From the Video Series, Parents as Partners Online 2011

Hi, my name is Sue Baer. Thank you for joining me today on this session, addressing The Value of Repetition.

I believe that every child is capable of playing their instrument at a very high level. If you have been involved with the Suzuki method at all, I’m sure you have seen evidence that this is true. Whether that ability is developed, is largely dependent on how much time is put into nurturing that ability and how efficiently that time is used.

The Suzuki philosophy is based on the idea that we learn to play a musical instrument in the same manner in which we learn language. A child learns a word by hearing adults around him repeating that word in conversation. Once the child utters that word for the first time, it’s repeated over and over again. With each repetition, it’s spoken with more clarity and confidence, until it can be used in a phrase, then a sentence, and then a complete conversation. Later the child will conjugate it and use it in various tenses. Then the child will learn to recognize that word in written form and subsequently write that word. The child will eventually be an expert in interpreting that word and using it in various contexts. The same is true in music. Each new concept is heard in the context of the entire piece several times every day by listening to the CD. It’s explored in the lesson and then reinforced through repetition at home.

Suzuki said, “Ability equals knowledge plus 10,000 times.” This means that when you leave your lesson, you have the skill. The repetitions at home help you master the skill. Only after complete mastery will you be able to use the skill in a context of a phrase or a complete piece. If the concept is mastered thoroughly, one can apply it in the context of another piece, or use it as a foundation for developing a similar but more difficult concept.

Mastery of skills at every level is essential. It’s like erecting a building. If corners are cut at any point in the building process, it compromises the soundness of the entire structure. This is why it takes so long to learn Twinkle. We want to establish a really strong foundation for progressively more difficult skills.

In his 2009 book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle cites recent research that proves Dr. Suzuki’s assertions about repetitions to be true. In the brain, each time a task is performed, the nerve pathways that converge to perform that task are wrapped in a layer of something called myelin. Each wrapping of myelin allows that specific task to be performed faster and with greater ease. However, just mindlessly repeating the task many times is not sufficient. You must push yourself to the edge of your ability, making a systematic effort to improve at every step.

In theory, I’m sure that everyone can agree that repetition leads to mastery. The problem is that doing 20 or 50 or 100 or 10,000 repetitions can be tedious. It goes against our creative and expressive natures to behave like factory workers plugging away at the same part over and over and over again. How can we possibly be expected to abide by such drudgery day after day?

My goal today is to explore some ways that might make repetition easier and more fun, but still effective.

Let’s imagine that a student has been assigned by their teacher to learn a passage from a new piece. After muddling through it once, you realize there are several problems to address: a missed note, some out of tune notes, an inaccurate rhythm, a slipped tone, a missing crescendo, a curious fingering. It can be quite overwhelming to try to correct everything as the whole passage is repeated.

It’s much better to take a more systematic approach to mastering the passage by dividing small practice units that address only one problem at a time. In fact, you’ll find that the most effective practice units don’t sound very much like the piece from which they were taken.

Sometimes you’ll find that even if you limit your repetitions to small units, there are still multiple issues to deal with. For example, you might run into a spot that is out of tune and rhythmically unstable. In this situation, we can design a practice until that deals with one issue at a time. We will start with intonation. In order to focus on the precise intonation of each note, I’ll eliminate rhythmic and bowing issues and I’ll play legato, so I have ample time to assess each note. By repeating this passage many times, I’ll train my fingers to fall in the same place every time I play this passage, and any similar passage I might encounter in the future. I’ll also train my ear to listen more keenly, becoming more and more sensitive to my new pitch variations. I’ll memorize the passage.

Once it’s in tune for several repetitions in a row, I will push myself to the edge of my ability by gradually increasing the speed. The myelin is getting thicker, and the notes are getting easier.

I could also devise a practice unit to address the bowing issue by eliminating other factors and bowing on a single pitch.

I could apply more layers of myelin and test my mastery of this bowing by applying it to a piece I already know, like Twinkle.

I can then follow the same procedure to address the rhythm of the passage.

I can address the string crossing by adding that concept to the previous exercise.

There. I’ve devised four different practice units to deal with four issues in this short passage. Now I’m ready to put it all together. This passage is accurate. After I’ve repeated this series of exercises for several days, it will be solid. In a few weeks, it will be easy. I’ll be ready to play it in group. After I’ve reviewed the entire piece for several weeks or months, I might have mastered it to the level it will be ready to be played on a solo recital.

You’ll find that all practice units are not created equal. Have you heard the adage, “Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” The degree of difficulty of the practice until will determine if you need 1,000 or 10,000 repetitions to get it to the point where you can’t get it wrong. Remember, you don’t have to do them all in one day. Your repetitions will actually be more effective if you spread them over time. Repetition in itself is not going to solve all of your problems. After all, if a unit is repeated several time incorrectly or with poor technique, then you’ve only succeeded in reinforcing poor technique. That’s why we need to examine the importance of evaluating and assessing the quality of each repetition. The best practice until are those where the assessment can be done by answering a yes or no question. For example, was the F# in tune? Were the 8th notes even? Was the bowing correct? Was the shift to the new position inaudible? Did the bow stay on the highway? Did your pinky stay curved?

So with this practice unit design, many repetitions can be accomplished in a short amount of time with brief and frequent feedback. Referring back to our Witches Dance example, is our d# high enough? If it turns out that your “no” answers are more frequent than your “yes” answers, then you probably need to simplify the practice unit, maybe by using fewer notes.

It’s a good idea to give your child the responsibility for evaluating each repetition. This will help him, or her pay more attention to correctly executing the task and help them feel more invested in the activity. It will also help you determine if the child has a clear understanding of the concept.

Finally, establishing a habit of practicing like this will give the child a sense of autonomy and the confidence to eventually practice independently.

I’d like to give you some ideas on how you can accomplish repetitions in a fun matter. Feel free to alter the rules to these games to make the complication factor and the number of repetitions suitable to the age and attention span of your own child.

One thing you can do is roll dice. You can choose the number of dice you roll, and add up the number of dots. I always root for the highest number possible. You can also draw from a deck of cards to determine the number of repetitions. You can remove all of the small numbers from the deck, or you can make the small numbers special. For example, Aces are 20 points, or if you draw a deuce, you can add the next two draws together, if you draw a three you can triple the next draw. You can use cups and marbles or some kind of marker and start with 8 or more marbles in one cup, and if the answer to your question is yes, then you can take one out and put it in the other cup, if the answer is no, the marble goes in the original cup.

Another thing you can do is put lines on the floor. I like to use straws. For each repetition, they get to move forward a line, and for each incorrect, they go back a line. If you want to make it really touch, then if they have an incorrect repetition, they have to go back to the beginning again.

I hope these give you some ideas on how to incorporate unit repetition into your daily practice. I’m certain you will notice an improvement in the speed with which your child learns a piece as well as an improvement in quality and confidence.

I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from Aristotle. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.”

Happy practicing, happy practicing, happy practicing!