Repetition is fundamental, but bad and ugly?
One of my favorite Suzuki violin podcasts is the Teach Suzuki Podcast by Paula Bird. Dr. Bird is an accomplished professional violinist and pianist, a college professor, and a private Suzuki teacher in Texas. The episode, “Reflections-Repeatedy Aiming for Better Things” discusses “the importance of perfect repetition in order to build good habits and to avoid the unwelcome process of unlearning incorrect habits.” Bird agrees with Dr. Suzuki’s words of warning that “mere repetition is not enough. Only bad and ugly things develop from thoughtless repetition.”
Practice doesn’t make perfect–practice makes permanent.
Our brains are very good at learning through repetition. Students and parents alike know that repetition is the way to master a piece or a certain part they are learning. However, Bird reminds parents to take care with repetitions. She says it’s the type of repetition that matters the most. Practice doesn’t make perfect–practice makes permanent.
Bird describes what happens in the brain as the same thing that happens when we take a shortcut through a hedge to get to the other side faster. We cut through the hedge one day, and the next, and the next. Within a fairly short time, the path is very noticeable and more than likely permanent. If you have seen someone put up a barrier to keep people from the path, how long did it take for the “hedge” to grow back? Probably much longer than the original path took, if ever.
It happens the same way in our brain. If students play a piece incorrectly, however many times they were supposed to practice it, their brain gleefully learns the piece, although it is incorrect. And since our brains are very good at learning through repetition, the student has learned the lesson very well.
Now he has to unlearn the lesson. The path in the brain is ingrained just like the path through the hedge. The brain is very satisfied with itself. It will not be too easy to pry that learning from the grips of its gray matter.
Now the brain has to unlearn and relearn. That’s almost too much to ask. It can be done, but the student finds it daunting because of so many factors including the neural pathway created and the muscle memory established and the discouragement that the student spent so much time on it and did it wrong.
Bird’s warning to parents is to teach your child careful practicing, to watch your child practice so that the practice is perfect. She offers advice to help, recommending that the parent make a list of incorrect playing habits that your child’s teacher is typically addressing during lessons. Then check on those points at home.
In my studio, I urge parents to take complete notes. And don’t be shy about asking your teacher to look over your notes to see if you got everything down correctly and completely.
I also encourage parents to take videos at certain times in the lesson with their phone or tablet as a way to be sure to get that lesson concept/skill correctly understood. I will often ask a parent to take a video at a specific point in the lesson. We have all been in the situation where we were sure we knew something only to realize an hour later that we couldn’t remember exactly how to do it.
Parents models of good habits
Finally, Bird says that parents should model good habits at home. She warns that if what you do at home you do in a sloppy way, then the child sees that it is OK to have sloppy habits. Don’t model sloppy habits in anything.
Bird’s podcasts are easy to listen to on your commute or in the car. She has many short (4 minute) recordings that will give you reinforcement of the Suzuki Method.
“Mere repetition is not enough. Only bad and ugly things develop from thoughtless repetition.” Shinichi Suzuki
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