Repetition is the Mother of (Restful) Learning

Every pianist has been told at some point that the secret to beautiful performance is staying relaxed. This does not mean working less hard. It means working only the muscles that are supposed to be working while eliminating tension everywhere else. Relaxation is an important piano technique because it makes an incredible difference in the sound the instrument produces. Much of a piano is made of wood, a living material, which responds to slight differences in touch. This is a beautiful metaphor for teaching and learning. If relaxation in performing an instrument makes such a difference in sound, how much more so can restful teaching affect the instruction of a young person.

Restful teaching does not mean working less hard. It is the hard work of teaching and learning without the tension. For a pianist, tension arises when the strong muscles are doing the work that the weaker muscles should be doing. The solution is two-fold. First, the weaker muscles must be strengthened. Think daily exercises and études for building speed and strength of those tiny, weak, otherwise useless finger muscles. Second, the stronger muscles must be made to relax. Think shoulders down, wrists flexible, elbows in, and breathing. Sounds easy, but this takes practice and good practices. Restful teaching sounds like it should be easy. But it also takes practice and good practices. Impatience, frustration, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy, must all be made to relax.

Repetition is well-established as a component of classical pedagogy. Repetition helps us memorize, helps us remember, helps us perfect and master. I have come to see another virtue in repetition: Repetition is restful. Repetition brings the shoulders down and reduces tension for both the student and the teacher.

When I use the word “repetition,” I am differentiating from “recitation” which is a type of repetition with the aim of memorization. Restful repetition may sometimes look similar, but it has the aim of restfulness. There are many small ways to slip repetition for restfulness into the classroom. I will suggest three: signaling repetition, repeating ideas and themes, and requiring repeated demonstration of narrowly isolated skills.

First, repetition should be signaled to the student. Consider a teacher saying the simple statement, “I will be telling this to you again.” What I believe the student hears is, “I will have patience with you while you learn this. It’s okay if you don’t get this all right now.” Signaling repetition has the effect of communicating patience. We all, students included, struggle with time. Being told that something will be repeated expands time and offers rest in the moment.

When a teacher knows that a lesson will be repeated, pressure on any one lesson vanishes. There is no pressure that the student understand an idea or skill in a single sitting because there is always another day. Restfulness comes when the teacher lets go of the expectation that the student will understand or remember the lesson when it is first introduced. We teachers usually repeat lessons with disappointment; instead, repetition should be the rule and routine. Any recollection on the student’s part after the first lesson should be a pleasant surprise to the teacher.

Second, teachers should repeat beautifully expressed ideas and themes often (even word for word). We tend to fear repeating ourselves because we fear becoming tiresome or uninteresting. This fear is misplaced. We know that a song or a piece of beautiful music sounds different to us the more we hear it. We love listening to our favorite songs over and over. In my experience (with upper and lower elementary school), students find rest in repetition in a similar way. When students are unsure or embarrassed at having forgotten, repetition removes the burden to ask. For the students who do remember, repetition can be like an inside joke that was heard before but referred to again.

Repetition is a fundamental principle of music. Observing the repetition in the classical sonata is instructive because there is one aspect which may be surprising. The classical sonata has three main sections: the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation. The theme, or the key melody of the piece, is repeated in each section. The exposition introduces the theme, first in a major key, the home key, then again in a different major key. In the development, the theme is heard again in a minor key, darker and moodier. The recapitulation returns to the theme in the home key, and we are comforted with the familiarity of the sound. Here is the surprising part: at the end of the exposition, there is a repeat sign. As soon as the exposition concludes, it is heard once more exactly as it was the first time. It is repeated in every detail, the purpose being not a different expression of the same notes, but the identical expression heard again. It has the effect of better establishing the theme before moving on to the development. The listener is given more time to find familiarity and rest in the home key before leaving it.

Finally, after teachers present narrowly isolated skills, they should require the repeated demonstration from their students of these narrowly isolated skills. One of the benefits of committing to practicing repetition is the teacher needs to decide what should be repeated. This usually means identifying something very specific. It is this aspect of specificity that leads to restful learning for the student. I will use a math lesson as an example, but this can be applied widely. In this example, the student has been introduced to algebra and understands the concept of variables and solving for the value of an unknown. Today’s lesson is an introduction to the movement of variables and values to simplify equations. The student will be solving 2x + 1 = x + 5. The lesson involves teaching legal moves. The student learns that a legal move involves removing the exact same thing from each side. An x can be removed from both sides because this is a legal move. A 1 can be removed from both sides because this is a legal move. The equation is simplified to x = 4. After this lesson, the student should be required to solve only equations that look exactly like this one. No extensions! The student should not be expected to use the skills learned in this lesson to solve a different type of equation. The student only needs to demonstrate mastery of the meaning of a “legal move” and how to use legal moves to solve problems that look exactly like the examples from the lesson.

This is restful for the student because everything necessary to complete the practice work has been taught. It is restful for the teacher because mastery can easily be identified and gaps in understanding can easily be found. Curricula often do not offer this type of repetition. Extensions are used as practice (even when they are not labeled as extensions). Tension arises for both the student and the teacher when the student is asked to demonstrate skills that weren’t taught but assumed to be cognitively reachable. It is up to the teacher to build in repetition and dwell on the exact skill taught until mastery is demonstrated.

This summer I took on a new piano student, a lovely twelve year old girl. Her mother stayed for her first lesson, and my student was visibly nervous as I explained to her why we were going to start with scales. I tapped her shoulders, said, “Shoulders down,” and talked her through her scale. Then I said, “Don’t worry, I’m going to say this all again.” She smiled and breathed and her shoulders dropped. Seeing her response, I breathed easier too. Then the hard work began.

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