Practice strategies of instrumental music students: Explicit instruction and transfer

The effect of explicit instruction protocol across 6 lessons for band students. The results found the treatment condition of explicit practice protocols demonstrated significant changes in performance scores from pre-test to post-test in the treatment condition groups.

Music practice is most often done in isolation. There is no direct monitoring of student practice strategies allowing for ineffective strategies to develop. Ineffective strategies may not be readily identified and corrected, possibly slowing the progress of music students.

Practice is important for the development of expertise (Ericsson et al., 1993). Quality of the practice time and quality of practice strategies is of equal importance (Bonneville-Roussy et al., 2015). Knowing how to practice is a key aspect in mastery of musical skills and musical development.

Advanced musicians have highly refined practice skills, allowing them to learn efficiently (Chaffin et al., 2003) and to progress at a faster rate than their peers.

Musicians with less experience have lower quality and a limited range of practice strategies. In particular, middle school students have been found to have limited practice strategies and routines (McPherson et al., 2001). This can hinder their progress. It is as this time in their musical development where effective and efficient practice strategies will have a considerable benefit. Effective practice is said to come form effective instruction (Hallam, 2001). However, research into the practice strategies via transfer of musical learning is limited. 

Transfer of Learning

Transfer of learning has been greatly researched in other education domains. It is when use past learning can be applied to a new or similar situations. A key component of transfer of learning are that key ingredients are shared across old and new learning contexts and have associations between the old and the new.

The role of the teacher is to provide appropriate contexts, scaffolds and explicit instructions to help with learning transfer. For example, when the teaching is explicit for learning transfer via modelling and coaching, the more likely the old skills are able to transfer to the new learning situation or task.

Colwell (2011) suggests that transfer of learning is applicable to music instruction and practice strategies. Some recent research in instrumental practice has shown promising results using near transfer (Miksza, 2013). 

Weidner (2020) recently conducted research to identify which conditions are ideal for transfer of learning of effective practice strategies of beginning wind instrumentalists. The majority of beginning wind instruments may participate in large ensemble rehearsals where ensemble practice strategies are employed, but are not explicitly taught. When these students get to individual practice, little is known about what strategies they make use of from their large ensemble practice.

Weidner (2020) investigated the frequency of use of explicitly practice strategies of students from school ensembles across five schools. There were two test groups and one control group used for this study. The test groups were explicitly taught practice strategies during their band rehearsals. The explicit strategy was to name the strategy, give a description and definition of the strategy, the teacher modelling the strategy, and guided practice of the use of this strategy with a piece of music specifically used for the study. The study duration was 6 lessons over a period of 2 weeks.

Specific strategies

The specific targeted strategies with changing and tempo alteration. Chaining is when musicians specifically break down a difficult section and work on the section in smaller chunks. When the smaller chunks are learnt they are then chained into larger chunks until a specific musical passage is securely learning.

Tempo alteration is the practice of slowing down difficult sections for more detailed practice such that when the section can be played accurately, the tempo is gradually increased.

The two strategies were specifically taught to two experimental groups over a period of two weeks. The students in these groups were then to apply these strategies in their solo practice sessions. These individual practice sessions where video recorded and a panel of trained raters observed the video for use of these specific practice strategies and rated the progress of each student.

The results

The results found that chaining was the most frequently used strategy across all groups. Explicit instructional strategies were found have a large main effect for the test groups. Furthermore, the results found that participants in the chaining group were rated significantly higher in pitch and rhythm accuracy from pre-test to post-test.

Student demographics such as years on instrument an private tuition had little effect on the scores for strategy use.

Overall, the results found near transfer of learning of effective practice strategies from instructional group to individual practice. When the practice strategy was guided and modelled, near transfer of this skills was effective. Additionally, There was no change in practice strategies of the control group, suggesting that the treatment group explicit instruction significantly changed the students’ strategic approach during their practice sessions.

The explicit instructional strategies raised the awareness of the students to a point where they self-regulated their practice routine for a more effective result.

Music practice is a high skill discipline which requires effective routines to progress. This research suggests that transfer of strategies for music learning relies on a conscious awareness of the learner. 

Practice skills need to be taught. The explicitly group instruction of practice strategies altered they way the students approached their instrumental practice, leading to better performance. The practice strategies may not be new to all students, however, teachers can explicitly teach these strategies to students to develop a more effective practice routine.

© iteachpiano 2020


Bonneville-Roussy, A., & Bouffard, T. (2015). When quality is not enough: Disentangling the roles of practice time, self-regulation and deliberate practice in music achievement. Psychology of Music, 45(5), 686-704.

Chaffin, R., Imreh, G., Lemiuex, A. F., & Chen, C. (2003). Seeing the Big Picture: Piano Practice as Expert Problem Solving. Music Perception, 20(4), 465-490.

Colwell, R. (2011). Roles of Direct Instruction, Critical Thinking, and Transfer in the Design of Curriculum for Music Learning MENC Handbook of Research on Music Learning (pp. 84-139).

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.

Hallam, S. (2001). The development of expertise in young musicians: Strategy use, knowledge acquisition and individual diversity. Music Education Research, 3(1), 7-23.

McPherson, G. E., & Renwick, J. M. (2001). A Longitudinal Study of Self-regulation in Children’s Musical Practice. Music Education Research, 3(2), 169-186.

Miksza, P. (2013). The effect of self-regulation instruction on the performance achievement, musical self-efficacy, and practicing of advanced wind players. Psychology of Music.

Weidner, B. N. (2020). The transfer of group practice strategy instruction to beginning instrumentalists’ individual practice. Psychology of Music.

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