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Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Something my students probably get tired of hearing me say is, “more repetition“. It’s not enough to play something correctly one time, after several failed attempts. From a listener‘s perspective, it’s very unsatisfying. It‘s like packing your bags, loading the car and driving several hours to go camping. Then, when you finally get there and set up camp you say, “Ok, we did it. Now let’s go home.”

We’re taught to do something until we get it right but that’s not really how it works. In music, dance and sports they call it “muscle memory”. If you perform a task correctly over and over, it becomes automatic. You don’t have to think about it because your muscles “remember” how to do it. I’m no neuroscientist but I can safely say it’s actually happening somewhere in your brain (the motor cortex, perhaps). In fact, the way the brain retains any information is through repetition.

Repetition builds and reinforces neural pathways. All of our memories are stored in complex webs of neurons. Every time we solve a math equation or recite a passage of text, new neural pathways are formed. With continued repetition, those pathways are reinforced and strengthened. If we don’t use algebra for years, it fades from memory because our brains continually prune unused pathways. The exception is traumatic events, like car accidents. Those are usually stored instantly and permanently so as not to be repeated.

While I was practicing a complex double bass pattern (requiring 4-way coordination), I realized it was difficult initially because I had no neural pathways for the pattern. As I improved, it was still uncomfortable to play because the pathways were weak. It required many repetitions (playing it correctly) before I started to feel comfortable... the pathways were getting stronger. Tomorrow, however, will be like I never played it. But since there are some pathways formed, it’ll come back faster. After several days of practice, ”muscle memory” will start to kick in.

The same applies when studying for an exam. That’s why it’s better to study a little bit every day, instead of cramming the night before. A little trick is to take mini breaks. This gives your brain time to process the information and make those neural connections. You’ll actually be able to play difficult exercises better after short breaks, too.

So next time you sit down to practice, remember; don’t stop after playing it correctly one time. Play it until you’re comfortable, relaxed and consistent... then do it some more!

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