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When I start on a new song, I tend to do so because I'm completely absorbed by the piece and its emotion. Inevitably, I have to play recordings of the piece a few dozen times until I'm comfortable playing it. Within a few plays, the original emotional draw starts to fade. After a few dozen, it's often just notes and lyrics without much punch at all, and it's devastating.

When motivated to learn a piece by emotion, how do you prevent the repetition involved in learning the piece from killing the emotion and leaving the piece practiced but lifeless?

  • You practise it, and let other people feel the punch. --- Also, it's worth noting that if you learn a song, and give it a break, you might feel it more later on. – AJFaraday Jul 30 at 14:29

12 Answers 12

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Summarized nutshell answer: multiple short sessions of practice will be more productive than one long one.

I’m no authority on it, but I understand there are different kinds of learning.

Extended repetition might be good for muscle memory. Playing chord changes or scales over and over (perfectly) until they are instinctual.

But when it comes to learning new concepts, extended repetition can be counterproductive. We are better served by multiple short learning sessions, than by one long session.

In my own playing I have found this to also be true when recording tracks. Most of the time, after three takes it is best for me to take a break than to continue trying to improve what I’ve already done. Even on the rare occasion of a live performance, I hesitate to practice a set on the same day, as it can make the eventual performance feel stale to me.

So practicing a song 2-3 times a day, maybe three times per a 15-minute session, would probably be more productive for you than running through the song a dozen or so times in one sitting. Even 3-4 times through the song once a day is likely more productive. The brain needs down time to organize what it’s been processing. A lot of that happens when we are sleeping or when we are performing mindless tasks like driving or folding laundry (or meditating like suggested above.)

Also I agree with the idea above of recording yourself. Not only can it be satisfying to hear yourself improve, providing you with a little of that “punch,” but you’ll hear what you’re playing better than while you’re playing it, and your brain will better process what can be done to improve without your busy hands/mouth/feet getting in the way. The next time you play the song your brain will remember what it heard, as well as what it may have better wanted to hear, and you’ll be able to apply those ideas to improve your playing.

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The same thing happens in our everyday lives. You WANT to HAVE something. But when you finally get it, you lose the excitement of getting it... Seems like half of the fun is gone.

Even, just over-listening to the theme seems to make it lose its magic... In fact if I speak and repeat the same sentence a lot of times, it seems to lose even the meaning of those words.

But don't worry about it, sure there's things you can do. First of all find another excitement on the same theme.... Maybe the excitment and joy of performing it in front of an audience and see their reaction.., or try to record yourself playing to see how close you can reproduce that wonderful theme you loved.

You know... Once you get to something, push the barrier further. Also don't get your mind blocked repeating over and over, and always have a couple of themes you learn at the same time so you can switch in between them.

Unless you have to learn it quick for any reason. In that case you'll have to repeat it until you kinda end up hating it :) But even in that case you will for sure listen to it years later and still love it. Like that song you loved, over played on the radio until you hate it, but time goes by and you can hear it and love it again.

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    It's like hearing Bohemian Rhapsody - once a year or three it's great. Every week… ermmm... – Tetsujin Jul 27 at 12:35
  • *lose. I can't edit your post for such small character counts. – Adam Barnes Jul 27 at 22:21
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    @Tetsujin Indeed - "Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" is how I feel after practicing the same thing too much – marcellothearcane Jul 28 at 6:38
  • Thanks @Adam Barnes – pol Cayuela Jul 28 at 11:56
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Punch#1 Hearing it for the first time.

Punch#2 doing a good job of playing it yourself!

Punch #3,#4,#5 etc. Seeing an audience get a punch from you performing it.

Anyway, enough with the therapy. Back to the practice so that when there ARE some gigs again you'll get them.

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6

Very hard question, and probably something that any musician must have felt at some point in their musical journey. Yet I haven't heard it being discussed that much.

I do not pretend to have an answer to this at all, but I figured I'd share some thoughts on this based on my subjective experience to complete the other interesting existing answers.

Your question relates to your own subjective enjoyment of your music. The concept of Shoshin ("Beginner's mind") in Zen Buddhism is what pops to my mind when reading your question. According to wikipedia :

[Shoshin] refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when [approaching an activity].

According to this article,

The moment something becomes familiar to us, the mind tries to take over, calling up memories, and creating expectations and fears which stop us from connecting directly to the reality of the present moment.

My guess would be that a part of the joy we have when performing a new song comes from this openness and unexpecting attitude. From my experience, meditating can make me get closer to this state of openness, and it also usually makes me enjoy my own (and any) music more.

On the same note, the best "course of action" might actually just be to accept it. It's a common thing, familiarity can strip a piece of his magic. It might be that the expection of that "punch", of being moved by the piece is one of the reasons you don't feel it anymore.

Be open and ready to be or not be moved, and let any emotion or lack of emotion flow. Enjoyment of music is in nature a very spiritual activity, therefore we don't have any recipe to reach any emotion 100% of the time. Let it flow :)

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...Inevitably, I have to play recordings of the piece a few dozen times...

Actually, after re-reading your question a few times, I'm a little unsure what the problem is. You didn't even mention a specific piece. But from the words "recording" and "lyrics" I assume the music is a pop genre.

I suspect the problem - or part of it - is about imitating the recording rather than interpreting the song with your own musical sensibilities. The emotional dulling will set in both from repeated play of the recording and unchanging performance, because it's the same thing over and over. The way out of the problem is to find new interpretations of the song.

The question is specifically about learning a new piece and I think that is an especially good time to explore many different performance approaches to better understand the material. If you don't start with a fixed idea of how the performance should go - which working from a record sets up - you should try lots of options for tempo, articulation, and dynamics. Eventually something will emerge that feels right. That process won't be dulling. You should get a lot of musical satisfaction from it.

An example that comes to mind for finding new ways to interpret a song is Sting and Message in a Bottle. He's been playing that song for 40 year and keeps find new ways to arrange and perform it. Surely he isn't working from the excitement of a new song. He must be asking himself something like how do I treat my performance so it's not a Xerox copy made redundant by the recording?

Listening to lots of cover song recordings may help too. IMO good covers aren't just an imitation of the existing recording. The different performances may provide ideas about how to keep things fresh.

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  • I'm not a musician, but in my yoga practice, the way I think of it is like reading a book. New day, same book, different chapter. – Diagon Jul 29 at 3:27
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    @Diagon, I think that is a nice comparison. You could say the point is to become sensitive to the small differences, because in the grand scheme of things there is a lot of sameness in day to day experiences ...and musical performances. – Michael Curtis Jul 29 at 14:13
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Taking out emotion and unexpected variation is the point

The common saying about the difference between an amateur and a professional is not how well they play at their best, but how well they play at their worst. The purpose of practise is not so you can play it right, it's so you get to the point where you can't fail to play it right. The notes just happen on their own, without emotional contact.

When you're at that point, you're free to put way more thought into how you want it to sound. You don't need to concentrate on hitting notes, you can go for the feeling.

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    This should be higher. In my band we used to say "dulling" is the final stage before you really master a song. I.e, you should be able to play the song with all the emotion intact, while reading the newspaper. I saw Aerosmith perform "dream on", their hit from 1973, a few years back with perfect execution and feel. If you can do that while playing a piece for the millionth time, you're a pro. – Douwe Jul 30 at 13:41
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If a song loses its punch after playing it a dozen times - the song was shallow to begin with. It could have been fun to listen to, it might have given you a frisson of enjoyment - but the beauty was just skin deep.

Same with movies, plays, friendships, books, hobbies, computer games, romance etc.

Just move on and dig deeper. You have learned all you could from this experience. Your judgement and tastes have evolved, you are well prepared to find something deeper, which will last longer.

You will know you have found a masterpiece - when you feel the life is not enough to understand and enjoy all its facets. And you will feel the need to become a better musician just to give it some justice. Such masterpieces exist.

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When I'm learning a new song I practice serious the first few time, till I sort of get the hang of it.

Then I put on a silly tv show that only needs half my attention and the other half of the attention goes into more practice.

So during practice its a bit numb down emotionally as it does not sound so close to the original and I only pay have attention.
It's a bit easier with electric guitar as the don't make much noise unplugged and are relatively small. But I think this approach works for other instruments.

And when I play the song for real I put on a backing track and plug in my guitar. Which make it sound way better and way more like the original.

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  1. The "punch" is everything. Focus on it since the very first time you perform a piece.
  2. What is the purpose of repeating material during the practice in the first place? Very often it is to improve technical aspects: memorization, pitch, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, stamina and so on. Now, mindless repeating of the whole piece is usually not only a sure way to "dull the punch" but also very inefficient way to improve technique. What you can do instead:
    • isolate difficult fragments: motifs, phrases or bars, as needed, and focus on them in your practice
    • find other exercises for the specific issues you encounter in your piece
    • record yourself and analyze
    • as @wabisabied wrote, frequent, short, intensive and attentive practice sessions are more productive than rare, long, disorganized and mindless ones
    • breaks help (if you can afford them!)
    • when you practice the whole piece, focus on the emotional delivery, about the "punch"
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It can help to think of these things as two different modes. Learning a tune can sometimes be robotic and dedicated to building muscle memory, while the performance is another thing. For the latter, you sometimes have to bring yourself to the song. It won't always just take you over and make you feel.

Somebody once told me that before he would perform a song he'd imagine it was the greatest song ever, and his job was to show the audience how great it was.

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This is part of being human. Novelty is exciting, then the stimuli that used to give you goosebumps stop doing it anymore.

As a performer you can do this: Don't play just for your own enjoyment, but imagine that your audience is hearing the piece for the first time. How would you make them feel the same (or even more intense) emotions you felt during their first listen of the piece? Play for them. That shift in perspective can give you a new level of excitement. Think of it as a service - or like when you hear a nice song and make your friend listen to it hoping that they'll love it as well - but you are in control of their experience. How would you like them to hear it for the first time? Now is your chance to provide it!

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Music is part craft and part art. Both need to come together to create great music. The craft part often involves repetitive practice.

Many musicians experience the repetitiveness of practicing as a positive, meditative state. It’s similar to what monks do, when they watch a single stone for hours. Try to view as something positive. And don’t be afraid that it will erase your emotional playing abilities - it will do quite the contrary! After you have ingrained the craft, the emotions can flow unhindered.

But sometimes too much repetitiveness is not good. Once you hit the point where you make more mistakes by repeating, you should probably take a break.

To prevent getting bored, I often like to play around with the songs material: improvise over it, change a chord, create a song using the changes, change the melody, have fun...

A recipe I often geared for practice is:

  • start with 10min playing to warm up
  • Practice however long you need to
  • Finish by taking 10min to just play freely and have fun with your music
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