by Pete Wernick
Stuck Trying to Learn a Song? Try the Loop Method
Taking a short segment of a musical piece and playing it repeatedly in rhythm, without stopping, is an extremely useful practice technique for tackling challenges on any instrument. It has some important advantages over practicing an entire piece—it forces you to concentrate on that one part without distraction and also makes it easier to focus on the details. Here’s how this “loop method” works:
1. Troubleshoot. The first step is to play a piece, listen to it, and look for problems. A recording device can help by allowing you to hear yourself without being distracted by all the effort that goes into playing.
2. Create a loop. Pull out a short section (one or two measures) that includes one or more problems. Making a section of exactly one or two measures allows the repetitions to come out in rhythm. Once you’ve played the section through, repeat it without hesitation, so the playing stays on beat. There may be problems jumping right from the end of the section to the beginning of the section, such as an incompatibility of fingerings between the two parts. Typically, the last note of the phrase is less important than the first, and if necessary, could simply be left out.
3. Slowly practice the loop to be sure it’s memorized. Don’t worry about how slowly you play it, just make sure the sequence of notes is correct. Work toward doing it without full concentration. (If the loop is being used for memorization, do this step until you’re satisfied that it’s accessible to you easily whenever you try to call it up.) For the next steps you will need at least part of your mind free to exercise critical judgment as you play.
4. Playing the loop at a comfortable speed, set your metronome to that speed and check for timing irregularities. Be sure the first note of the loop, and all other notes that fall on beats, are aligned with beats on the metronome. Get comfortable with the repetitions and start concentrating on listening.
5. Perfecting the Loop at slow speed is a pivotal step. If you can’t play it accurately at a slow speed, how could you expect to play it well at a challenging tempo? Each time the problem spot comes around, listen for it and try to make the necessary correction. Listen for correct timing, smoothness, clarity, and proper volume, and don’t let it rush or drag. If it still isn’t right, slow it down again, until it is right and stays right as you repeat.
6. If a problem persists, determine the culprit. What finger is not doing its job right? The solution to the problem is to make the responsible muscle (or group of muscles) do its job right. The strength, flexibility, and coordination that a musician’s muscles need are gained through practice, just like the muscles of an athlete or dancer. Sheer repetition will allow power and ease of movement to develop, resulting in better sounding notes. (As you condition finger muscles you’ll find improvement in other areas of your playing.)
7. Develop a smaller loop, if appropriate, to focus more specifically on a move that needs work. The reasoning is the same as in making the original loop—to concentrate on just the problem, saving time and maximizing focus. Now, as before, memorize and smooth out this new, smaller loop. Keep practicing it! Make sure it sounds good, and if it doesn’t, slow down and concentrate more.
8. As the sound improves and stays consistently good, increase the speed. Watch for problems you had previously ironed out to recur. That may happen as you begin to play the piece faster, or louder, or allow your concentration to slacken. Your goal, ultimately, is to be able to play the phrase accurately and comfortably, regardless of distraction. Persistence will gradually win out.
9. As it smooths out, continually try the problem section back in the context of the tune. Is the transition in and out of the section smooth, or do problems recur? It’s harder to suddenly come up on a difficult section and breeze through it. You may need to practice the transition loop-style, by creating a loop that includes the transition.
10. Consider each problem solved when it consistently sounds good, even the first time you try to play the tune on any given day. A good sign is when you find yourself breezing through what used to be the problem area, confident that it will sound good. Put yourself to the test by playing it without looking, when distracted, or faster than normal.
11. Keep working on problems you spot in the piece. Working on several loops during your practice session will accomplish a lot in time—though it may take a while to truly iron out all the bugs in a piece. Now you’re ready to put the “something extra” aspects—accents, feeling, etc.—into the piece. When you’re done you’ll have a lot to show, as the positive muscle training will carry over to other parts of your playing.
For more details on Pete Wernick’s Loop method and other playing tips visit his website: drbanjo.com.