Friday, February 25, 2011

spaced repetition

Go ahead, laugh JLA. You will wind up using this on your guitar students, guaranteed.
Years ago I came across Charles Cookes Playing the Piano for Pleasure, the book is long out of print, but a real gem. Some of my favorite passages begin on page 42 entitled Transforming weakest passages into strongest (can you say Ether 12:27?)

Surgeons tell us that a broken arm or leg, if it is correctly set, becomes strongest at the point of the fracture.

Recognition of the value of working especially hard on difficult passages is no new idea in piano teaching: it is one of the oldest and soundest ideas.

I believe in marking off, in every piece we study, all passages that we find especially difficult, and then practicing these passages patiently, concentratedly, intelligently, relentlessly—until we have battered them down, knocked them out, surmounted them, dominated them, conquered them—until we have transformed them thoroughly and permanently, from the weakest into the strongest passages in the piece.

Later, this:

No difficult passage can be mastered without, early in the operation, memorizing it.

…conquering difficult passages, though hard, is not forbiddingly hard.

He suggests these steps:

*Play the piece straight through from the notes, forcing yourself as best you may through any passages of unusual difficulty. This will give you a valuable total impression of the piece and a rough idea of where its “fractures” are. Every place in the piece where you stop or falter is, in greater or less degree, a fracture---a compound or a simple fracture.
Now play the piece through again, halting at every fracture to mark it with your pencil.

*Once a fracture is marked, we must begin setting it: Play the passage through slowly several times, always including its dowel pins---making sure that you are reading all the notes correctly, especially the accidentals; making sure that all relative time values of the notes are correct according to the scale of slow motion at which you are playing; making sure that you are following correctly all the dynamic directions (p, f, sf, crescendos, etc.) and such touch directions (staccato and legato)as there are. ..

*Choose the fingering which best suits and then stick to it.

*As soon as you are sure of your ground on all these points, play the passage over and over until you have mastered it.

He cautions against lazy automatic repetition of passages without thought or concentration. Rather he says: Our entire mind is going to participate in every repetition of a passage.

And slow practice is necessary. “The worst possible thing is to start practicing too fast: it invariably leads to bad results and lengthy delays”

The author says to “work from the notes until you no longer need to.

More tips on setting a fracture:

*Play the passage five times; then stop and listen to it over again in your mind without playing; then play it five more times.

*Play the right hand and left hand separately. Sometimes many repetitions of one hand alone are useful. Playing one hand alone is always revealing.

*Slow practice brings magical results.

Cooke recommends twenty-five repetitions as average daily work on a fracture, and says setting a fracture requires many daily repetitions (whether ten, twenty five, or fifty) over an extended period (whether days, weeks or even, in particularly stubborn cases, months).

In other words, you can’t set a fracture in a day, it is that idea of spaced repetition again.

And then finally,

To me there is no moment more satisfying in piano study than the moment when I know I have completed the setting of a fracture.

I love this chapter. So many applications and so much truth. Overcoming our weaknesses, our broken-ness, our lack of skills, can also be likened to a bone healing after a fracture, when the newly knitted bone exceeds the strength of the bone around it.

Yup. Loving this mindset. Lady Catherine had it right then, when she chided Elizabeth that she would never be great at the piano unless she practiced more.

There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.


lacy lee said...


P.S. If anything ever had relevance to playing the piano for pleasure, it was wearing mittens.

austin said...

this reminds me of a book i read called the talent code by daniel coyle he goes into this idea in a lot of depth