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Claire Allen

The Art of Conscious Repetition

July 17, 2013 at 4:26 AM

The saying goes, "Practice makes perfect." I forget which of my colleagues told me a great twist on this classic phrase: "Practice makes permanent."

Or, here's another common saying in the music world: "Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can't get it wrong."

What do all these sayings mean when you take them to your practice room? It means, as one of my students put it, that you're looking for precision.

Let's say you play a passage five times. Let's say that you're only doing it because your teacher told you to, and that you're spacing out, thinking about checking your phone for texts and what you're going to have for dinner that night. Chances are, four of those five times are sloppy. And finally, the fifth time is solid. You breathe a sigh of relief, put your fiddle down, and pick up your phone.

The next day, you go to your lesson, and you blow the passage. Your teacher says,"Why didn't you practice that spot?" "But I did!" you protest. "I played it five times every day, just like you told me. I practiced really hard!"

Yes, you did practice, but you didn't practice effectively. Do the math. If you practiced every day for seven days, you played the passage correctly 7 times and incorrectly 28 times. What do you think your brain and fingers remembered out of that experience? What's happened is that your practice has made your mistakes permanently. You play how you practice, so if you practice sloppy, that's how your playing will be, too.

Effective practicing isn't about the number of repetitions or the number of hours you put in. It's about quality, focused repetitions. There isn't a shortcut. Rather, the shortcut is to do it right, and to do it right over and over again until you can't do it wrong.

So, how to put this into practice? Pick a passage you're struggling with. Create one very specific goal. Say this goal out loud. "My goal is to play the D Major scale with whole bows and to get completely to the frog and the tip so that I really use the whole bow."

Now, find a way to monitor your goal. For something like this bow division, a mirror might be helpful. Other ways to monitor your playing are to ask a practice buddy to watch you and stop you if you don't achieve your goal, or to video yourself and watch it back.

Next, try to achieve your goal three times in a row. Here's the catch: If you do it two times in a row, and are doing really well on the third time but don't quite get all the way to the frog on the last bow? You start over again from one. As my student said, the goal is precision. Not approximation. Not pretty good. But right.

Your goal can be anything. It can be standing up tall with a flat violin. It can be having a beautiful, ringing sound on each note. It can be playing a phrase with a joyful character. It can be remembering the right bowing. It can be just playing one shift accurately. Or using vibrato on every note. Saving enough bow for all the notes in a slur. For playing from memory. ANYTHING.

That's where your creative self comes in. Your creative self is the one with the vision of the music you want to produce, with the image of the sound you're striving for in your mind's ear. Your creative self articulates your goals, and then your conscious repetitions kick in.

My friend Scott Anderson, a wonderful musician who used to be the principal clarinetist in the Honolulu Symphony, gave me some advice when I was applying for my master's degree and was struggling to stay focused. He said, "Discipline is remembering what you want."

Remember how much you love your instrument and how well you want to play. And start practicing the art of conscious repetition. I'd love to hear ways of how others make repetition effective in their practicing.


From Jayanthi Joseph
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 3:50 PM
Your post is very helpful.

One thing I do is practice a problem spot (shift, bowing pattern etc.) until I consistently get it right and then move on to something else. After some time has passed I go back to the initial problem and play it through again to see whether my work 'stuck'. If it didn't, repeat the process until it does. :)

From Jayanthi Joseph
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 3:53 PM
But don't leave it at that! Check up on it once in a while so that you don't forget it. Chances are, if you had trouble with it in the beginning, you'll have trouble with it again if you pay less attention to it after you've 'taken care' of it. I know that my fingers forget problem spots before they forget other sections...
From Anna Harris
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 4:58 PM
This reminded me of a video by Itzhak Perlman (link below), definitely very helpful advice from both of you! Thanks!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3xEHigWShM
From Lloyd Mills
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 8:51 PM
Outstanding post!
I would like to add another variation:"Perfect practice makes perfect!"
I sometimes forget myself that when practicing, it requires a specific mindfulness to get it right. And then skillful repetition to keep it right. Thank you for this excellent reminder!
From Paul Deck
Posted on July 18, 2013 at 3:52 PM
Maybe we just need to dump the slogans and remind ourselves to set actual goals for our work. The point is well taken that one cannot expect to play a piece largely free of errors until each trouble spot has been perfected to the point where it can be played correctly many times in a row. If there are 20 trouble spots in a piece and each trouble spot is perfected only to an 80% success rate, then the statistical chance of playing the piece through with each trouble spot coming out correct is about 1 in 100. That's why I think it is good to *work on* pieces that are a little above your skill level, but you should *perform* pieces that are well within your grasp.

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