Embracing Repetition

Let me ask you a couple of quick questions…

  • How long did it take you to memorize the alphabet when you were a kid?
  • How many times did you write it out, read it, and say it out aloud before you had totally mastered it?

If you're like me then you probably can't remember.

And what about the multiplication tables?

How many times did you have to go over those bad-boys before you had them totally down? Hundreds of times? Thousands of times? And how long did this take? Hundreds of hours? Longer?

Like the alphabet, I can't remember how long it took. But I'm guessing it took a LOT of time, repetition and practice!

And this is just a couple of examples. What about these…

  • Learning to walk.
  • Learning to speak, read and write fluently.
  • Learning how to tie your shoe laces.
  • Learning how use scissors, pens, and knives and forks.

I'll stop there. But you get the idea. A lot of the skills and abilities that you now take for granted took a lot of effort, time and…of course, repetition.

So why does repetition often get a bad rap?

Is Your Approach To Learning Retarded?

Some of the guitarists that I've taught over the years think of repetition as being a negative thing. They avoid it like the plague. They just want to do the fun and easy stuff, and would prefer not to do anything that resembles daily repetition. And to be perfectly frank, this approach to learning is totally retarded. I'm being serious here. You will literally retard your learning by resisting doing the necessary repetition.

Why? Because repetition is a critical component of learning. It's unrealistic to expect to get really good at anything without repeating certain things over-and-over. And this is especially true for developing motor skills, which is a massive part of learning to play the guitar well.

What To Do If You Find Doing Repetition Is Like Pulling Teeth

My first, and possibly very unhelpful, reponse is to say "Suck it up princess…just do it".

Now that I've got that out of my system, here are a few ideas that might actually help…

Build Your Desire

It's really easy to do the necessary repetition if you have a strong desire to improve. In fact, I would argue that if you are having trouble doing the work, then you probably don't want it badly enough.

I see it from time-to-time in my guitar teaching. A student will write down a goal, but then not do the work needed to achieve that goal. That is a pretty good sign to me that they don't really want to achieve the goal. And this makes sense doesn't it? Anyone can write down a goal, but far fewer will have a strong enough desire to do the repetitive practice that will move them towards that goal.

So the lesson here is to choose goals that really excite you, and continually work at maintaining your motivation levels.

Realize That Certain Musical Goals Will Need Immense Repetition

If you accept that repetition is critical to your success then it becomes much more important to you. You no longer think of it as some chore to get out of the way, but as something that moves you closer to your goal.

Do The Least Enjoyed Activities First

Like goals in other areas of life, to achieve your musical goals you will generally need to do activities that fall into the two following categories…

  • Activities that are fun, easy and interesting.
  • Activities that not so fun, not so easy and not so interesting. For a lot of guitarists, repetitive practice falls into this category.

One strategy guitar players often use is to just do the fun, easy and interesting stuff and avoid the activities that feel like actual work. Of course, this strategy severly limits your potential. And you also run the risk of turning into a "guitar trainspotter". You know…the incredibly annoying character you will often find on guitar forums, who is constantly handing out advice about everything related to guitar and guitar playing…but can't actually play guitar very well. (They're a bit like a 90-pound weakling giving advice to people at a bodybuilding forum!).

I feel that a better strategy is to do the stuff that you enjoy least first. For Example: If you hate practicing scales, then do your scale practice first. That way you can get it out of the way and can finish off your practice session with what you enjoy most. This allows you to do the necessary work, and also finish your practice on a high point with stuff that you love doing.

Learn How To Practice Effectively

While repetition is essential to getting better at guitar, it is important to learn how to make your repetitions as beneficial as possible. And the way you do this is to learn how to practice. The more skillful you become as a practicer, the more leverage you get from every repetition that you do.

Don't Fry Your Brain

I'm a big believer in doing short, intense practice sessions on things that I'm learning. So rather than repeating something a ridiculous number of times each day, I will usually practice something for 15-minutes or less, and then move onto something else. I will then do a small amount of practice on what I'm learning every day until it is mastered.

Use Your High Energy Hours

If you're exhausted from a day at work, are you always going to feel like doing focused, intensive and repetitive practice? Of course not. And even if you force yourself to do the practice, it probably isn't going to be that productive if you're really tired.

So where possible, try to do your most demanding practice at times when you are actually alert. For many people with day jobs, this means getting up early. (Side Note: One of my current students gets up at 4:00am so that he can do two hours of practice before work. Now that's what I call dedication!).

A Few Last Thoughts

I've got to admit that I personally don't have a problem with doing the repetition that is needed to improve my guitar playing. Never have. In fact, I enjoy it immensely. I find it very rewarding, especially when I see the positive results that come about because of the repetition. I find it pretty exciting when something that I used to have trouble with starts to become easy!

With that said, I know from my teaching experience that not everyone is the same as me. A lot of people struggle with the repetitive aspects of learning music and the guitar. So if you struggle with doing the repetition, I hope this article has been helpful!


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