He took out his assignment book and played the first assignment on the list. I remember thinking, “That could certainly use some work,” only to have him, after playing it once, move on to the next thing on the list. At this point I had to ask, “Is that how you would practice it at home?” He responded with a firm “yes.”
I was glad that I had that opportunity because it opened a conversation about playing versus practicing, and about repetitive practicing. I have realized, with some students, I must write in the assignment book, “practice 3x/day” or whatever number I feel is necessary. Sometimes I’ll even ask a student, “How many times do you think you should practice this each day?” Often, they come up with a higher number than I would have! (I’m pretty sure they are trying to say what they think I want them to say.) When a student sees “10x/day” written in their assignment book, they understand that they really must work on it to progress. There have been times when I’ve written “1,000 x/day” and give the student that look that means I am dead serious. They know I don’t mean it literally, but they get the message loud and clear.
Repetitive practice has always made sense to me. Athletes practice this way, military operations are practiced this way, and physical therapists expect it in their patients. Think about it – practice IS repetition. When practicing any instrument, repetition is the most common method used to learn a piece of music. Repetition helps to build your muscle memory. When something is practiced over and over and over, the muscles begin to memorize what they are supposed to do, and how they are supposed to move. (Lesson 46, Six-Word Lessons for Exceptional Music Lessons, page 64) Pretty soon, tricky fingering passages become natural. The great Sam Snead, professional golf player, once stated, “Practice puts brains in your muscles.”
The Double-Edged Sword
Repetition in practice does indeed work. But what if whatever we repeat puts errors in our muscle brains? If I practice the same thing over and over, my muscles will slowly learn what it is I am practicing. That being said, if I learn and practice incorrectly and continue to repeat it over and over incorrectly, not only will I not progress, but it is quite difficult to go back and fix it later. In this case, repetitive practice becomes a hindrance to my progress.
As a teacher, it’s quite painful sitting through a song that a student, once again, has obviously put no thought into her repetitive practicing. She comes back with the rhythm still incorrect, so you ask her why it’s still wrong. After all, you wrote it boldly and underlined it three times in her assignment book to “count out loud” so she could get it right. (And you’ve circled it so many times in the piece that you can hardly see the notes anymore!) She then looks at you like she never set eyes on her assignment book. She did play it through 3x/day – exactly the wrong way she’s always played it! The key lesson learned here is “practice makes permanent.”
It’s So Boring
Several repetitions done correctly in a row is essential for progress. “But it’s so boring,” is what most students will say. Therefore, as teachers we need to constantly come up with new ways of repetitive practice techniques to try and eliminate some of that boredom. There is a caveat though. If a student really cares about progressing these ideas will be helpful. If a student does not care about getting any better at playing the piano, it won’t matter how creative you get with the practice ideas.
“Whenever you are using repetition to practice, you want to be sure you are using it in the most beneficial and productive way possible.” (Graham Fitch, practisingthepiano.com.) No two students / musicians are the same, so a practice routine that is unique to each student is critical. Here are a few ideas that I have used:
- Divide a piece into small phrases or passages that you can practice individually. Make them small enough that you can see progress in a minute or two of focused, repetitive practice on each.
- For younger students, you can design a fun way for them to keep track of how many times they have “repeated” the assigned section. I had several of my younger students make “star counters” for repetitive practice. Every time they played the measure or measures, they moved a star bead over to the other side. It’s a good visual aid.You could also create a spinner or make your own dice with different ways to repeat, such as High as a Kite, Fast as a Cheetah, or Soft as a Lamb.
- Make sure you don’t always just practice your repetitive sections as isolated sections. Remember, a piece is not one single thing. It is made up of many small parts. As different sections receive their repetitive practice, remember to join the sections and practice those repetitively for smooth transitions. It is important to think about how the parts combine into the whole.
- Challenge yourself. One technique to use in repetitive practice is to play your designated section until you make a mistake. Once you make a mistake, go back to the start and see if you can play to get past the place where the mistake was made. Keep repeating this technique until you can fluently get through the section without any mistakes. (Lesson 60, Six-Word Lessons for Exceptional Music Lessons, page 80)
This method of repetitive practice is explained in scientific detail (yes, it involves the brain) in “The Talent Code – Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown” by Daniel Coyle.
- Franz Liszt said, “Think ten times and play once.” Obviously, if one takes a conscious moment to think, to reflect in between each repetition, one can have a clearer understanding of what they actually want to accomplish. “What is the purpose for repeating this section over and over?” Have a specific goal for what is intended to happen when the passage is played again. This type of repetitive practice allows the learner to dig deep and explore his music.
- There is always a point in practice where the mind begins to wander and productivity decreases. How can this be overcome? Changing how you express a section can make it feel less repetitive while retaining the same familiarity. Repeating the same section but giving it a different sound, keeps the attention of the learner. Take the same passage and play it at a different octave. If it’s straight eighth notes, change up the rhythm to a dotted rhythm just for fun. If the dynamic marking is soft, play it loud or vice versa. If it’s a fast tempo play it slower. (That’s a good practice technique in and of itself.) Try staccato instead of legato. How about writing lyrics to the melody line? The trick with repetitions is to focus the mind on something specific, varying the focus with each repetition.
We worked on those eight measures, hands separate, then hands together, then a phrase at a time, then a line at a time, then the whole section. I encouraged her during her repetitive practice at home that she “mess around” with the dynamics and the tempo. Just letting her know that she had the freedom to play it different than what was on the written page gave her a sense of empowerment and desire to “try it out.” Repetitive, thoughtful practice made a huge difference. I continued to make copies of small sections to work on repeatedly, all in random order. When it came time to put two sections together in order, she felt such a sense of accomplishment. Of course, we had to work on the transitions, which required more thoughtful, repetitive practice, but when she discovered that she had learned the whole piece, she was overjoyed. I never heard her once say, “This is too hard.” Mission accomplished!
“Spaced Repetition Practice” is a concept that is being studied, and I’ll have more on this technique of repetitive practice in my next blog post.