When trying to improve a musical phrase, a common approach is to repeat that phrase the same way many times, day after day, until it’s mastered. But according to scientific research on motor skill development, there’s a much better way to do it that can significantly accelerate our rate of improvement (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4)
Instead of repeating our phrase the same way all the time, researchers suggest that we first learn & memorize our phrase one way, give it time to consolidate (e.g., a night), and on our next practice session, add slight variations and corrective adjustments to every repetition of the same skill.
For example, if we want to learn the first 10 notes of a piece of music (e.g., Silla y el Tiempo by Vicente Amigo) we should dedicate our first practice session to learning and memorizing it super slowly but as similar as possible to the original interpretation in terms of the correct notes, timbre, rhythm, expression, and fingering.
SLEEP ON IT
Our next step is to give our learning of this phrase a full night of sleep to consolidate — kind of like letting jello sit in the fridge overnight to set. Incidentally, the best way to do this is to get a good night’s sleep of 7-9 hours (e.g., 1, 2, 3).
Finally, in our next day’s practice session, we start by reviewing our phrase the same way we learned it. Then we practice our phrase with slight variations on each subsequent repetition.
Here’s an example of how I do it:
Rep. 1 = Review Original Phrase (*played slowly and correctly)
Rep. 2 = Expressive Variability: Play phrase with a crescendo.
Rep. 3 = Expressive Variability: Play phrase with a decrescendo.
Rep. 4 = Tempo Variability: Play phrase a little faster.
Adding variability to our practice is going to elicit errors or challenges. We want this to happen! And as long as we stop to adjust for those errors or challenges as soon as they occur, we will reap the benefits of variable practice and significantly accelerate the improvement of our phrase.
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).
Keep your total repetition amount below 6 for each phrase even if you make a few mistakes along the way. Since you are interleaving, you’ll have a chance to add more correct reps. in your next 1-2 sets.
Remember to always play and prioritize good tone and expression. It’s better to go very slowly and sound good than to go fast and sound 💨.
Please let me know in the comments at the bottom of the page if you found these strategies helpful.
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