Practical Practice Tips: Successful Repetition

I think that a lot of people, and especially critics of the “Suzuki” method get confused about learning by rote and repetition. The definition that the critics usually assign to rote is repeating something that you’ve heard ad nauseum. “Parroting” and “copying” are also common synonyms. And they are usually talking about rote in connection with the logically programmed delay in learning to read music. It’s almost as if they’re saying that musicians can’t really play correctly unless and until they can read music. But I’ll talk more about that in another post. Repetition is the mode of achieving results with focused, active listening. My experience is that repeating an action multiple times doesn’t really accomplish anything except to waste a huge amount of time. Even listening without paying attention is a waste of time, no matter how much a student listens. Listening is vitally important, to be sure, but not everything can be learned by passive listening. The point is to make what you’re working on better, so the kind of repetition you want to do is the kind that improves with each attempt. This improvement comes through listening to what you’re doing and asking questions.

The asking questions part is directly related to how much you listen to the reference recordings, at least until you have a really good understanding of how your playing works. It is unreasonable to expect a three-year-old to read music — he’s just getting command of the alphabet at that age, and doesn’t really understand that The ABC Song is more than just a song he can sing that everyone oohs and ahs and claps when he finishes. Said kid certainly didn’t learn The ABC Song by reading it out of a book — somebody sang it to him and he picked it up by listening. We don’t knock three-year-olds for learning anything else by imitating someone else, so why do we have a problem with kids learning to play musical instruments that way? That is my $100,000 question.

If a violin student chooses not to listen to the reference recording, how does he know if his efforts are achieving anything? If he doesn’t know what the “standard” is, what he’s using as a measuring stick? In the case of The ABC Song, for some kids the reference or “standard” is Mom’s voice; for others, children’s TV provides the standard. He works on it, comparing it to the “standard” in his own way, until he gets it. Until the standard is absolutely stuck in long-term memory, it needs to be heard repeatedly if the intent is to learn. When a student begins to practice this way, the first questions that should be asked (especially for beginners) are related to posture. Is the left hand properly and comfortably positioned? Are the fingers striking the string in the correct location — in relation to the string itself and in relation to the mechanics of the hand?

If all the posture issues are non-issues, move on to the “was it better” line of questioning. Relate the question specifically to what is being worked on, but also in more general terms. For example, did what was played sound better in general: was in overall more in tune, better tone, straighter bow, etc? More specifically, if a student is working on in-tune playing, was the offending note closer to what it’s supposed to sound like? Does he know exactly where it should be? Where exactly is the finger supposed to land? Did he adjust it by ear (preferable) or did he look at his finger? Can he hit the pitch accurately if he closes his eyes or stares at a spot on the wall? How far does the pitch need to be adjusted to make it correct? Are there other fingers that could help him measure the distance? Would it help to listen to the recording a few times to see how his progress is going? Would it help to record him, so he can hear what he’s doing from an objective source?

Older students might also find it helpful and fun to use “journalistic questioning”: what, where, when, why, and how? This method will work for nailing down a problem, as well as fo finding possible solutions. As an example of this line of questioning: what happened? — exactly what is the mistake or problem? Is it a pitch that is out of tune? Or a bow that has learned the run to opposite direction from what it’s supposed to? Where does it occur? — At a specific point in the music? Does it happen right after the preceding motion or set of pitches? When does it happen? — All the time? Once in a while? Every third or fourth time? Only when you’re not holding your violin tall? Why did it happen? Do you know, or is it something you need to pay more attention to in order to discover the reason? And finally, how did it happen? Was it because you weren’t paying attention, not listening enough, etc.?

In order to make repetition fruitful, it pays to ask a lot of questions and keep asking them until you get it right. But don’t become obsessive to the point of spending too much time on that one thing. Do a little at a time over the course of several days. I like to use a timer when I’m working on something that requires a lot of concentration or a lot of nit-picky work, and it keeps me from getting side-tracked or neglectful of other work I need to do. It’s hard to argue with a timer. And one final thing to remember: the questioning process gets easier and becomes more streamlined the more you do it and the more your muscles learn about playing.

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