Frequently Asked Questions: Practicing and Learning Tunes


What is the Practice Machine?

The Practice Machine expertly selects which of your tunes you should practice right now, after weighing: 1) How long ago you last practiced each tune, 2) How long ago you learned each tune, and 3) Your Preferences.

The Practice Machine is a useful tool for a player to maintain their repertoire over the long term. It does not teach tunes. It assumes you are a traditional musician who knows the tunes in your head. What I find it very helpful for is that it selects which tunes I need to practice, at just the right time. It uses a formula based on research on how humans learn most efficiently, on how humans can best remember lots of information, and on the general goals of most Irish session players.

The formula is designed (and polished and verified by many years of daily use) to help you efficiently achieve the following goals:

Although it does not teach you new tunes, it is very helpful during the period when you have just learned a new tune, because it carefully schedules tunes that are new to you much more often than it schedules tunes you've known for a long time. So it's important to tell how long ago you learned each of your tunes, by setting the "First Learned" date for each of your tunes.


What's the easiest way to add tunes to my playlist?

Often the easiest way to add a big chunk of your repertoire does not depend on you knowing any names for your tunes at all! Consider instead how you originally learned your tunes:


Why is it important to set the "Learned" date for my tunes?

The Practice Machine implements the well-established, evidence-based learning technique called "spaced repetition theory" which essentially means that new material must be practiced much more frequently than old material. Assuming you like the goal of only spending time practicing something when it' s useful, not to waste your time and get bored by excessive repetition, then you can rely on the carefully-tuned Practice Machine. And the Practice Machine can only do that if it knows a) when you learned each of your current tunes and b) your personal capacity for learning and retaining tunes, as measured by your "Practice Goal" setting.


How should I set the "First learned" date when I bring back tunes I had neglected for a long time?

The way I handle that in my own repertoire is:


What should my Practice Goal setting be?

Give yourself at least a few weeks of daily use of the Practice Machine to gradually improve which "Practice Goal" setting works best for you (see your account Preferences). The default setting of 90 days is a good value for a typical session player who has a few hundred tunes in their active repertoire. If you have a smaller repertoire, you probably want to set that to a much smaller number, maybe 60 or even 30 days or less.

To achieve the goals listed above, you should arrive at your best Practice Goal setting by:

  1. Set the number of tunes in your daily Practice Machine assignments (this is a setting in your Preferences) to exceed the number of tunes listed on your Practice Stats page for "Your daily average goal."
  2. Make sure you meet that goal (on average) for at least a few weeks or months straight (basically: a couple of times through your entire repertoire). For example, if your Practice Goal is 90 days, then you'll need almost 180 days of daily Practice Machine use before you can be confident that your Practice Goal is about right for you. Of course, if your Practice Goal is way off, you can tell that pretty quickly and adjust right away.
  3. If you have no problems remembering all of your repertoire in every assignment then you have two nice choices:
    1. Accelerate your progress with musical skills by decreasing your Practice Goal. This automatically increases your daily average quantity of tunes to practice, therefore also how much time you need to spend practicing every day.
    2. Keep your Practice Goal unchanged and allow yourself to expand your repertoire with some new tunes.
  4. If you cannot meet that daily-average goal for whatever reason then your three hard choices are:
    1. Increase your Practice Goal, which you can only choose if you are having no trouble remembering all the tunes in every assignment. This will decrease how many different tunes you need to review every day, but it will also decrease the rate at which you improve your general musical skill.
    2. Decrease your repertoire size by unchecking the "I currently play this tune:" checkbox on some of your tunes as you encounter your least favorite or too-challenging tunes in the Practice Machine.
    3. Reconsider how you practice. Perhaps you are spending too much time on each tune. A common illusion musicians suffer from is that the longer you focus on one thing, the more you'll progress with it. This has been proven false in many clinical studies. Move on to a different tune, and you'll actually progress faster with the general skills that are holding you up on this tune.
  5. If it seems like the Practice Machine never gets around to some of your so-far unpracticed tunes, then either you have set your Practice Goal too high, or you have failed to finish entering approximate "First Learned" dates throughout your entire playlist, or you are learning new tunes more quickly than you can actually handle (without losing your old repertoire).

How should I learn new tunes?

My personal opinion on that question is published separately as "Tips for Learning Irish Traditional Music." The primary mission of is to help everyone learn tunes by making that approach easier for you.


How can I add a tune that isn't in the Tune Index?

There are actually a few possible answers to that:


How can I keep track of my tune sets?

Simply write a comment about the set in the Notes field for your tunes. Here's an example Note you might add to a tune of yours:

The Tuesday session plays this after Sailor's Bonnet. My band Diddle-ee-eye plays this between Kesh Jig and Lafferty's. I originally learned it as the one after Fred Finn's from Paddy Murphy.

Then:

Another option is to assign a unique tag to all the tunes in that set and then use that tag to quickly see all the tunes in that set in your Playlist or Practice Machine.

Some people have asked for your Playlist and Practice Machine to somehow remember your personal tune sets and somehow display them appropriately. Besides the problem of how to design a visual, user-friendly interface that makes that obvious and easy, musicians also have different, conflicting desires about how and why they want to do this, so that no one design could make everyone happy.

Furthermore, if the Practice Machine was required to stick to your personal sets, it would defeat a couple of the goals of improving your fundamental musicianship skills, as listed in the primary goals above. In the end, you want to master the individual tunes in any context, which gives you the skill of playing and even inventing new tune sets on the fly. The Practice Machine will lead you there.


What's the advantage of an independent Playlist for each of my instruments?

If you play multiple instruments, each one can have its own Playlist so that: