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On Repetition

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The French for rehearsal is ‘répétition’, which captures an interestingly different aspect of the process than the English term’s implications of ‘trial run’. Things need doing more than once to secure the combination of mental concept and motor actions we experience as ‘doing it right’.

But simply repeating things isn’t enough. It is easy to spend a lot of rehearsal time repeating the same errors and inadequacies you are already quite good at. Improving the music requires a change in behaviour.

This process of making changes, then routinising them is a recurring theme of this blog over the years. I’ve looked at it via Kotter’s model of organisation change, through the Dilts Pyramid, and most directly through my model of the Intervention and Enforcement Cycles (which itself crystallised in the wake of reading Doug Lemov’s ideas on effective classroom habits). Oh, and then with additions from Chip and Dan Heath last year.

Today I am going to make an observation that is obvious once you point it out, but which I have found useful to think about specifically in the context of rehearsing and coaching.

When you have made an intervention – i.e. given an instruction that invites the musicians to change something in what they’re doing – you know it has the potential to be successful when it effects an immediate and dramatic improvement in their performance. However, you can’t yet call it successful because you don’t know whether it is going to be a permanent improvement. As Bill Rashleigh once responded to my positive recognition of a change: ‘Yesss! Once in a row!’

So the most important thing to do at this point is to do it again. You need to secure the change. What you’ll often find at this point is that the second attempt is not as good as the first. It’s probably nearer your goal than before the intervention, but it’s only halfway there. Or in the case of expressive changes, it sounds too studied, as if it’s trying to copy the memory of what they just did, rather than recreating the effect.

The important thing is to note that this is perfectly normal. There’s no point in worrying that it wasn’t as good as the first time, because this happens all the time. You just need to acknowledge that you know the performers can do it better and give them another go. It won’t take them very many more attempts to find their way into doing it the new way reliably.

This makes perfect sense when we think about what Daniel Coyle told us about the process of building neural pathways in developing skills. The more often a particular neural pathway is used, the more myelin builds up around it, which allows it to fire with increasing ease and efficiency. And the near-misses and self-correction are an inherent part of the process of setting up this new pathway.

See what I mean about this being perfectly self-evident when you stop to think about it? But thinking about it keeps you honest in the heat of the moment. It reminds you that, ‘Yes that was good, do it again’ is usually the correct response to an effective change, and reminds you not to mind when it’s not so good second time. And it keeps you focused on the value of the French as well as the English terms for the activity of practising together.

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