The Three Elements of Practice Part I

Practicing is a personal activity; no two people are the same, and this also goes for practice. However, there are some fundamental forces that are part of the learning experience for all of us. Learning to use and balance these processes will lead to successful and efficient use of our precious time. In this series, we will discuss the three elements of successful practice.

The First Element: Repetition

This may seem obvious; everybody knows you have to repeat things to learn. However, what we are discussing here is a very specifically structured activity, geared toward building muscle memory. Here are my suggestions on how to optimize the use of repetition.

1. Play a single, short passage over and over within one “frame” of concentration. This means something that will fit within a few seconds; if the passage is difficult, this may mean just a few notes. When the notes are learned, it may mean a whole phrase.

2. The power of repetition is diluted by distraction; moving on to another passage, even the one directly after the subject, can confuse this very concentrated activity. Make sure to stop and go back rather than continuing on to more material. Our goal is to work on one thing at a time without our mind having any question as to what the subject is.

3. Avoid taking on too much in a repetition frame; if the passage is too long it may extend beyond the 5-6 second window of this type of practice. What may happen is that by the time we get to the end, too much time will have elapsed for the repetition to work. This technique works best if we return to something within a few seconds. Imagine trying to keep a beach ball aloft.

4. This activity loses its effectiveness after a few minutes; after this the learning process for this passage has passed. After this, we are gaining little. Additionally, repetitive-stress injuries can be caused and exacerbated by over-repetition. The temptation here is to keep repeating in order to feel the satisfaction and closure of “mastering” it. This can’t be done in one session, however.

5. We can tell that our “window” has passed when we find our mind wandering; continuing to repeat after this will train us to daydream as we practice, arguably one of the worst things for our playing.

6. Use analytical powers during repetition; Notice how everything feels, and correct small errors. This deep observation will help keep our minds from drifting, and it will help make our sense of touch stronger.

7. Be honest about how much “fits” into the repetition loop, and whether it needs to be broken-down further. If the passage can’t be played well enough for repetition, it needs to be slowed down and reduced in length until a successful run is achieved.

8. Since this type of practice is, by definition, in short shifts, it is crucial to have a list of passages to practice. For me, when I am learning a lot of difficult music, I have a “grid” of all the sections I need to work on, allowing me to check stuff off every day. I even keep track of how many days I have worked on the various parts, and how much progress I have made.

Repetition is just one of three elements we will discuss in this series. In part II, we will discuss the second key to practice, reinforcement.

Question: How do you use repetition in your practice routine? Have you ever over-repeated?

  • Jay Chavez

    I think I do over repeat… And I need to break my runs into smaller parts

  • Lorenzo

    I constantly use repetition to a point where friends, family or coworkers get sick and tired of hearing me practice. I just think I give myself to my things to work on so I am ok at a lot of things but I’m only great at very few things. I need to keep myself in check.

    • Randy

      Hey Lorenzo,

      You may be doing it right…In my opinion, repetition is necessary, and is likely to be annoying to a listener. For me, I can’t practice effectively if someone is listening, because I become self-conscious about bothering them.

      Also, remember that after a few minutes, the repetition has done its job for the day, and it is time to move on. It is easy to get “sticky” and to beat one passage up.

  • jacob deaton

    I think it’s more advantageous to hear everything internally before executing it on your particular instrument. I believe that my ability to digest information has increased more by taking a phrase, singing it perfectly in rhythm and in tune, then putting it to my instrument.

    Same applies to larger situations (chords/solos). If you hear it already you can play it. The work is internal rather than external (however…if you are just starting out on your instrument it maybe in equal parts).

    Great topic!

    • Randy

      Thanks Jacob! nice point… however:

      I both agree that hearing it is crucial to playing it, and disagree that hearing can take the place of the repetition phase. While knowing how it sounds is essential to proper performance, I can “hear” all the Chopin I want, but that doesn’t mean the ol’ fingers will be able to execute it! 😉

      • Roza Akmalova

        I’m actually working on being able to play anything I hear. Provided someone has a good technique they’ll be able to play just about anything that falls within their limitations. Even Chopin.

        This will only work if they have BOTH a good technique and a good connection between what they hear and what they play.
        Some folks have excellent technique, but they rely too much on things other than pre-hearing, then this becomes their weakest point. Other folks (like myself), engage their pre-hearing a lot, but have not yet developed their technique that much, so they only go so far, playing simpler things straight away but stumbling on more difficult pieces

  • David

    Randy – great subject and series! As to reinforcement, I find that reviewing in my mind a few hours after practice helps clarify what I’m working on. Maybe it works on the declarative side while the physical practice covers the procedural side. But it seems to help me.

  • Adrian Ash

    I’m famous for over-repeating, which is why I’m not good at some things, but very good at other things. I had always chalked what some might call unnecessary repetition up to building technique and muscle memory, but I think I wasted a lot of time in the process (for reasons stated above). I have made a conscious effort over the years to change that, and have made significant progress, especially in regards to noticing “how everything feels, and correct[ing] small errors.” Still, repetition has its place, and every musician must find a balance of necessary repetition and be able to recognize unnecessary repetition. The more experienced one is with using time effectively and realizing the unpleasant fruits of wasting time, the more likely that individual is to know the difference between the two. Knowing HOW to use repetition is the art. A metronome always helps me in this regard. If I’m learning a piece (currently teaching myself banjo now), I always try to keep a steady tempo, and speeding it up invariably exposes the weakest links of the piece. These little “short shifts” are the perfect practice material. Every day of steady practice brings me one notch higher on the metronome, but I’m sure I’ll hit a wall eventually tempo-wise…

    Thanks, Randy!

    • Randy

      Seems like you have a great attitude and lots of awareness!

      I agree that speeding up the tempo is a great way to expose errors and weaknesses… There are a few others I like… In part III I brought up a few of these “tests” that can make our playing more reliable. I also believe that ultra-slow practice, counter-intuitively, can “free” your muscle memory to play fast passages.

      • Roza Akmalova

        With ultra-slow practice you can make your movements ultra-clean and get used to that feeling, then your speed improves vastly

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