Golden Rule of Practicing #4: Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat--but only when it's right.
Repetition has a hallowed place in the practice of effective musicians (as well as artists of any stripe, scientists, mathematicians, historians, etc.). Dr. Robert Duke, Head of Music and Human Learning at The University of Texas at Austin, writes about this from a psychological point of view in his excellent book, Intelligent Music Teaching: "Repetition is the mechanism through which habit strength develops. The more often we repeat a given behavior, the more that behavior becomes a part of what we do."
This statement is so true that it plays out on a biological level in our brains, thanks to a material called myelin. Daniel Coyle writes about this phenomenon in his influential book, The Talent Code: "Every human skill...is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse.... [The neural insulator] myelin's vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster.... When we fire our circuits in the right way--when we practice swinging that bat or playing that note--our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become."
Once we truly understand our problems, we can begin to choose to play differently, to play better, and that's the choice we should make over and over, starting on the scale of the individual problem. We should play any formerly problematic passage well, repeatedly, immediately after fixing it.
How much is repeatedly? Some teachers say five times in a row; others say seven or ten. I like to go for broke and set the bar at 15-20 times, allowing for one or two outliers. However, out of 15-20 attempts, if more than one or two go astray, I consider the problem not to be fixed after all and set about solving it again. After all, as Dave Booth commented on my Golden Rule #1 of Practicing, from his teacher Rupert Neary: "If you play it wrong once, remember that, and don't do it again. But if you forget, and play it wrong twice, mark it, because if you play it wrong three times, you are practicing it."
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Finally, if you like this post, then you'll love The Scientific Method of Practicing, where the underlying information is covered in detail. Head over to the publications page to pick up a copy.