Repetition is the Mother of All Learning!

SBO Staff • ChoralSeptember 2015The Practical Conductor • September 1, 2015

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p Welcome back to another (hopefully) great school year! There are many adjustments when heading back to class. For many, the sleep cycle must be recalibrated. For some, schools are adopting new technology. However, just about all of us take time to plan new strategies for a new year. If there’s ever a time we are excited to try new teaching strategies, this is it. We should also take time to get in touch with all those tried-and-true teaching techniques that have served us so well in the past, reflecting on our best practices.

 With this in mind, I offer you one potential new research tool, then some thoughts geared towards not overlooking one of the most useful teaching tools – repetition.

FIRST – what’s new: Everyone is always looking for perfect literature for their choir. One of the most effective ways we do this is by the recommendation of our trusted colleagues. “I need sheet music” is a way to streamline and crowdsource this process. It’s a free service where you can make a very specific request like “a piece for graduation for an satb choir with piano, a limited range for the boys, no divisi, and an optional instrument.” Not only will you get a free set of recommendations from a colleague in the field, but you also get links to preview, hear, and purchase the music. The system is designed to learn over time– as recommendations are rated, the system learns and adjusts to provide better suggestions. In just a short time, I have found it to be fantastic. I often ask for help from friends in my state, but after a while we’ve all passed around the same suggestions. is the same concept only with much more brainpower behind it. Give it a shot. You have nothing to lose – the service is free!

SECOND – the tried and true value of repetition, which is something at which our students often balk and even we as teachers try to avoid. We fear boredom and forget the huge benefits of repetition. Get out a pencil and copy this down…

Repetition is the mother of all learning.

Repetition is the mother of all learning.

Repetition is the mother of all learning.

Repetition is the mother of all learning.

Repetition is the mother of all learning.

Repetition is the mother of all learning.

Get the point? One thing I have noticed of late is how many singers/groups fail to understand the value of basic repetition. They overlook time spent doing. They work until they get things right… and then they stop. Ever heard this quote? “An amateur practices until he gets it right; a professional practices until he can’t get it wrong.” I’ve searched around and can’t find a source for this quote, which is too bad… because it’s so powerful.

Early in life we learn the value of repetition, whether from copying times tables over and over until multiplication “clicks” in our heads to shooting the 1,001st free-throw so we’re ready for the 8th grade basketball game. Why does this concept escape so many singers?

I think singers tend to get sucked into the mindset that they are going to sing with their voice, and that any correction made in rehearsal is simply a spot-fix. We’re fixing this chord. We’re fixing this vowel. They don’t seem to understand they are fixing every chord like that one or every AH vowel. They don’t understand that every fix is one more step to improving their voice forever.

What singers need most is consistency. In order to make that happen, they must treat every bit of singing as a chance to enhance. We should not let repetition be for warm-ups, sight-reading, or drills. We should build a mentality of repetition into every rehearsal.

Let’s take vowel purity as a test case. How many pure vowels are there anyway? I tend to stick to 7: EE (meet), IH (hit), EH (red), AH (father), AW (tall), OH (boat), and OOH (moon). If you are arguing for a different list, I hear you. Some people use more, some fewer. Still, we can base almost ALL singing off of these seven, then add variation as needed.

So, assuming we’re working from seven vowels, then every time we sing, we’re practicing our consistency producing those vowels. Around 90 percent of our singing is on vowels, so taking the mindset of constantly practicing vowel production always is nothing but beneficial. When a vowel is corrected in rehearsal, an OK singer will think “I need to sing taller on this note,” but a great singer will think “all my AH vowels need to be like this.”

Let’s look at another scenario – singing properly within a chord. If you are, for example, a tenor singing a fifth against the bass and make an adjustment to help that chord ring, you might think “I have to adjust on this chord.” OR… if you are really sharp, you would think “Whenever I’m singing a fifth, I have to adjust.” If you are really, really, really sharp, you’d listen to the adjustment of every chord tone in the group (brightening thirds, lifting fifths, darkening sevenths, et cetera) instead of just your own – because someday you’ll be on a different chord tone yourself.

Let’s say you are working on a phrase of descending eighth notes in which chromatics are affecting your pitch accuracy. Do you work on that phrase in isolation, over and over at different speeds (slow to fast) in order to make it second nature? Maybe yes, maybe no – but you should.

Every little piece of your singing needs to be performed well and repeated successfully until it is second nature. Here are some tips to develop good habits of repetition.

• Isolate smaller sections of music: Don’t sing whole songs or even half songs. Perfect a phrase or even narrow your focus to individual intervals, even notes. Strengthen the smaller pieces of music until they are stellar, and then begin stringing them back together until you have larger chunks of music in your back pocket.

•  Think globally, act locally: whenever you are fixing a piece of your singing, remember that similar spots are likely to occur many times in the same song, and likely countless times throughout your singing career. There’s only so many vowels, so many pitches, so many rhythms. They might come in different combinations, but if you are smart you’ll begin to see everything in patterns. I call this developing your vocal instincts.

• Keep up on your yard work: If you are working on new material, break it into small parts that you improve and rebuild into larger musical chunks. If you are working on material that is farther along and seems solid, test yourself by singing the same material five times in a row into a recorder, then listening back to find areas of inconsistency. Revisit material regularly, because learning music is like doing yard work – you put a lot of time into mowing your lawn, trimming hedges, edging sidewalks, et cetera, so that they all look great. If you stop there and don’t revisit those chores, weeds will grow back and grass will get shaggy again. The more often you revisit material, the easier it is to keep clean.

Get over yourself: you are not so great as to avoid singing the same thing over and over again.

• Mark your music more than once: when a correction is made, mark it. When you miss it again, mark it again.

• Looping: If you are practicing something troublesome, don’t just do it a few times. I will sometimes make my choir sing the same short phrase up to 30 times in a row (with short suggestions interspersed) in order to lock their performance in place.

Three times for good measure: When you are working on a problem in rehearsal, don’t move on because you get it right once. Do it correctly three times in a row to make sure it sticks.

• Short performances: one of the greatest things that ever happened to my group, Eleventh Hour, is the incorporation of short performances. They meet every day after school and sing two songs. No warm-up, no stopping, just two songs. This type of performance without the safety net of “do-overs” is something that will really strengthen a group. If you have a larger choir then every day might not be feasible, but perhaps it could happen once a week. Any extra performing is better than none.

Build more repetition and the mindset of repetition into your singing, and you’ll reap great benefits in the long haul.

Build more repetition and the mindset of repetition into your singing, and you’ll reap great benefits in the long haul.

Build more repetition and the mindset of repetition into your singing, and you’ll reap great benefits in the long haul.

Build more repetition and the mindset of repetition into your singing, and you’ll reap great benefits in the long haul.

Build more repetition and the mindset of repetition into your singing, and you’ll reap great benefits in the long haul.

Brody-McDonald-SMALLBrody McDonald is the director of choirs at Kettering Fairmont High School. Under his leadership, his curricular choirs have consistently earned the highest ratings at state level contest and have been featured at numerous conventions. He is at the forefront of the a cappella movement, serving as a founding member and the vice president of the A Cappella Education Association. His a cappella ensemble, Eleventh Hour, was the first high school group ever to compete on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Brody is also the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Brody has recently joined the faculty at Wright State University as director of A Cappella Studies. He has partnered with Deke Sharon to launch Camp A Cappella, a summer camp designed to immerse singers in the contemporary a cappella style, which will take place June 23-28, 2015 at Wright State University. For more information, please visit and

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