Recently I overheard someone practising in an institutional practice room (OK, perhaps I was eavesdropping a bit) and had to smile at what was going on in there. It was the very end of Ravel’s Sonatine, where the left hand is called upon to make a daredevil leap over the right hand, and land on two black notes at the top of the keyboard. There are several intelligent ways to practise this jump to increase the chances of getting it right, but what I heard was quite a number of repetitions in a row, played back to back with absolutely no reflection time in between the repetitions. The student got it “wrong” (meaning it was inaccurate, uncomfortable or she felt it was somehow missing something) many times in succession and then after all this did it to her satisfaction just once – and left it. Had she managed to refine the movements during all these inaccurate repetitions to reach a desired result, now permanently on tap, or had she practised getting it wrong nine times in a row and correct on the tenth attempt? If the latter, the chances of getting it right on the first attempt in performance would be 1 in 10 – not favourable odds.

There is no doubt that to refine complex motor skills required in such a passage, a certain amount of repetition is necessary. Yet repetition is a double-edged sword, since whatever we repeat we tend to ingrain (errors and all). In order that each repetition takes us closer to our desired result, that which we see on the page and that which we hold in our imagination, the secret is to take time for reflection in between each and every repetition so that you have a crystal-clear goal for what you intend to happen when you play the passage again, which includes what you need to do differently from the last repetition.

The Feedback Loop

The focus of a recent post was on developing concentration in order to use the feedback loop in day-day practice. Before we repeat something, we need to pause a while and think what it is we aim to achieve in the repetition. Hear it vividly in our imagination, and mentally rehearse the passage before we put our hands back on the keyboard (this part of the process is extremely difficult to commit to, and takes a lot of concentration).

Think ten times and play once (Franz Liszt)

The feedback loop helps us to get better at focussing before we play or practise anything. We have a tangible reason to repeat something, and we hold that thought in our consciousness before we play and as we play. Afterwards we learn to reflect on what we did, and to ask ourselves if our result matched our intentions.

Diagnosing the results of our practice is a vital element – we’re not going to get very far if we can’t figure out whether what we did hit the spot or not. If something isn’t going right, we need to have some idea of how we are going to fix it. This is why we spend a few moments reflecting on our result before we repeat. Write out or speak these reflections if this helps – sometimes just thinking about it causes us to go blank, or round and round in circles. You might also use a practice diary for this purpose – all you need is a notebook you keep by the piano for ideas, reflections, plans, questions, and so on.

Habituation

As I mentioned, repetition is not without its drawbacks. Have you noticed that, after a certain amount of repetition, the passage seems to be getting worse rather than better? This is because of a phenomenon called habituation. Habituation is defined as a decrease in responsiveness resulting from the repeated presentation of an eliciting stimulus – we learn not to respond to a stimulus that is presented repeatedly without change. With successive repetitions of the same passage, the practiser becomes progressively less responsive to the stimulus. The brain says “been there, done that” and careless mistakes creep in.

So how many repetitions do we need? It is not possible to be proscriptive since we are all different. Enough to keep fully engaged but not so many that our mind starts to wander. I once asked a very famous teacher what his thoughts were on practising a passage in different rhythms. He said it can be very useful when we need to repeat something a number of times as a way of keeping engaged. Very good point!

The trick with repetitions is to focus the mind on something very specific, varying the focus with each repetition. If you are refining a tricky spot in a piece you have already learned, your brain should be consuming a lot of energy as you concentrate on what is necessary to edge the passage closer to where it needs to be, rather than simply hacking away at it hoping it will eventually yield (this requires far less concentration). If you are learning notes, here are a few ways to manage repetition without habituating. I am sure you’ll find many more:

  • Change the rhythm (dotted, other rhythmic groups, etc.)
  • Change the speed
  • Change the dynamics
  • Change the touch (practise a legato passage staccato)
  • Focus on patterns in the music that go up, and on the next repetition focus on what comes down
  • Shift the tonal balance (play one hand louder than the other, bring out an inner part, or emphasise the bass line).
  • Transpose, even if very slowly
  • Play one hand, miming the other hand on the surface of the keys
  • Play one bar at the tempo and the next bar twice as slowly (or twice as fast!).

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