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How Many Repetitions Should You do? ๐Ÿš€

Updated: Jul 14, 2023



How Many Repetitions Should You Do to Improve?

When I was starting out, and for many years after that, I asked all of my teachers this question and always felt a little frustrated because everyone would give me a completely different answer:

  • "Do as many as you need until you can play it correctly."

  • "Just do 3 correct reps. You don't need any more than that."

  • "Try 3 sets of 10 reps."

  • "Do as many as you need until you don't play it wrong."

I tried all of these and more, and nothing seemed to get me the desired results. So I ended up picking the "more is better" strategy with an emphasis on always finishing with way more correct than incorrect reps. Ironically, this turned out not to be the best choice and the result was that I got injured a lot and found myself stuck in plenty of inexplicable plateaus.

And then there was science!๐Ÿ’ก

50%-100%

I ran across a great post on Noa Kageyama's Bulletproof Musician Blog which highlighted 2 research articles suggesting that the ideal amount of repetitions needed to make significant progress is somewhere between 50% to 100% as many times as it takes us to play a phrase correctly once. For example, if it takes 4 attempts to play our phrase correctly (i.e., 3 mistakes followed by 1 success), we would need to do an extra 2 to 4 repetitions for significant progress -- 4 reps. being more effective than 2 reps.


The studies don't explicitly state that all of the overlearning repetitions need to be correct, but I would imagine that they should be. For example, if we make a second mistake during overlearning, we should probably do at least one more corrective repetition to continue moving in the right direction.

Another article suggests that up to 200% overlearning could be more effective than 100% overlearning, but the studies mentioned by Kageyama suggest that more than 100% overlearning could lead to diminishing returns. So it might be best to err on the safe side and stick to 50% to 100%.

That's fine but what if it takes us 20 attempts to play a phrase correctly in the first place? Do we have to play 10-20 more correctly for it to count?


Technically, yes. But if it takes us 20 attempts to get something right we're probably not being very strategic about our practice. I think a better approach is to make conscious corrections right away so that we can get our phrase right in as few reps. as possible and only have to follow it up with a low overlearning repetition amount.

We also need to consider time. Repeating something 20 times and then following this up with 10-20 more correct repetitions will take a long time (and could get us injured)!

20 Minutes or Less

Fortunately, research suggests that overlearning "hyper-stabilizes a skill" when completed in fewer than 20 minutes and that after 20 minutes, overlearning does not seem to have any positive neurological effect on learning. So, again, we should focus on correcting right away to keep our reps. and overlearning time low. Personally, I set a time limit of 5 minutes for any challenge spot, and if I haven't completed my goals within that time, I try to figure out a more efficient solution for the next time and then move on to something else.

At this point, it seems that somewhere between 50% to 100% overlearning done in less than 20 minutes can result in significant improvement of our musical phrase. We're getting close to an answer! But, wouldn't you know it; there's more research out there that suggests another solution.

85:15

Some relatively recent research on learning suggests that the ideal ratio for optimal learning is when your repetitions of a task are roughly 84.13% correct to 15.87% incorrect. For example, if we want to learn, correct, or improve a musical phrase our repetition numbers might look something like this:

  • 6 total repetitions = 1 mistake (16.7%) & 5 successes (83.3%).

  • 13 total repetitions = 2 mistakes (15.4%) & 11 successes (84.6%).

  • 19 total repetitions = 3 mistakes (15.8%) & 16 successes (84.2%).

There's plenty of research(1) on why making mistakes is crucial for learning, so this makes sense. But doesn't this conflict with the 50% to 100% overlearning strategy I mentioned above?

Well..kind of. But the first thing to keep in mind with regard to these studies is that these numbers are averages. Some people might need to do a few more reps. for significant learning and some people will need less. Also, each musical situation we encounter is different and may require more or fewer repetitions for significant improvement.

Another thing to consider is what we're actually doing during our repetitions. Mindlessly repeating a phrase for the sake of reaching a specific number of reps. isn't going to get us very far. But if we're super strategic about our practice, we may be able to spend less time practicing and get more in return! And as it turns out, there's some interesting research suggesting that this is true!

Less is More

Noa Kageyama cited a brilliant study that clearly shows how expert performers -- and the best learners -- generally do significantly fewer repetitions than amateurs. According to this research, experts tend to analyze every repetition before, during, and immediately afterward. Before trying another rep., they first figure out 3 things about the rep. they just completed: 1) what went right or wrong, 2) why it went right or wrong, and 3) what needs to change or stay the same. Then they implement their adjustments to the next repetition that will get them closer to a specific musical goal.

Anecdotally, I've spoken to a lot of expert musicians who have all inadvertently validated this research. Their goals, when repeating a challenging phrase, are always to make corrections and focus on achieving an ultimate musical goal (e.g., a desired tone or dynamic shape). They also always try to complete their goals with the least amount of repetitions necessary in order to be as efficient as possible. Once the goal has been reached, they validate it a few times and move on to the next challenge, eventually returning to the same challenge later in the same practice session at least 1 more time.

Final Answer

Given all of this information, I've come to the conclusion that although there's no definitive answer to how many repetitions we should do, there are some pretty clear guidelines that we can follow. The first of which is that a high number of either mindful or mindless repetitions in one sitting is not the answer. The second is that the "Less is More," analytical approach gives us the best results.


Personally, and with regard to repetition amount, I usually end up inadvertently using a combination of the 50-100% overlearning and 85:15 strategy. For example, if I make 1 mistake and follow it up with 3 solid repetitions (i.e., 100% overlearning strategy), I might move on to the next challenge. But if I feel like those same 3 repetitions were correct but not convincing, I might do 2 more to get it to feel even better (i.e., 85:15 strategy).

We don't usually need any more than 3 to 5 correct repetitions of a challenge as long as our approach to each rep. is strategic. If we, additionally, interleave our challenges and come back to them once or twice in the same practice session, we can boost our improvement even more!

NOTE: Of course, there are exceptions. When we are working on fast practice, we need to prioritize loose and light mechanics first. As a result, there will initially be more errors than successes. This is ok as long as we continue to analyze each repetition and make adjustments accordingly in order to improve each time.

Fast practice is an essential strategy to get our music up to our goal tempi but I'll save that topic for the next post.

This Week

  • Remember that errors are essential for learning. Don't avoid them! Instead, think of them as Significant Improvement Opportunities (SIOs) and use them to improve each subsequent repetition. Use the analytical approach I mentioned above to address and correct each repetition before doing another one.

  • Always address your repetitions with a specific musical goal in mind (e.g., dynamics, timbre, tempo variation, phrasing, articulation, etc.).

  • Try limiting your total repetitions for any challenge spot to 1 wrong and 3-5 correct and see if you can complete your goal in less than 5 minutes. If you reach 5 minutes, move to your next challenge no matter what.

  • Make sure to practice your phrase along with at least 2 additional phrases so that you can interleave them for better memorization and learning (e.g., ABC, ABC, ABC).

  • Remember to always prioritize light and loose mechanics first, despite errors. Once you can keep your hands, shoulders, and body loose and light while playing, then focus on good tone and expression.

  • Finally, note that these strategies are specific to Strategic Practice, not to Performance Practice.

Please let me know in the comments at the bottom of the page if you found these strategies helpful.

Happy Practicing!


For guitar lessons, lectures, workshops, and educational performances please contact me below as well or at contact@diegoalonsomusic.com.

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