Myth #1 With enough repetitions, you can learn anything

Several years ago I heard a wonderful talk on ‘levels of truth’ given by a speaker with a strong background in experimental physics. He explained that things that appear true on one level can be in complete contradiction with other truths on a different level.  He gave the example of the appearance of a solid object, for example, a grand piano. When we examine it with the naked eye, it looks solid. If we look at it with a magnification of 200x, it still looks solid. But if we were to zoom into the atomic level and watch the electrons zooming around the nucleus, we will see mostly space with only small bits of  matter zipping around. So it is true on one level that the grand piano is a solid object, but it is also true that on another level the piano is made up mostly of space. Both statements are true; and while they are opposites,  they are not in fact contradictory. They are merely two different levels of truth.

In my experience, there are also many levels of truth about using repetition for learning.  Yes, repetition is essential to move information or skills from short term memory to long term permanent memory. However, one can also get a lot of unhappy or at least unexpected results from repetitive practicing.

One night right before a recording session, I decided to do 10 sets of 10 repetitions each of a particularly difficult left hand passage in a Beethoven Sonata.  The next day, my left hand hurt.  It was the beginning of my multi-year journey through injury, recovery, reinjury, and finally a complete overhaul of my technique.  And while I’m happy with how the process  turned out (Carnegie Hall etc. etc.), it wasn’t something I’d recommend to others.

Certainly that one night’s practice was not what caused my injury.  There were many other events that happened later that really pushed me over the edge.  But that night’s practice has stuck in my memory for a reason – it is a great example of the underlying attitude that got me in trouble – that enough repetition could solve a technical problem for me.

Take home message?  Repetition alone will not solve your pianistic problems.

In one of this morning’s lessons, a student said to me,  “Help! I’ve been practicing this part a lot – right hand alone, left alone, hands together one measure at a time- but it’s just not getting any better!”  Together we were able to trouble shoot the passage.  There were several different problems:

  • Some of the fingering needed to be changed to better fit her hand.
  • She needed to focus on how the hands were moving in relation to each other.  The trouble spots involved  both hands were moving into or out of the black key area at the same time, or one hand moving into the black keys at the same time the other hand was moving out of the black keys.
  • Finally,  a few problems were related to changes in harmonic rhythm or unexpected harmonic movement.  The solution?  Repetition of the harmonic outline until she could hear it accurately.  As soon as the musical logic of the measure was in her ear, she could play it.

To close this small foray into the subject of repetition as a learning tool,  I’d like to urge us all, teachers and students,  to carefully consider HOW we should use repetition as a tool in our practicing.  Try focusing on a different aspect of a short section each time you play it.  Be sure to listen carefully as you repeat.  Vary what you are listening to.  And, most importantly,  talk with your teacher or student about a variety of ways to work with a specific problem, and with repetition in general.

I’d love to hear from you about your experience with using repetition to learn or anything else…..and ……..happy practicing!