You know how when you say a word many times in a row ("Donut. Donut donut donut donut donut...") it starts to sound weird? It gets divorced from its meaning and becomes pure sound. This same thing happens when you mindlessly play the same musical figure ad nauseum. Here's how to get just the right number of repetitions of a musical passage.
Small segments, slowly
First of all, you should be working on sections so small that you can play them correctly on the first try. If you mess up, you are either taking too big a section, or going too fast, or both.
Don't be a hero! Don't think that going slowly or breaking things down makes you a weaker musician:
- The slower you practice, the faster you will learn.
- The tighter your focus, the shorter your practice.
The Comfort Score
Do you have a small-enough chunk to work with? Good. Now play it, paying attention to how it feels, not just how it sounds. Now, give yourself a Comfort Score from one to ten.
This score is not "how many mistakes did I make?" If you made mistakes, you might be going to fast or playing too big a section. If you chose your section well (it could be just one note), you didn't make any errors. Instead, ask yourself, "How comfortable was while I played that?"
Ten is "I can play this effortlessly with my eyes closed." One is, "I think I just passed out in the middle from concentrating too hard."
If your score was any lower than eight, play it again. Keep evaluating yourself, and keep repeating the passage, until you score eight or nine. Do not aim for ten, because you will go mad.
By the time you score an eight or nine, you have played the musical passage a few times correctly, evaluating yourself every step of the way. Your playing feels relaxed and masterful. When you reach this point, stop. Resist the temptation to play the phrase again.
Your choices at this point:
- Go on to a different section or piece
- Practice a section adjacent to the one you just played, overlapping
- Expand the section you just worked on
- Go have some ice cream
There's always tomorrow
When you come back to this piece at your next practice session, it will probably take you fewer repetitions to get to a Comfort Score of eight or nine. Good! Eventually, you'll be able to score a nine on your first try. This doesn't require hundreds of repetitions. Intense focus and thoughtful self-evaluation will shorten your practice time to only what is needed.