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Repeating Without Tediousness

There's no getting around it - if students want to improve their technique and/or repertoire, they have to repeat it. A lot. Muscle memory is real! But simply asking them to "try it again" often feels tedious (from both teacher and student seats).

Their fingers get sore, their brain gets bored, their patience is tested. They just did it, though! They don't want to do it again! They'll do it some more at home!

As music teachers, I think we have to work out ways to mix up repeats. Even if students are doing the same thing many times, the shifting context with each repeat must foster sustained interest.

Try these strategies:

1. Isolate a section.

It's certainly not best practice to do a piece the whole way through every time anyway - it often means the beginning of a piece gets more emphasis than the rest, doesn't allow for as much improvement of small sections, and is super boring.

By taking a section and working just with that for a little while, it will

a) improve at a faster rate and

b) then when you move on to another section, it feels like something totally different.

* If there's a section that isn't in the song much (either a bridge, B section, etc) I usually flag with students that this has to be repeated a little more in practice because they won't hear it as much in full run throughs of the song.

2. Play with them - and then don't.

You can get three repeats out of "try by yourself", "OK, I'll play with you now", and "by yourself once more." Playing the middle repeat with them will break it up, refocus the situation and also allow them to be guided by what you're doing ready for their third attempt.

3. Work in a loop.

If students have a few things they are working on, I will often come back to something a little later in the lesson. If I'm aiming for ten repeats on something, for example, we will work to five and then take a break, do something else, and come back to the piece/section for another five repeats later in the lesson.

4. Scaffold the same technique (disguising the same thing as something else).

When working with a section of a song that a student is particularly struggling with, sometimes I'll move away from the piece but get their fingers moving in the same way under different circumstances. For example, if there is a stretched pinky finger on the guitar, I may have them move away from the piece after a couple of repeats, rest their fingers for a minute and then do a small pinky stretching exercise (that may be slightly easier) to supplement the rest of their repeats. The muscle memory is still getting a workout, and they're less likely to be frustrated by it.

5. Tell them how many times.

Particularly for younger kids, I don't think it's fair to just keep saying "go again" to them. For this reason, sometimes if I know I need a bulk of repeats of a small section I will say "can you play that four times for me?" and leave them to it. This is most often followed with an offer for them to choose whatever we do next!

6. If they're on a roll, shush.

I've said this in other blogs, but it's relevant here. Sometimes something will click in a student and they HAVE to get it right before they're happy to move on. Just leave them alone and let it happen - it's usually the best case scenario and they usually get it. The only times I stop this process is if

a) I can see it's not likely they'll nail it right then, where I might cut in and say "just try twice more and we'll come back."

b) it looks (or sounds, if they're a singer) like it's hurting them in some way.

7. Ask a question.

This works in a similar way to giving feedback, except you listen instead of talking. Sometimes I just say, "how did that feel to sing/play?" and have them explain it to me, and then we go again. Sometimes I give feedback after they've spoken, and sometimes it's not necessary because they've already said what I was going to tell them anyway.

8. Read the Room!

I think this is the most important one of all - all these strategies work, I think, but it depends on the student you're teaching (and how they're feeling on the day) as to which ones will be most effective.

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