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Laurie's Violin School: Why Repetition Gets a Bad Rap

Laurie Niles

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Published: September 1, 2014 at 5:09 PM [UTC]

Dear friends, I'm starting a new Monday series called "Laurie's Violin School," which will focus on various aspects of learning and teaching the violin, drawing on my 20 years of experience teaching and extensive teacher training (Suzuki Book 1-10 units, various other training and ongoing quest for new ideas!) I plan to cover a wide range of topics, such as practice tips, teaching ideas and philosophies, helpful aides, repertoire, and maybe even some videos. I welcome your input and suggestions!

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Sometimes repetition gets a bad rap: "Don't just do mindless repetition!"

But repetition is one of our most effective tools, when practiced correctly. I would go farther: repetition is absolutely essential for beginners building skill and for players of any level learning new repertoire, especially the tricky parts. In fact, the concept is inherent in the world "practice" -- here's one definition: "repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it."


So what's the problem with repetition? My son's piano teacher put it well: "Practice doesn't make perfect -- Perfect practice makes perfect!" No pressure there!

Her point: What you practice is what you write to your brain and what you pattern for your fingers. If you practice sloppily, with bad position, wrong notes and disconnection from the music, you will learn sloppy playing, bad position, wrong notes and robotic playing.

The idea of "perfect practice" is a little confusing, though. Let's say you have a passage that you need to practice: Obviously, you can't play it "perfectly" at the moment -- that is why you are practicing it. So how are you supposed to play it "perfectly"?

Let's just acknowledge that "perfect" is a stressful word; but I'm going to define it for our purposes in the following way: Playing something "perfectly" means playing it with the correct notes, with the correct rhythms, with the correct fingerings and bowings, at the correct speed, with the correct dynamics, and the with the kind of energy with which you wish to ultimately perform it.

Chances are, these can't all come together all at once. But as you work your repetitions, you must keep in mind that your ultimate goal has all these elements, and that every one of them must be included, as your growing ability allows you to include them.

How to go about it? The repetition begins only after you have achieved a goal. Sometimes you are simply trying to string two or three notes together correctly. Once you can do it, repeat it correctly ten times. Then go deeper: perhaps you work on correct rhythm, or bringing it up to speed. Maybe the passage has a crescendo; work out how to play those correct notes with a crescendo, then repeat when you like what you hear.

Let's say your passage is really beginning to sound like something, you can execute the notes correctly, in time, with dynamics. Have you animated the passage? Are you playing it as if you are in front of other people, trying to speak to them with this music? That needs repetition as well. If you add that energy only in performance, it's easy to overdo it and mess up. Or, it's easy to just never add it at all and play like a robot.

Done correctly, repetition is not dangerous; it will not turn you into a robotic drone. The problems occur when one neglects to dig deeper, when repetition does indeed become "mindless," done without attention to detail and care for the ultimate outcome.

So repetition requires concentration. If you begin to stare vacantly and forget you are playing the violin, then it's time to take a break or stop for the day.

But do cultivate that ability to concentrate repeatedly. Ten times correctly gets the job done quite well. For students, I like to stand up dominos with each correct repetition and let them knock them down at the end. I don't count the incorrect ones. For my own practice, I usually just move the dominos back and forth across the desk, so I know when I've done ten. If you are really concentrating on playing, it's sometimes difficult to keep track of the number of repetitions. Writing tallies on a sheet works, too. Or an abacus! But keeping track, I've found, makes me do more repetitions. Left on my own, I'd probably do about three, rather than 10!

So do your repetitions and do them correctly. It works wonders!

From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 3, 2014 at 1:35 AM
I've taught many jocks and dancers over the years. You never have to convince these students the value of quality, focused repetition!
From Millie Bartlett
Posted on September 3, 2014 at 2:04 AM
I have no difficulty agreeing with the need for proper focused repetitive work. It is indeed one of the cornerstones to learning a very difficult instrument. It's the robotics I have a slight issue with. As an adult learner, years ago I began with my daily practice and as my pieces came together more, I practiced in sections to improve, adding colour and animation as I grew more confident. Then, inevitably, during my weekly lessons the teacher would pick apart all that I had diligently practiced through repetition, because my colour and animation was not the way she wanted it played. She would replace it with her version of 'the right way'. Sometimes I was close, other times way off. So in the end I would forgo the 'colour and animation' of personal input and wait to be told how it should be played, to save time. Therefore the robotic approach was born. Sad but true.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 3, 2014 at 4:22 AM
That's interesting, Millie. Have you found a way out of that, a way to put your own animation into your playing?
Posted on September 3, 2014 at 8:14 AM
My eight year old son is learning the violin and is preparing for Grade 1 Trinity. I also attend his Suzuki classes. I loved some of the lines you have written about repitition and it will really help me to explain to him how to practice. Thanks Jayashree Gopalakrishnan, Mumbai, India
From Charles Cook
Posted on September 3, 2014 at 8:22 AM
'Perfect practice' is a probably a poor choice of words, and it's near impossible to learn something new without mistakes. The important part is trying and students should be rewarded more for 'trying' than for playing 'perfect'.

I think the concept of 'muscle memory' is dangerous, which is to practice something over and over again and at the end of practice it will be learned or greatly improved. I also call muscle memory techniques forced practice or force learning. The concept of muscle memory doesn't take into consideration that the minds working memory requires processing time.
The goal in a practice session isn't to learn something completely, but to improve something slightly: something is learnt only after the mind processes the information. The goal isn't to repeat something over and over again perfectly, but to repeat something a certain amount of times, usually 3-6 times, and 'try' to play it as well as you can, analyze mistakes, and then let the mind process the information. Processing time for something new can be 2-4hrs, and after you have learned something and you are working on increasing speed and accuracy the processing time can be as little as 20 min.
Over repeating something without letting the mind process the information is a recipe for disaster. The person is more likely to learn more mistakes, get frustrated, impatient, have a forced unnatural sound, etc...

When it comes to learning: fast is forced and slow is natural.

Posted on September 3, 2014 at 8:59 AM
I so agree that repetition begins only after you have achieved a goal. Unfortunately this is where most of us stop.

The other thing that bothers me is that we often set too many goals at a time. When our focus is divided, it evaporates very quickly. Especially when we are working with children, the simpler we make the goal, the quicker it is internalised.

My solution is to make a game of it, in order to maximise the number of times the child drops into an optimum learning state. This actually increases our ability to focus.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 3, 2014 at 6:49 PM
Charles, we probably mostly agree. "Accurate" might be a better description than "perfect." You are absolutely right, that nothing should be forced or rushed. But after you have accomplished some degree of accuracy, even if it's just a tiny bit, then repetition can help reinforce the skill. Just repeating something, without that work to make it accurate, is problematic.

The goal of "trying" is a little vague for me; one can almost always accomplish some specific, accurate feat. But then yes, once it's accomplished, the next step may be best left until tomorrow. Practicing past the point of mental exhaustion is no good, I agree!

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