Repetition without Repetition

Odin demonstrates the use of the metronome as a sleep aid.

 

I remember when my high school violin teacher first showed me how to work up a passage gradually using a metronome. I thought it was a bit magical. You started slowly and just by moving the metronome up one click at a time, you could get a passage up to tempo!

When I got to Oberlin, I was surprised to find that my violin professor wasn’t quite so keen on working up with a metronome. He thought it was a useful tool, sure, but he had some questions first: was I playing in tune with every repetition? How was my sound? Was it warm and round or harsh and scratchy? Was I thinking of the phrase? It hadn’t really occurred to me to be that careful. I just assumed that as I got more facile in the passage that my intonation and sound would improve as well.

Violinist Simon Fischer writes in Practice:

Because repetition practice is effective it can also be the most dangerous. You have to be very aware of what you want and what to avoid—and listen very carefully—to avoid strengthening mistakes.

Repetition is also a great way to get injured—sometimes in surprising ways. I got a glimmer of this danger one day in college when I had been drilling a passage with the metronome for about 45 minutes. For some reason that day, I had decided to stand with my weight pushed into my left hip and down my left leg. This wasn’t a normal way of standing for me, but it had a sort of jaunty insouciance that I liked when I saw myself in the mirror. When after 45 minutes of practicing I decided to take a break, I straightened up and felt a shooting pain in my left hip. I packed up, grimacing, hobbled out of the practice room and limped off to class. It took the rest of the afternoon for the discomfort in my hip to ease.

Awareness is essential in repetitive practice. As a young player, I usually focused my attention on what I intended to practice, not on everything that was actually happening at the same time. Whatever we repeat, we are potentially learning. When I began taking Alexander Technique lessons, I started to include a larger awareness of my body when I practiced. I realized that if I tensed my neck or rounded my shoulders while practicing, I was drilling these harmful habits just as much as the notes I was supposed to be learning.

So how to we get the benefits of repetition without succumbing to the dangers? Recently I came upon an intriguing approach advocated by Christine Carter, a clarinetist and researcher at Manhattan School of Music. She points out that one of the reasons that it’s so hard to stay aware and attentive during repetitive practice is, well, it’s dull.

We are hardwired to pay attention to change, not repetition. This hardwiring can already be observed in preverbal infants. Show a baby the same object over and over again and they will gradually stop paying attention through a process called habituation. Change the object, and the attention returns full force. The same goes for adults… The fact is, repeated information does not receive the same amount of processing as new information. And on some level, we all know this. Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged.

Carter recommends that we replace “blocked practice”—where we practice all the repetitions at once—with “random practice”—where the repetitions are sprinkled throughout the practice session.

For example, say want to practice three passages—A, B, and C—15 times each. A blocked practice schedule would look like this:

  1. A, 15 times
  2. B, 15 times    
  3. C, 15 times

In contrast, a random practice schedule would look like this:

  1. ABC
  2. BCA
  3. CAB
  4. BAC
  5. ACB
  6. CBA
  7. etc.

Each passage still gets practiced 15 times, but by alternating among passages, we make it easier to stay alert and attentive.

Different practice methods are better at different stages of learning. In Practice, Simon Fischer suggests that highly repetitive practice is most effective towards the end of the process of learning a piece. In the beginning, it’s tempting to repeat a passage we can't play over and over again. But more exploratory practice methods—designed to understand the choreography of the passage from different angles—are better at such an early stage. Only when you can play a piece well at a conscious level—really know the story you want to tell—do you risk “grooving” the piece into your system through repetition.