Guitar Tricks Blog
Posted: May 7, 2015

Is Repetition Really The Mother of Practicing?



Repetition can be considered the mother of practicing. Or so they say. And even though I agree with it in theory, I have to say that this advice is a little bit too vague to be helpful or applicable.

This is also true with a lot of other so-called "good advice." They sound reasonable until the point where you try to apply them. At that point you get more questions than answers, and little results.

When it comes to practicing through repetition, a few questions come up right off the top of my head:

How many repetitions do I need to make with this particular exercise? How long should I repeat the same lick? How do I know that I am done with this exercise and can move onto the next?

Once you reach this point, you can’t help but wonder what to do with this kind of advice. And because it is so vague, you usually end up doing nothing.

As I said in my article on how to build laser focus during your practice session, the #1 key to getting better results is to improve your focus. And this goes hand in hand with repetition.

Only laser-focused repetition will produce the results you are after. Every exercise you do to improve your guitar playing should have a clear goal you are pursuing.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say you want to practice A minor pentatonic:



There are a number of things you can practice with this:

  • remembering the shape of the scale
  • getting the sound of the scale into your head
  • synchronizing your left and right hand
  • working on your picking
  • paying attention to minimal movement in your left hand
  • focusing on relaxation and muscle isolation

Which one of these goals you are after?

The problem that many aspiring guitarist experience when practicing is that they are not clear about what it is that they are really working on. Most of them practice scales in a wrong way and with unclear goals. But that’s a topic for another article.

If you are not clear about what it is you are trying to accomplish, you are also not clear how to approach it and how many repetitions you need to make in order to improve. This haphazard approach produces mediocre results and lots of frustration.

Making more repetitions won’t solve your problems if you are not clear about what you are really trying to accomplish.

Why making too many repetitions can hurt your progress on guitar?

Using repetition as your main practice strategy can lead you to opposite direction than you’ve intended.

The problem with repeating things over and over again is that it can lead to false sense of mastery. Just because you are experiencing more fluency with each repetitions that doesn’t mean you are really progressing. Quite confusing, right?

As scientific research suggests, there is a difference between current performance and actual learning. Those two should not be interchanged as explained in this Bjork video.

If you go through the same movement over and over again it becomes stored in your short-term memory and that’s why you are achieving more and more fluency. It doesn’t matter that you are going to play it well tomorrow.

For actual learning to happen, information needs to be consolidated into your long-term memory. That’s what you should be aiming for. And one of the best ways how this can be achieved is through effortful learning.

Another problem with making too many repetitions is what Geoff Colvin, author of Talent is Overrated, calls “experience trap”.

“Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started.”

Thinking that just because you mindlessly repeated something for 2 hours makes you a better guitar player is delusional. It is the same thing why some guitar players who practice deliberately for few years can produce much better results than players who play for few decades.

The difference is in how much effort they’ve put in.

How to make every repetition count?

Now that you understand that not all repetitions are made equal, you need to take this advice into your practice room and use it.

Here are 3 ways how you can make every repetition count:

# 1: Be clear about what you want to accomplish with each repetition

As I have said before, mastering your focus is the key ingredient to avoid mindless repetitions.

The best way that I’ve found to keep my focus is by asking questions:

  • What is the goal of this exercise?
  • What do I need to focus on while working on this?
  • What do I need to do in order to master this movement?
  • Now that I can do X, what is the next step?
  • Is there a better way to practice this?

The question that I got asked a lot from my students is, “How do I know that I am done with the exercise?”

It is hard to answer this question in general, but one rule that you can use is that you move on to the next exercise when fluency of your movements starts to kick in. At that point what you are practicing is probably fully stored in your short-term memory, so it is better to go practice something else and come back later (see #2).

# 2: Space-out your repetitions

No matter if you are working on a new arpeggio, lick, scale or chord transition, you can get better long-term results if you space out the repetitions.

For example: Instead of doing 100 repetitions in a row, do 5x20 during your next guitar practice session.

or

Instead of trying to learn whole song in one sitting, break it down into smaller chunks and spread it over few days.

What you are doing in both cases is spacing out your repetitions so some forgetting can happen. Certain amount of forgetting is, quite counter intuitive, helping to make the learning process more effortless. Retrieving information from memory helps solidify and consolidate learned material. Robert Bjork calls this “desirable difficulties”.

# 3: Limit the number of repetitions

A while ago I wrote an article on how Jack White uses restrictions to boost his creativity.

You can use the same technique for boosting the quality of your guitar practice. Limit the number of repetitions you are allowed to do and your focus instantly improves because now each repetition matters.

Instead of adding more time and repetitions, try to go in the opposite direction. By forcing yourself to make each repetition count you have to be more intentional and that can save you lots of time.

When aspiring guitar players try to progress faster, they usually only think about adding more time. Adding more effort and quality into their current practice time is not something they think of. Shifting your focus towards quality instead of adding more time teaches you valuable skill how to make most out of your time.

In the end, this can be the magic bullet you've been looking for.

About the author:
Lukas Kyska is a guitar teacher, player and founder of The Aspiring Guitarist blog where he helps guitar players overcome mental barriers and plateaus and shares scientifically proven ways to practice properly and learn faster.

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