Today, I want to highlight a practice tip that is beneficial for everyone: all ages, all levels, all abilities, all instruments! It might seem like common sense, but repetition in practice is one of the very best ways to succeed!
Repetition in practice will absolutely look different for different people, but the idea is the same. You simply have to repeat something over and over to get better at it.
My one caveat is to avoid mindless repetition. Repeating something over and over without giving it much thought leads to sloppy work and little progress. However, intentional repetition is vital to a good practice routine.
For young children who play short, simple songs, this means playing the entire song or a line of the song over and over.
Often times at this level, when every musical concept is new and a child is still working on the coordination needed to play the piano, their music may sound slow and messy. You might hear a lot of starts and stops, wrong notes that the student may or may not go back and correct, and a weak sound.
Of course, this is a perfectly acceptable starting point! Those little fingers and brain a working in overtime to figure it all out.
I notice that with some young kids, when they are in this stage of playing very slowly and the music sounds really choppy. It feels like a huge milestone just to make it to the end of the song.
After all of that work, they get to the end, take their hands off the piano and let out a big sigh. This is where the repetition comes in. Even if the student doesn’t seem eager to do it all over again, the magic will happen with repetition. This is where they will achieve continuity in the music and the song will actually sound like music. Their coordination will improve and they will really learn the song, rather than working so hard to think through it.
With young children, it’s important to set the expectation that practicing means repetition. Playing a song 1 time from start to finish isn’t an adequate practice session.
If a student’s music is lacking continuity, it likely needs to be broken down into smaller pieces. They may need to repeat the first line or even 1-2 measures several times before moving on to the next part of the music. Or, if they seem to be able to make it through the whole song but it doesn’t sound like music, repeating the whole song is a good approach.
Here are ways that adults (both teachers and parents) can help young children incorporate repetition into their practicing:
- Use a practice counter! This is a great tool to keep at your piano. Kids love having a little gadget to work with. This is a great visual to help students see what they are accomplishing. Since the practice counter has 10 beads, you can have up to 10 repetitions, but you could also use it for fewer repetitions. For very young kids, a 3-5 repetitions is a manageable number.
- A similar concept to a practice counter is to place some small items on the piano such as coins, iwako erasers, small toys, etc. Line them up on one side of the piano and let the student move each item one-by-one with each repetition. Young kids really enjoy mixing their work with play, so having a toy at the piano the serves a purpose is really motivating. They love making an animal or character walk across the keys or driving a little car across the piano.
- Add variety into repetition by finding different ways to play the same thing. Let your student explore the range of the piano and play their music on the high and low ends of the piano. Try out different instrument voices on a digital piano. Play loudly, softly, slowly, quickly, staccato, legato, etc. The more creative you can make it, the more interested your student will be. Instead of using musical terms, have them play their music like a frog (staccato), like a fish (legato), like a dinosaur (low) or like a race car (fast).
For Advancing Students and Adults
For students who are making good progress on the piano, or for anyone who is not approaching piano practice as a chore, repetition will look quite different than it does for young beginners!
As students start to make progress on the piano, they quickly discover that some things come easily and some things are more challenging. At this point, students probably have a pretty good sense of continuity, but they might struggle with a certain parts of the music they are working on.
In this case, repetition will look like isolating small parts of the music and repeating them many times. It is natural for students to start at the beginning of their music and to want to play through all the way to the end. A lot of times when students play this way, they just gloss over the tricky parts or they may even skip parts that don’t come as easily as others.
Although it is satisfying to make it to the end of your music, it’s not very productive. To really practice and improve, you have to go straight to the problem and work on it. Don’t start at the beginning, and don’t keep going after just 1 pass through the tricky spot.
Here are ways that advancing students can use repetition in their practice:
- Pinpoint exactly what the problem is. Mark on the page exactly where it begins and where it ends. It might be one measure, it might be part of a measure, it might be several measures. If a large section of music is problematic, start breaking it into smaller pieces – eat that elephant one bite at a time!
- Commit to repeating only the problem area. Stop right after the problem and circle back around to the beginning of the problem. This takes discipline!
- Keep track of repetitions. Sometimes I’ll suggest a student practice a tricky measure 100 times over the course of the week. We put a post-it note on the page near that measure and I’ll have them keep a tally each time they play that spot.
- When working towards achieving continuity, work with musical phrases or lines, but not the entire piece.
- A practice counter is a great tool for all ages and levels, not just beginners!
- For students who may not be motivated by numbers, a simple approach is “practice until it’s easy!”
There is only so much that a teacher can teach a student. True progress and improvement happens from practicing and smart practice includes repetition.