Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Art of Repetition

I recently saw the movie "Groundhog Day" (one of my favorites) for probably the 50th time. In the movie, Bill Murray plays a cynical, self - centered reporter who repeatedly wakes up to the same day over and over again encountering the same situations and people. Once he realizes what is happening, he first fights against the situation, then manipulates it, and then finally comes to embrace it. By the end of the movie, he has transformed himself - and by doing so, transforms his situation. Although it is a comedy, the spiritual and psychological ramifications of this message are potent.

In life, we cannot relive the same day repeatedly - but as musicians, we enter into the same musical situations repeatedly through the the art of repetition. Taking a phrase, a passage, or a full piece and playing it over and over again is absolutely necessary for memory, technique, understanding, endurance, listening, etc. However, the one aspect of repetition which is most often overlooked is how we feel when we repeat. By being conscious about how we want to feel during each repetition, we can progress much faster.

For example, a few days ago I taught someone who was having difficulty with a fast passage and was explaining to me how he had been "drilling and drilling this bit, but it doesn't seem to get any better". We checked fingering, preparation, etc. Everything seemed to be fine. I then asked him to play the passage for me a few times. Sure enough, each time he played it, I could tell that he was feeling like he couldn't do it. He kept repeating the situation with the same mindset - and therefore getting similar results.

I then asked him to take a little time, breathe, relax, sit up straight, and think about how it would feel to be fully confident when playing the passage. Feel confident and stay focused on that feeling while playing. Now we began to repeat again. The first few repeats were no different than before, but this time instead of reacting to the mistakes, I asked him to keep refocusing on the feeling of confidence before and during the passage. Sometimes I would just tell him to say "this is easy" and imagine what it would feel like to be a player who had that kind of belief. Each time he would make a mistake, we would reset the feeling of confidence and repeat again.

Now this might seem like fantasy, but after about 6 or 7 repeats, he began to play the passage more accurately and fluidly. His body started to relax, his concentration increased, and although we were focusing on simply getting the passage accurate, even his tone and rhythm improved. At times, he would slip back to the old way (mental habits are hard to break) but the feeling of confidence or ease has to be practiced like anything else for it to take root. Awareness is key here, because it's so easy to do and not feel. Feeling is often totally overlooked, but I'm finding that it has to be practiced hand in hand with doing. One of the best questions you can ask when you are practicing is "how am I feeling?" and then "how do I want to feel?". Observe this as often as you can when you are working and keep refocusing on the feelings you want - practice having them now.

As in "Groundhog Day", as we change how we feel towards a situation, that situation over time begins to change. By practicing the feelings we want when we play, we gradually change ourselves - which has to change our playing for the better. This is one of the most important aspects of effective practice.


Chris said...


Just what I wanted to read - to reinforce the belief!

I am very much a beginner and having a hard time with the Walton Bagatelles.

I have a good teacher here in Edinburgh and he is positive about "visualising" everything - even the outcome to the briefest period of practice.

It is sometimes difficult to do when you are finding something technically awkward or you have just had a really bad day!

When I get into that mood - I find laying the guitar down - listening to something else I like and then coming back feeling enthusiastic about what I want to "sound" like - often saves the day for me.

I think I am prone to being despondent and like to beat myself up. Learning to have a good mental approach is proving to be almost as big a step as learning a lot of the pieces. Maintaining that feeling and approach can be very difficult.

Good to hear the importance given to it by yourself, also.

Megan said...

This can apply to guitar practice, business,or life. In all three, we often encounter the same or similar situations. By learning from what happened last time, a person can become more confident in his or her approach to the current situation; however, by disparring over the results of previous events, that same person can become less confident or even fearful of the current situation

Anonymous said...

So true! And it's one of the charming ironies of being human that this mindset actually gets you OUT of your head -- gets you to stop that noisy surface level of thinking -- and that is what allows the body and mind to work together. I am certain that it's because I spent so many years practicing and performing and thinking this way that I am able to excel in any other area of life.