When I first posted the anecdote below, I was both acknowledging and bemoaning students’ favorite practice strategy: Repetition.

Lately (as in June 2016), however, I have been feeling more sympathetic towards this approach to practicing and indeed wondering if sometimes we don’t take into consideration just how important the act of repetition might be in solidifying our work. As I find myself saying to students a lot these days, some musical passages take ten reps to learn, some take ten thousand.

But repetition without attention is problematic for sure. The following first appeared on April 3rd, 2011.

***

It is not hard to present a list of practicing techniques, what’s difficult is to figure out where to begin the list. Thinking this over, I decided to start where our students begin if we do not intervene: they simply repeat mindlessly.

I know this, because when I ask, they tell me. Sometimes they tell me this sheepishly, knowing that they should have done better. Sometimes they reveal this practice strategy quite proudly.

Take this encounter, for example:

Yesterday, Jake played his assigned little Mozart minuet, which had more mistakes in it than not. My first question is a predictable one.

“So, how did you practice this?”

“Well, now I am thinking that this wasn’t such a good idea, but I just played it a lot of times.”

Jake at least has enough wherewithal to know that I’m not going to like this answer. I’m somewhat gratified to hear this recognition, but still, given the poor performance I have just heard, it would have been nice if this self-reflection could have come earlier in the week.

This practice approach is hardly unusual, and if you think your students aren’t just “playing it a lot of times” then you are probably deceiving yourself. In fact, several studies have shown that researchers examining student practice strategies have found that overwhelmingly the most popular strategy among student musicians was repetition.

It’s time to change that.

But change is hard, because if I am honest with myself, I resort to the good old “play it a lot of times” strategy myself from time to time instead of breaking down the music more intentionally and creatively. Repetition has its place, certainly. The key is noticing when repetition isn’t markedly improving the situation.

So. We begin our list with a nod to the power and temptation that repetition has in our practice routines and the challenge to notice whether or not it is working.

Sometimes repetition works wonders for sure. But often, as Jake would say, “it wasn’t such a good idea.”