Many years ago, and I remember it vividly, I had a teenage student come to his lesson and he hadn’t practiced at all that week. In this situation, I asked him to “practice” during his lesson time. My desk is in the studio, so I sat at my desk and intended to do some lesson planning. One of the main reasons I did this was because I wanted to hear how he was practicing. Even the weeks when he said he did practice, he didn’t seem to be progressing much.
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:
I am reminded of a student who felt like every piece of repertoire I gave her was “too hard.” I wanted her to learn Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum from The Children’s Corner. I knew if I showed her the music as a whole, she would freak out. Even though I could see the different sections, I knew she would not. I found a section that I figured would be the hardest one for her to learn (measures 37 – 44, six flats) and I made a copy of that section.
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.
Sally Palmer owns Sally L. Palmer Music Studio in Bellevue, Washington. She has over 40 years experience as a piano and vocal teacher and coach, and is an accomplished accompanist. She is the author of Six-Word Lessons for Exceptional Music Lessons.
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