the circuit approach‑‑interleaving practice.  The same concepts apply to academics as to music.

Long-term retention has been shown to be better when we “mix it up.”

You can learn even more about interleaving practice: Dr. Robert Bjork explains how he became interested in long term memory.


“Once [students] understand what leads to long-term retention, they dare to venture into the discomfort zone.” Christine Carter


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