Repetition: The Missing Link to Your Success

Do you find yourself having trouble remembering the solos you’ve transcribed? Have you ever memorized the melody to a tune only to forget it a week later? Do you have trouble recalling the chord progressions to your favorite standards? If you are screaming “Yes, that’s me!”at the computer screen, then the solution to your problems can be summed up in one word: repetition. It’s not your lack of intelligence, your lack of motivation, or bad luck, it’s simply because you are not spending enough time to ingrain those things that you’re trying learn.

Now you might be saying, “Wait a minute, I repeat stuff in my practice all the time!” Yes, maybe for five or ten minutes, but are you repeating those lines, techniques, and progressions to the point that they are permanently ingrained in your brain and muscle memory? Will you be able to remember them a week or a month from now?

The underlying problem here is that we get bored very easily and the second we hear a hip sound, we can’t wait to jump ship and figure it out. This is a trap that every musician falls into at one point or another. We learn a new tune, pick up a new ii-V line, or work on our technique, and once we’ve got the basic idea we abandon it for the next best thing.

This simply won’t work if you want to make meaningful improvement as an improviser. The deceptive thing about the unfocused practicing described above, is that it actually feels like you’re practicing hard and moving forward. The truth however, is that this habit of continually skimming over everything is dreadfully ineffective.

You’re not remembering tunes, you’re not mastering the language you’ve transcribed, and the same progressions are giving you trouble. This doesn’t mean that realizing your goals as an improviser is a hopeless pursuit though, a surprisingly small change in your practice approach can make a world of difference.

Using repetition in your daily routine

Incorporating repetition into your practice routine is easy and once you get into the habit of it, it becomes like a zen exercise that you look forward to everyday. Here are three simple steps to start incorporating the idea of repetition into your practice routine:

Step One: Ingrain everything aurally

Before you learn a melody, transcribe a solo, or work out the changes to a tune, listen to it repeatedly. This means taking that musical idea and listening to it over and over again, until you can sing it perfectly, note for note. You may have to break a longer phrase up into smaller repeated sections, this is where a program like Transcribe is priceless.

Once you’ve listened to it so many times that it’s in your ear and you can sing it spot on, then it’s time to take it to your instrument.

Step Two: Learn it on your instrument

Next, take that line that you’ve lifted from the record. Your job now is to ingrain it into your muscle memory as you play your instrument. The way you do this is, you guessed it, repetition.

Ten times is not enough. Twenty times, not enough. Aim for the hundreds. Keep going until the musical idea becomes something else in your mind; not single notes anymore, but a sound that you can hear as one solid unit.

Step Three: Repeat, repeat, repeat…

This is the most vital step in ingraining a musical idea and ironically, it is the point where most people give up or move on. If you want to remember the tunes you’re learning and ingrain the language that you’re transcribing, then this step is for you.

At this point you’ve aurally learned the idea and started to memorize it on your instrument, but it’s not there yet. To ingrain it to the point that you’ll have it forever, you need to return to it again and again. Spend a week on just this one idea, be it a melody, a ii-V line, or a chord progression. Focus on it exclusively and play it over and over again. Once you have it down, come back to it occasionally to ensure that it’s there for good.

How long do you have to repeat this until it’s ingrained? Well, it’s different for everyone, but remember this, if you have to think about the notes to play, you’re not done yet.

Beware of mindless repetition

There is one catch to all this repetition business. When you’re learning a new skill, repetition can create great habits and ingrain important information, but it can also reinforce bad habits. To avoid the latter, you must be mentally focused on every note that you’re playing. Your overall goal is to ingrain the notes and musical ideas, but there is a lot more to music than just notes.

Concentrate on your sound, your articulation, your breathing; everything involved in producing those notes. Because you’re repeating these lines over and over again, you are subconsciously creating long-term habits. It’s surprisingly easy to get lax and fall into poor habits. By staying focused and concentrating on all aspects of your musicianship you’ll improve all parts of your playing while ingraining these musical ideas.

Repetition can make a drastic difference in your practice. It’s a part of practice that not many people talk about and it’s definitely not glamorous, yet it is one of the most effective ways to learn and advance with this music. If you were answering yes to the opening questions, incorporate some repetition into your daily practice, and I assure you that you’ll see a difference in your playing.