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The Lowdown with Dr. D: Mastering a Difficult Passage with Repetition

In the course of mastering a difficult passage, we will end up playing the passage many, many times. However, if we do so blindly, we just waste our time. In fact, such mindless repetition can be detrimental. Additionally, if our mind wanders, then it is unlikely that we are actually improving the passage, so again we waste our time. One way to avoid such pitfalls is to plan or repetitions over a period of time.

For example:

Exposure: Initial Session

Note: Move on to each session only after the goal of the previous session has been met. Ideally each session should occur on consecutive days.

Play the new passage 10 times with the goal of familiarizing yourself with it. Become accustomed to the passage while noting its technical and musical challenges. Don’t be overly critical of your performance at this stage, but be aware of your body. Keep the tempo manageable (i.e. slow).

Next Session:

Play the passage 10 times. The goal this session is to get one repetition exactly the way you intend it. As before, it is highly recommended that you keep the tempo slow. If you can’t play the passage correctly at least once in the course of 10 reps, you need to slow it down and repeat this session.

Next Session:

Play the passage 10 times . The goal today is to play the passage exactly the way you intend it 3x over the course of your 10 repetitions. If you can’t achieve this goal in the course of 10 reps, then you need to slow it down and repeat this session. Again, keep the tempo slow.

Next Session:

Play the passage 10 times. The goal this session is to play the passage exactly the way you intend to 3x in a row. Keep the tempo slow and keep track of your correct repetitions either on a piece of paper, or with coins (see below.) Every few repetitions (correct or incorrect) change your primary mental focus. For example: focus on the action of the left hand fingers for a few reps, then focus on shifting motions for a few reps, follow that by paying attention to the action of your right hand fingers (or bow, as the case may be), etc., etc.

Next Session:

Play the passage 10 times . The goal this session is to play the passage exactly the way you intend to 6x in a row. The guidelines for the previous session apply here.

Next Session (or Sessions): The 10 Coin Game

The goal of this game is to obtain 10 consecutive correct repetitions. Begin with ten coins on the right side of our music stand (or a table within arm’s reach) For each correct repetition that you play, move a coin over to the left side of the stand. If you play a repetition that is not to your satisfaction then begin the game anew. Move all of the coins from the left side back over to the right side and start counting correct repetitions again. It may take a few sessions to achieve the goal of this game.

As before, every few repetitions (correct or incorrect) change your primary mental focus. First focus on the musicality of the passage, then focus on technical ease and accuracy, then focus on timbre, then focus on dynamics etc., etc. Keep your mind active and always have a specific focus. Also, know when you have exhausted your mental resources. If this happens, then stop and come back to it at a later time.

The goal of the 10 coin game is to get all of the coins to the left side of the stand. If you have done this, then you will have played 10 consecutive repetitions of the passage exactly as you intended. During the course of your sessions you have likely sped things up a bit. If you are not yet at performance tempo then you need to stay at this stage (10 coin game) until you achieve the goal of the 10 coin game at tempo.

If you can play a passage exactly as you intend 10 times consecutively, and at the appropriate tempo, then you can rely upon that passage in performance. If you can do this with an entire work, then you should be able to walk on stage with great confidence.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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Share your thoughts

Alun Vaughan

Great article, Donovan! Really useful, and sensible,advice.

One extra step I would add once you’ve won the 10 Coin Game at the correct tempo, is to practice the passage ABOVE the anticipated tempo. This allows for gig nerves leading to the pasage being faster than it should be, and means that you’re more relaxed at the correct tempo too. It’s not an essential step, but I find it useful.

Ann Steck

Ann Steck

I practice repetitions with the metronome, beginning with painfully slow tempi like eighth note = 60. I play each tempo until it’s comfortable, and then increase by one click, i.e. to 61. After awhile my mind does check out. But that’s when I realize the most interesting things about the passage – things that my directed mind had missed. I practice each day up to the tempo that it falls apart, and then do it again the next day.

Erix

Erix

You’re right Alun, it often helps.

Thank you Donovan for sharing your experience.