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Is repetitive practice a good or a bad thing?

A prolonged, sickening and monotonous repetition of a section of music or the legitimate means of mastering a difficult passage? Joseph O'Doherty weighs up the two sides.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Should repetitive practice be abolished or should it be retained in pupils' home practice? One cannot not answer these questions properly unless it is clearly understood what exactly is meant by 'repetitive practice'? Does it mean going over a difficult section of music a few times (as we all do) to get it right? Or does it mean a prolonged, sickening and monotonous repetition of a motif, a bar, or short section of music?

If one wants to be absolutely literal, then any repetition of anything from twice onwards would be repetitive practice, but the more sensible usage of the term implies too much, or extreme repetition, causing monotony, mental fatigue and other unpleasant results. It would also imply using this type of practice at the wrong time, and with the wrong material.

It simply would not be logical, of course, to deny that some degree of repetitive practice is necessary, otherwise we should never have learned our arithmetic tables at school, or our scales on the violin. Let us now consider what is good in repetitive practice and what is bad, also when it should be used or applied, and when should it be avoided?

This type of practice will always be justified and necessary to some degree in the following:
(1) The acquiring of some new and perhaps difficult technical resource
(2) A new scale or arpeggio
(3) The correction of a wrong habit, or stubborn fault

The idea is to make the particular correct action required, become, by means of repetition, automatic. In other words, to develop the action or sequence, or whatever it is, to the point where it can be done without concentration. Done with direct thought, so that the mind can be free to pursue other things, such as continuity of reading, interpretation, or expression.

It must be remembered that it is a fact of psychology, that the human mind can only concentrate fully on one new entity at a time. Under these circumstances, therefore (provided it is used in the right way) a degree of repetitive practice is both necessary and beneficial.

When should it not be used? In answer to that I would say that its principal misuse is in trying to substitute it for experience and ability. Most of us are tempted, at one time or another, to use this form of practice when tackling some piece of music that is too hard for us, taking it bar by bar, or section by section, and pounding away hundreds (or perhaps even thousands) of times, in the hope of learning some piece to which we have taken a fancy, but is really beyond our general technical ability. We try to master it by the excessive repetitional practice of sections.

There are so many dangerous consequences to this that it would take too long to cover everything. A few bad results are as follows:
(1) Player's cramp, muscular stiffness, even in some extreme cases rheumatism in the hands or arms
(2) A growing distaste of the music because of the monotony of practice, and over familiarity with each section
(3) This kind of practice, if persisted in, can lead to loss of mental control of the fingers: suppose someone repeats a bar hundreds or thousands of times, the action of the fingers in playing the bar would become automatic, and the whole progressive action would become fossilised in the mind and reflexes, leading the player to revert to that pattern when confronted with similar phrases.

Another danger is in the isolation of a section, from the rest of the music, denying the mind the experience of continuity. To put it simply, what you practice most you are inclined to do at most times. If you always start at the same note, and end on the same note, in repetitional practice, you will in all probability be inclined to have hesitations at these two points at subsequent attempts to play the piece as a whole. There will be a halt immediately before the section, and immediately after the section. Why? Because that was the way it was practised.

If ever repetitive practice becomes necessary, it is advisable to keep starting at different notes, half, whole or two bars back from, and continuing beyond the section. Of course, only prolonged R.P. can do the damage just mentioned, and as this is usually indulged in when tackling too hard a piece, the moral is, of course, that we must never try to learn a piece of music (no matter how much we may like it) that is beyond our standard.

Now we come to those occasions when some degree of R.P. is necessary. The modern idea is to reduce the number of repetitions to a minimum, and to avoid too much monotony. The latter can be done by first of all spreading the repetitions over a period of days, instead of attempting to do it all in one 'sitting'. Secondly, even during one practice much of the monotony can be avoided by doing some of the concentrated practice at the beginning, some about the middle of, and some at the end of our practice period. In between times something different can be practised.

The number of repetitions necessary can be considerably reduced by the following, methods:
(1) Always use full concentration of the mind, and to this end careful consideration must be given to the speed. If the speed is too fast in the learning stages, concentration of the mind is virtually impossible. It is like taking a photograph of a house from a very fast moving car. Because of this psychological fact it is possible to put in a very considerable amount of practice and not be any better. Practising at a speed beyond our ability is like flogging a dead horse, and makes continuity impossible. Never practise at a speed beyond which you have complete control.
(2) Full observation of the nature of the difficulty, and its remedy. Also a full examination of the basic technical action. Observation can play an important role in reducing much repetition.  The more the mind is used in practice the less it will be necessary to use physical repetition.

Where repetitive practice is often necessary is in the correction of a fault. If the fault is derived from a wrong initial conception (falling into error at the start) it is going to be a formidable task to eradicate it. This is surely one good example where prevention is better than cure. This prevention of initial faults can be helped considerably if something already known and established in the mind is used to help remember and link up something new and unknown.

This is no new trick of psychology. This resource was known in our grandparents' time, the only difference is they called it simply common sense, instead of some fancy psychological name. Most readers will remember how they were helped to remember the names of the line notes and space notes on the stave by the use of phrases such as 'Every good boy deserves favour', 'F.A.C.E, spells face', 'Good boys don't frighten animals' (bass clef), 'All cows eat grass', ete, etc.

The same method can be used in many different ways to ensure the correct initial impression of rhythm. For instance, when confronted with a triplet followed by a duplet most children tend to play the last two notes either too slow or too quick, and once they get into the wrong habit it's a very difficult job to do it correctly. Much corrective work could be saved here by the use of a suitable phrase for rhythmic purposes, keeping in mind the fact that certain phrases have a general and standard rhythm.

For the 'triplet and two' example one phrase to suit would be 'Marian riding'. Get the pupil to say over the phrase a few times with the correct rhythm, then to play the notes on the piano and say the words at the same time, getting the notes into the time and accent of the words.

To summarise, therefore, there is no reason why a student shouldn't play over a difficult passage a few times to make it easier. However, all things considered, there is no longer any real reason to indulge in long, monotonous repetitive practice, and even the moderate repetition that is needed can be reduced to a minimum by means of using good psychological principals: the more you observe, the less you repeat.

This article was published in The Strad's August 1966 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here

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