We have to put in the hours! There are no shortcuts! However, repeating the same passage too many times in a row can create an illusion that we’re improving (since we’re working SO hard on it in the moment). About 20 minutes in, it might even seem like you’re really nailing those 16th notes! That may be true in the moment, but with this kind of practice there’s a good chance you might sound worse on day 2 or 3… almost as if you forgot what you accomplished during that long, productive day. One reason this happens is that by practicing the same passage in a “blocked” format prevents one from practicing “retrieval” skills. That is, when we return to the passage in the next practice session, we want to be able to play and remember it based on previous day. This is just one situation in which too many consecutive repetitions actually get in the way and slow down progress.
Retrieval Skills via Interval Practice
Imagine that you’re learning a new language and are studying new vocabulary using flashcards. Would you repeat the same flash card over and over? Or would you rotate a small set? If you’re like most people, you probably realize that repeating the same flash card over and over won’t help you memorize the new word. It’s kind of similar when practicing a difficult passage.
Try the following routine:
- First, practice the passage of interest for no more than 5 min. If it’s a very long excerpt, then select just a portion of it.
- Then, go practice something else for 10-15 min.
- Play to the original passage. Notice how much (or how little) your mind and body remembers on this repetition.
- Repeat the process a couple times.
As you progress over several days, spread out practice time on that passage. At first, this method might feel like you’re getting absolutely nowhere. However, over several days you’ll notice that it actually saves you time and helps to learn a piece faster. I find this strategy to be especially useful for orchestra passages when there is very little time to learn the music.