The Danger of Looping Music in Practice

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is why looping sections of music doesn’t work in piano practice. It seems counterintuitive since you want to repeat things over and over to solidify them. Many times, I see students struggling, looping something over and over again, and not getting anywhere. Why doesn’t this work? Well, it comes down to the simple fact that practicing has some physiological component to it, but primarily:

Practicing is a thought process.

Take the time to stop and listen. Let’s say you’re working on a piece of music. Everything’s going fine, but then you get to a section that you can’t play up to speed, or it’s sloppy, or uneven. So you start practicing it. You just keep looping that section hoping to make it better. The problem with this is you’ve turned yourself into a robot! You’re just a machine playing it over and over again, without giving yourself the time to listen to what you’re doing. You’re not stopping long enough to make a judgment. Listen closely, then stop and ask yourself if that’s the way you want to play it. If the answer is yes, great! See if you can do it that way again. If the answer is no, decide specifically what you want to do differently next time.

Looping a phrase doesn’t give you time to listen.

When you loop a phrase, your mind can be anywhere. It’s not a thought process anymore. It’s just a mechanical motion. You might get a little exercise for your hands, but are you going to get any real value? Are you going to clean up your playing? Are you going to make it more even? No, you’re just repeating the same thing again and again. So if it happens to be exactly the way you want to play it, great! But if it isn’t, you’re cementing a poor performance. Your hands now know how to play it the way you don’t want because you never stopped to listen. You have to listen each and every time you repeat the phrase so you can determine whether it is what you want. And if it’s not what you want, you need to know exactly what to listen for the next time and find a solution.

Give yourself the time to listen to each repetition of a phrase rather than mindlessly looping it over and over again, because that accomplishes very little.

You’re not really refining your music when you’re just repeating things over and over in a loop fashion. So avoid those loop situations, unless it’s so perfect that you want to loop it again and again, perfectly. At that stage, there’s nothing wrong with looping. But make sure it’s the sound you’re after, because you’re going to cement it into your hands and your ears. If it isn’t exactly what you want, it’s going to be 10 times harder to undo what you have learned. Motor memory is very strong! It takes great intentional work to undo motor memory that’s ingrained in your hand. So looping can be dangerous! Be sure you are mindful taking time between repetitions when you’re practicing sections of music. That’s the lesson for today! I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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9 thoughts on “The Danger of Looping Music in Practice”

  1. I can think of another problem. If you loop a lot, it will be hard to make the transition from the looped part to the next section. Your brain/fingers are going to want to go back to the beginning of the loop. I don’t know how to fix this.

    1. You are right. Fixing a mistake requires putting into context which is often a multi-stage process going back a little bit, then a little bit more, then back to the beginning of the piece (or section). Then, as you say, you must be able to continue through the next section!

      1. I’ve also found that adding a little bit after as well as before helps. What I’ve found works really well both for me and my students, is this:
        1. play 2 – 3 measures before the passage, and the first note of the beginning of the passage and stop; do this several times so that the entry into the passage is secure.
        2. play the last measure of the passage, and the 1 – 2 measures following it several times so that the exit from the passage is secure.
        3. practice the passage several times (using different approaches – rhythms, accents, etc.) ​always ending on the first note of the measure following.
        4. play the passage and 1 – 2 measures following it several times.
        5. play the 2 – 3 measures before the passage, continue through the passage, and play the 1 – 2 measures following it several times.
        6. practice adding measures before and afterwards to make a complete musical phrase.

        Somehow adding measures afterwards first, then adding measures before seems to work really well.

      2. These are all valuable practicing tips. The final stage is going back to the beginning of the piece (or the beginning of the section in a longer work like a sonata).

  2. This is a good example of why using a variety of approaches is helpful. I find that practicing a specific passage many different ways helps me to put it together the ‘right’ way in the end. At least it works for me. I learned these approaches from my teachers, and I also see these approaches recommended by many other teachers online and in publications – including quite a few of your videos, Robert. The idea is to play the passage always using the correct fingers on the correct notes, but play it as many different ways as possible, which makes the piece more difficult to play than it actually is. Then when playing the passage normally, it seems easier by comparison, and one can focus on bringing out the artistic elements rather than struggling with the technical difficulties.
    Some of the approaches to use to avoid identical looping would be:
    – play without using the sustain pedal (see Robert’s recent tutorial on this)
    – play duple meter pieces in dotted rhythms:
    – long – short long – short
    – short long – short long
    – play triple meter pieces in eighth and (2) sixteenth-note rhythms:
    – long – short short (8th – 16th, 16th)
    – short short long (16th, 16th, 8th)
    – use a metronome sometimes – especially when playing dotted rhythms
    – play at dynamic level ‘piano’ with different forte accents:
    – accent every on-beat note
    – accent every off-beat note
    – play in dotted rhythms and accenting the longer note
    – play both hands forte staccato (without pedal)
    – play the left hand legato and right hand staccato
    – play the right hand legato and left hand staccato
    – play the left hand pianissimo and right hand forte
    – play the left hand forte and right hand pianissimo
    – play the left hand staccato and pianissimo and right hand legato and forte
    – play the right hand staccato and pianissimo and left hand legato and forte

    Now – after doing all that, see what happens when you play it ‘normally’ — 🙂

      1. ABSOLUTELY! I find that using the metronome progressively with the various rhythmic patterns and accents is very beneficial. Then for finishing, use the metronome progressively playing the piece normally.
        One other use I find for the metronome is for what I call “smoothing” by setting the metronome very “wide” – for example, the first beat and third beat of each measure, or the first beat of every measure. This helps establish the larger feel for evenness in tempo over larger portions of notes while getting away from the granular and vertical feeling of marking quarter notes or eighth notes.

  3. When you come to the last chord in a piano piece, I have been told to keep your hands/fingers on the keys, holding the sound — don’t rely on the pedal to sustain the sound.

    Any thoughts on this idea?

    Thanks!!

    gib rogers
    Lexington, South Carolina

    1. When playing a finely regulated piano, releasing the hands slowly while also lifting up the pedal, allows you to fade out the last chord of a piece with precision. It also looks better since the audience may not realize when a piece ends if the player doesn’t have their hands on the piano anymore. You sometimes want the sound and mood to stay in the air as a piece ends.

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