With many thanks to my colleague, Professor James Lyon.
By: James Lyon Professor of Music in Violin Penn State University
Weʼve all heard the humorous saying that the way to Carnegie Hall is “Practice, practice, practice!” While the context of this familiar adage is a joke, imbedded in it is the implication that the more repetitions we perform, the better the chance one has of being successful. It only seems logical that if ten repetitions are good, a hundred must be ten times as good, right? Yet, one does not have to be a genius to find the idea of “endless” repetition mind-numbing, with the potential result being practice sessions which lack concentration and are minimally productive. Experienced performers and teachers know that in reality the recipe for mastery of oneʼs instrument includes developing the discipline required to practice regularly for extended periods of time and cultivating the ability to maintain a high degree of focus throughout these sessions.
The Four Stages of Learning: The Purpose of Repetition
In the field of psychology there is a widely-held belief that skill mastery involves four stages of learning: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. One begins with a complete lack of awareness or understanding of oneʼs inability to perform a given task and begins to “wake up” when this inability is perceived, though one has not yet demonstrated any desire to correct the deficit. Next, one begins to be able to perform the selected task, but it requires great concentration to do so. Eventually, one can perform the task easily without great focus - it has become “second nature.” The purpose of repetition is to help us reach this fourth stage, where performing the given task is not only possible, but is easy.
Limited Repetitions: Unlimited Success
Setting realistic parameters for the repetitions so necessary in skill mastery can help us practice more mindfully, balancing the need for mental stimulation with movement reiteration. By limiting the number of times we practice a given shift, pattern, or sequence each repetition becomes precious and we automatically focus our energies and concentration more effectively. Call to mind a circumstance which caused you to savor something: perhaps it was the last few drops of your morning coffee before you headed to work in the morning or
perhaps it was the final warming rays of sunshine before a cold winterʼs evening. Itʼs the same coffee and the same sun which you had been enjoying before, but the awareness of the experience being limited and almost over stimulates your senses to a higher level of sensitivity. Compare your reaction to the following two statements:
1. You must repeat that passage over and over until you get it right.
2. You may only repeat that passage ten times before you move on to something else.
Statement number one is the musical equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet: quantity not quality becomes the emphasis. But statement number two is like eating at a gourmet restaurant - the portions are smaller and more thoughtfully prepared, stimulating you to savor the quality of each bite. If I may only repeat the passage ten times before moving on to something else, then each repetition really counts - just messing it up twice gives me a top possible score of 80%. Even the trickiest passage will respond well to this methodology - remember, no one said you cannot return to it later in your practice.
The Zen Master at Practice
The act of playing a string instrument involves processing volumes of sensory data that we continuously generate. Most peopleʼs priorities seem to involve processing visual and auditory data first, though even doing these well remains a constant challenge. But, in my experience, woefully few students seem to be at all aware of how it feels to play their instrument, leading to all kinds of tension issues. This common shortcoming, though, can be a segue to another great way to make doing repetitions interesting: by “being” a different part of the physical act youʼre working on each time. For instance, if you are practicing a same finger shift you could “be” the finger youʼre shifting on, you could “be” your nicely relaxed left thumb, you could “be” your elbow, which swivels out and around during the shift, you could even “be” your bow arm, which needs to work in synergy with your left hand during the shift. In working on a difficult string crossing you could take turns “being” each of the fingers of your right hand (including the pivotally important thumb), isolating the key places where the balance is predominantly focused towards each. (This could even lead to inserting bow fingerings, one of my favorite aids for achieving graceful balance in the bow arm and cultivating cooperation amongst the fingers of the bow arm.)
Your First World Tour
Another great way to make each repetition count is to take your practice passage on a virtual tour of the worldʼs great concert halls - in your mind, of course. Students of all ages respond well to this fantasy, even if the practice spot is no
more than the two notes involved in a tricky shift. Play it at Carnegie Hall in New York City, next stop Bostonʼs Jordan Hall, cross the Atlantic and try out Londonʼs Royal Albert Hall, then on to the Leipzig Gewandhaus - the possibilities are nearly endless! The implication, of course, is that each repetition REALLY counts, as you are performing, not practicing in the worldʼs great concert halls. A variation on this theme could include playing the passage in each room in your house, with each room being a different performance and venue. You could even dress-up if you want to get dramatic about it, but keep the emphasis on the playing, not on the fashion statement you are trying to make!
In the end, skill acquisition requires both repetition and focused mental concentration. But as the ideas above should suggest, repetitions do not have to be boring nor do they have to be performed consecutively. Performing several small groups of repetitions scattered throughout a practice session may yield better results than doing them all in a row. These ideas are only the tip of the iceberg - I hope they will serve as a catalyst for you to develop your own ideas on how to do mindful repetitions. Happy practicing!
copyright 2009, James Lyon