Repetition: Mindless or Mindful

Posted on

repetitionMuch has been said – and I have said my share – about how to practice. Practicing with intention, deliberation and focus is the practice method that separates the successful musicians from the rest. (By successful musicians, I don’t just mean those with big music careers. Every musician is successful who is learning, playing, sharing and enjoying her music in ways that are personally meaningful.)

A quick internet search will disclose numerous research studies and scientific papers that reveal proven strategies to efficient and effective practice.  You will also find creative approaches to practice that resonate with different learning types.

All of those practice methods, suggestions, techniques, tricks and tips share a common purpose: to enable you to play the music you want the way you want to play it.  Moreover, they all address the one principle that is at the heart of music study. That principle is repetition.

But wait, you say. I thought repetitive practice was bad.

Repetition is not only not “bad,” it’s crucial to any level of music success.

Where the confusion comes in, is that some kinds of repetitive practice are definitely more helpful than others.

I know a student needs my help making the distinction when her question to me is, “How many times do I need to do this?”

The right kind of repetition isn’t about a number. It’s about a why.

Rote Repetition

Repetition for its own sake is the least helpful kind of repetition. It’s rote learning, the kind that says, “I will do this passage 10 times, then go on to the next one.” Although there is a level of habituation that occurs in this kind of practice, the driving force of the repetitions is the “next.” It’s a measure only of time spent. Picture a prison cell with the days chalked in hash marks on the wall.

Rote learning is the way we are usually taught to learn as young children. We learn nursery rhymes, the Pledge of Allegiance and the multiplication tables by saying them over and over. It doesn’t necessarily mean we absorb the meaning of the words. More than once, I have caught myself saying the words to something I learned by rote without giving a thought their meaning. While the words may “stick,” the context is often missing.

This is the weakness in rote learning. We may know the Gettysburg Address “by heart,” but that doesn’t mean we can interpret and explain it. A rote recitation is likely to leave a listener unmoved. And if we lose our place, we are likely to need to begin again from the beginning.

Mindful Repetition

Repetition that is performed with focus is much more secure. It compels you to be mentally alert and present in each moment of practice so that you can discern if you are meeting your intention for that time through. It aids in learning the music through awareness, not just developing a physical habit.

When you decide exactly what you are trying to accomplish in your repetitions you are beginning to engage in the learning process. You aren’t just repeating the piece or passage; you are trying to achieve a specific goal. You are able to coach yourself through it. “Place your fourth finger here.” “That note is an E.” “A little faster this time.”

Varied Repetition

A series of repetitions that take you through a variety of different focus objectives is even more potent. If each time you practice a passage you worked with a different emphasis – on technique this time, dynamics the next, phrasing the time after – you would be developing your music beyond the notes, beyond habit into the realm of the creative.

This kind of repetition increases not just the physical habit and not just awareness, but also creates a solid foundation from which to create the music yourself. A musician who practices this way has achieved a deep knowledge of the piece that allows him to perform with confidence and freedom.

There is, I believe, absolutely no reason NOT to be practicing this way. And there is a simple way to begin the process.

As you are practicing, before you just “play it again,” just be sure to ask yourself the critical question – why?

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

  • Rob Stone

    When I practice the harp a big part of it revolves around the coordination of reading the music, moving both hands, feet. This sounds simplistic, but compared to the saxophone, which I have been playing for many more years, is more challenging, perhaps at my age too, since my reflexes aren’t what they were when I was a lot younger.I practice until it starts feeling “comfortable” and complete. There is no time limit or amount of repetition. I have gone back recently to playing easier, shorter pieces, but with more accuracy in tempo and dynamics. I try to obtain the correct style or mood of any piece I attempt and it’s been slow but steady progress. I’m enjoying myself and my goal is to bring a piece to life, to make music, always!


    • William R Hull

      What Rob says resonates with me. I simply don’t learn as quickly as I used to. I try to identify chunks that give me greater difficulty and focus on them. I’m afraid, however, that as I repeat the chunk I often become less focussed and less mindful—one of the many reasons why I shall never appear at Carnegie Hall.


  • Karen DeBraal

    I have fallen prey to playing things over and over without focus. So important to be mindful and grounded, to focus on the dynamics, etc as you wrote. And it is certainly what makes practicing fun!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *