Rote Learning

When developing one’s technical ability, it is important to thoroughly internalize the fine detail of each individual technique until it is ingrained in muscle memory. The simplest path to achieving this is through the tried and trusted method of Rote Learning. RL is the process, by repetition, of memorising small amounts of information. These small amounts of information can then be built on to form larger memorisations which would have, before, seemed like too much to be learnt all at once. The information is committed robustly and thoroughly to memory by repeating over and over a basic idea which, when applied to guitar playing, could be a bar of music (then built up bar by bar to build a song), a repeating technical exercise or a tiny part of a bar (a troublesome or difficult component part of a piece which needs addressing to improve the bar itself). It is the repetition itself which, in turn, treads a well worn path of familiarity into, not only the memory but, also the muscle memory. This is by no means a new method – young children have been using RL to memorize holy texts for hundreds of years and the practice dates back to the days before written language was available to some societies as there was no other way to log information.

Back to the present day this can be extremely useful for every day guitar technique practice. I first started using this method around 10 years ago. The way I implemented RL was to identify my goal for whatever it was that I was practicing – let’s say it was the memorisation of a particular scale shape. I would practice the scale shape for 5 minutes solid (only taking a break at the onset of any pain), timing myself with a stop watch (5 minutes seems like an age when first trying this so a timer of some kind is vital) and always keeping my timing in check with a metronome. The speed of the metronome would depend on how comfortable I was with the shape at that time, if it was new to me then I would set the tempo to a speed that was more than comfortable. This speed would increase as I improved through the weeks but the one constant would be the 5 minute period of practice time. I have stayed with this method ever since.

This was an important realisation for me and transformed not only my practice sessions, making them more of a workout and challenge – each day became a kind of gym session where I tried to ‘oudo’ the previous day’s efforts but also the results I got from those sessions – increased endurance, speed, dexterity and renewed enthusiasm for practice by competing with myself. My sessions also became easier to plan. Each 5 minute slot could be easily accounted for, I had some idea of how much practice time I would need to allot and I could ensure that the session would be varied and I wouldn’t run out of time before I got to move on and practice other important techniques.

Prior to my RL epiphany, when practicing, I would take an exercise/scale shape, practice it for a while (no particular time period) at a comfortable speed, have a short break, move the tempo up and repeat. This method was fundamentally flawed – it lacked focus, wasn’t a robust enough workout and simply took too long – I could take up to half an hour just to practice 1 exercise. So I now get more out of less time and enjoy that time greatly. I also have a rule that everything I practice must have a purpose or end product – to eventually end up in a song or improvisation. If not it will be dropped from practice with immediate effect. It is very easy for ‘dead wood’ to creep in to a practice routine so adhering to the ‘use it or lose it’ rule can add a beneficial and succinct standard to avoid any time wasting.

UPDATE (27/01/15): I have found a great new metronome, which is a free app on the Apple app store which has a built in timer. The timer automatically starts as the metronome counts you in and therefore combines two pieces of equipment into one and makes practicing with it easier as there is only one button that needs to be pressed. Click here to see the app. 

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