I recently read a post on Amy Porter's website discussing useful practice "cures" for technical challenges. There was some great information included in this very useful list! Some of the tips are tried and true warhorses of my teaching and practicing regimen, some I had forgotten about, and some were great food for thought.
One that stuck out in my mind was the "Rule of Seven." In Amy's words: "Do it right seven times. Mess up? Back to one!" This is a great, very effective practicing rule. I use and teach it often (sometimes I use the "Rule of Ten" instead). I'd like to elaborate a little on how to use this Rule of Seven to your best advantage.
There is an old Latin phrase: Repetitio mater studiorum est. It means "repetition is the mother of all learning." It was discovered that the brain needs to hear a new word many times within a matter of minutes in order to learn it. There is also an interesting article I read titled "How to Retain 90% of Everything You Learn," in which it mentions the learning pyramid and the fact that we retain 90% of what we teach, and 75% of what we practice (in other words, what we repeat) while we learn less than 30% of what we try to learn from reading and listening.
The Rule of Seven is also a marketing term. The idea is that a potential client or buyer will need to hear your message seven times before they buy from you.
The idea here is to repeat things. Stick with it. Make sure you can do it right seven times before moving on. Pretty simple. However, there is some pretty good research out there proving that too much repetition can dull the brain through a process called "habituation." This is the reason why, if you practice a piece for months and months, it can get worse. Your brain becomes habituated and no longer retains a sharp focus on the details of what you are doing. You can read an interesting article about this and how to avoid it during practice time HERE on The Bulletproof Musician, one of my favorite blogs.
Habituation aside, let's get to the Rule of Seven and how best to use it (because tricky passages are just the tip of the iceberg!):
- Seven Times: When you have a tricky passage, or a place where you don't transition from one phrase to another, repeat it seven times in a row correctly. The key point here is CORRECTLY. If you don't get it right, then begin again. This means you need to be mindful during your repetitions. If you need to insert a pause before a note or put a fermata on a note to avoid playing the next note wrong, this still counts as a correct repetition the first time you apply the Rule of Seven. Inserting some wise "anti-error" techniques will help you avoid having to start over too many times. In subsequent repetitions (maybe at the next practice) have a goal of eliminating any pauses.
- Seven Attempts: I usually prefer 10 for this one. If you are trying a new concept (such as a new way of articulating, a new vowel shape in the mouth, etc) that is different from what your body is used to doing, please give it 7 (or 10) tries in a row before you give up on it. During these repetitions, the dust may clear and you may discover that it actually works for you.
- Seven Ways: Since we don't want to bore ourselves, it's important to vary the way we practice not only passages but entire pieces: 1. Play it in a different style. 2. Play it with different dynamics. 3. Play it in a different KEY (**I need to do this more often!**). 4. Play it from different sections. 5. Play in different tempi. 6. Play phrases in reverse order from the end of the piece to the beginning of the piece. 7. Play in different rooms and acoustics so you experience "live" and "dry."
- Seven Days in a Row: Consistency is always key. You might want to try to practice seven days in a row if you've never done that before. You might want to make sure you rotate through your difficult passages seven days in a row. If you are a person who likes variety too much (like me), you might like to make sure you practice the same stuff seven days in a row.
- Seven People/Seven Experiences: If you are preparing for an audition, recital, or anything important, try to seek out seven people to listen to you on seven separate occasions. The repetition of the experience of performing for someone will ease your nerves and help you know what you need to put more focus on during your practice sessions. **this is something I need to remind myself to do more often!!**
- Seven Opinions: Along the lines of "Seven People," seek seven constructive opinions about your playing: take masterclasses, play for colleagues and friends, generally get brave and willing to absorb seven new viewpoints. **this is another thing I need to do more often!**
- Seven Months: Give things time. If you have a long-term goal to achieve, give yourself seven months in which to do it. Use smaller versions of the Rule of Seven along the way to get you there!
- Seven Because You are Flummoxed: I recently started implementing this one in my practice. I was having some fundamental issues that I was not able to solve in my playing. I honestly did not have a clue as to what I needed to do. Everything I knew was not working. So I just started repeating passages while noticing how I felt and what I did until I had an idea of what to do. Sometimes with (mild) repetition, the dust does clear in your mind.
In summary, we all need to give things a go repeatedly before moving on and giving up. Hand-in-hand with this comes a warning that if seven is good, 100 may not be better: don't forget to use variety in both your repetitions and your practice sessions so that you don't get habituated and "turn off."
If you come up with your own new take on the Rule of Seven, please share! Happy practicing!