Repetition in Practice

Lately, I have been wondering about the role of repetition in both lessons & practice time.  In my own practice, it has been enlightening to see the natural patterns I fall into.  Especially since some of them, as a teacher, I really do know better.  As a teacher, it’s painful sitting through a song that once again a student has obviously put NO thought into during a week of incorrect repetitions while practicing.  (“Why is the starting note still incorrect?”  “I didn’t realize.” “It was written in bold on your practice page.”  “Huh.”)

This is the first in a new series of book reviews on the blog.  I decided to start with “Play It Again, Sam … What, Why, & When To Repeat” by Marienne Uszler.  As it states on the back cover, this book is

“A smooth introduction for those beginning to teach.

A shot-in-the-arm for those who might feel burned-out.

A reminder to the experienced teacher of further challenges.”

~ Marienne Uszler, “Play It Again, Sam …”

While there were many things to love about this book, the two that really struck me were:

  • Chapters are 2-3 pages long which made it perfect for the small segments of time I had to read the book.
  • Actionable steps were given in each section making it easy to apply something to my teaching that evening.

Action Step 1: Tracking my practice

Have you ever asked yourself whether repetition is always productive?

~ Marienne Uszler, “Play It Again, Sam …”

After listening to a student mangle a section for the umpteenth time, yes.  I have wondered whether repetition in practice is always productive.

Marienne’s suggests teachers look at their own practice & how they use repetition first.  This was a good, personal exercise in seeing whether I am practicing (literally) what I tell my students. While I tend to go back to what I did when I was younger, I realized that I need to employ a much wider range of strategies in my own practice habits.

Action Step 2:  Look at how & why I get students to repeat

Thankfully with all of Marienne’s suggestions, I have added a wider variety of ways to use repetition in practice.  What may well be more important though, is that I am becoming more mindful on a lesson by lesson basis of the reasons I want students to use repetition & choosing with them repetition that fits that goal.

Skill Categories

I had never consciously thought about skill sets falling into categories, though as soon as I read this it seemed so obvious.  Skills tend to fall into the following categories:

  • Physical or kinaesthetic
  • Visual
  • Mental or conceptual
  • Mental & visual
  • Require synthesis

It was very useful to read examples of each of these categories & how our bodies learn those specific skills.  How easy it’s been to take for granted the inner awareness I’ve developed over the years for a wide variety of concepts!  And, yet to be a great teacher I need to help my students develop that same inner awareness in a thoughtful way.

Much like Music Learning Theory, Marienne also is a big proponent in starting with movement then giving students time to experiment with new skills/concepts in several ways.  By using multiple sensory modes (look at, feel, listen to, think about) over several weeks, as teachers we can lay down the foundation for further learning.  

Facts vs. “Big Ideas”

There are just some things that students need to memorize (i.e. music terminology, landmark / home notes, etc.).  But, how do we help students link all those facts together to create a deeper understanding?

“It’s the “big ideas” that are powerhouse tools because they’re master keys that can open many doors.”

~ Marienne Uszler, “Play It Again, Sam …”

Reinforcing new concepts by having students experience things in different contexts, allows students to make connections between the “big ideas” & various facts they are expected to learn.

Simultaneous Learning

Does repetition in practice work?

Regardless of whether it’s been in my music studio or when I was teaching in the school system, the answer is a resounding yes.  It doesn’t matter which grade or subject I’ve taught, students thrived when concepts were built up through chunking smaller bits of information to create more complex ideas & skill sets.

“Do you trust your ability to solve problems … or do you seek official interpretations & rules & rely solely on these?  

Can you trace a single musical concept from simple to complex?  Are you comfortable with putting composers, forms, & techniques into context?

~ Marienne Uszler, “Play It Again, Sam …”

Reading this quote was like a light bulb going off.  In answering truthfully, I saw ways in which my teaching could grow & improve.  But rather than feeling overwhelmed, “Play It Again, Sam …” has inspired me to take those small steps both in my own musical learning & my teaching to create better musicians of us all (myself & my students).

Interested in playing it again?

I would highly recommend this book for teachers wanting a different approach to repetition or adult students wanting to make the most of their practice time.

To order the book online, visit:

  • FJH Music:  publishing house & includes links to Marienne’s other books in the series

How do you use repetition in practice?

Repetition is such a huge part of our growth as musicians.  After all, practice IS repetition.

Share below the strategies you use for either yourself or your students to reinforce concepts or even parts of a song.

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