Which comes first when learning new stuff: the repetition or the meaning?

repetition or interpretation

In the work I’ve done with performers (of all types), there seem to be two main approaches to the task of learning new material.

The first is Repetition camp. The performer learns the new role or piece of music through consistent and constant repetition. As they repeat it, they learn the structure and develop an interpretation organically through the rehearsal process. Some performers actually say they can’t really work on interpretation until they have all the words/notes by memory!

The second approach I’ll describe as the Analysis camp. In this approach, the performer does an in depth analysis of the role or piece of music. They develop an interpretation through the process of analysis, and only then do the words or notes stick in the mind. It is the meaning behind the notes or words that causes them to be memorable.

So which is the better approach? Which form of learning gives better results? Well, it probably won’t surprise you that my answer isn’t a straight yes to one or other approach. Unless you’re planning to perform from memory, that is…

Memorising is your goal? Then no mindless repetition!

If your goal is to be able to perform the piece reliably from memory, then just pure repetition is not going to give you a result that will be robust under stress. Associative chaining (that’s the technical term) is great, but if you miss a note or a phrase in stressful circumstances like an audition, the likelihood is that it will be hard to recover. The evidence is that giving yourself cues (technical, dynamic, phrasing, interpretive) gives. You a better chance of performing under pressure.[1]

Why choose? The flexibility issue.

The primary problem with wanting to choose just one of these approaches, and the main focus of my article today, is that it just isn’t very flexible. Here are the three ways you might be missing out by limiting yourself to one single approach to learning new material:

It isn’t mindful.

There’s good evidence that learning and then unquestioningly following a set of instructions will serve you more poorly than interrogating the principles behind the instructions as you learn them so that you can adapt them to other situations. This is particularly true for mechanical skills, but I think it holds true for processes like learning repertoire, too. We need to be able to adapt our approach to the particular material in front of us – that way we make the best of the material according to our unique skills and needs. [2]

FM Alexander would describe this as “keeping in communication with our reason.” He wanted to encourage adaptability:

A proper standard of mental and physical perfection implies an adaptability which makes it easy for a man to turn from one occupation in which a certain set of muscles are employed, to another involving totally different muscular actions.[3]

It isn’t joined-up

When you have two different approaches to something, why keep them separate? I am reminded of AT teacher Frank Pierce Jones speaking about fields of attention. He had had the experience of EITHER noticing what was going on within himself, OR thinking about the external environment. Then he had a breakthrough.

It was only after I realized attention can be expanded as well as narrowed that I began to note progress… It was just as easy, I found, instead of setting up two fields – one for the self (introspection) and another for the environment (extrqspection) -= to establish a single integrated field in which both the environment and the self could be viewed simultaneously.[4]

It suffers from tunnel vision.

In her fantastic book A Mind for Numbers, Prof Barbara Oakley describes a phenomenon called Einstellung. Literally meaning ‘installation’, she describes it as when we ‘install’ a roadblock in our thinking. When faced with a problem or a task, we might be tempted to focus all our effort on just approach to a solution. But it might not be the right one! If we stay committed to the approach we prefer, we are likely to miss other more valuable approaches. [5]

Let’s try for flexibility instead.

Flexibility means:

  • Having a number of different tools and approaches in your toolkit;
  • Being prepared to use different tools according to the material and your goal;
  • Being prepared to change tools if the one you’re using isn’t working, or if the director/conductor tells you to.

I’ve talked before about open-mindedness being one of FM’s highest positive values. Interestingly, one of his definitions of it involves being able to change jobs if necessary; we see a flavour of that in the quote from Man’s Supreme Inheritance earlier in this article. What he is getting at, I think, is having the ability to recognise when things aren’t working, when the circumstances or processes that you are following are not working to help you achieve your goals, and then to change them.

[1] https://bulletproofmusician.com/regular-memorization-works-ok-but-heres-why-deliberate-memorization-is-way-better/

[2] https://bulletproofmusician.com/mindful-learning-day-wife-nearly-failed-driving-test/

[3] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat, p.136.

[4] Jones, FP. Freedom to Change, London, Mouritz, p.9.

[4] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Kindle ed., pp.19-20.

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