I find that when I am memorising any sort of sequence – song lyrics, dance moves, lines for a presentation – I usually over rehearse the beginning and spend hardly any time on the end. This seems to happen whether I am directing the learning myself, or if I am learning as part of a group under someone else’s direction. It is frustrating because it feels like a waste of time, and the frustration grows as the rehearsal time starts to run out.

I think this pattern emerges because it is always easier just to go back to the start than to begin a run-through from a mid-point. It also requires confidence to say, ok I am done with that first part now and I don’t need to repeat it for a while.

To help resolve this problem I have turned to a revision technique I came up with many years ago to help me memorise vast amounts of information for my chemistry finals. Back then I reckoned that if I learned something and practised recalling it seven times, increasing each time the gap between each practice run, then I could be confident that it would stick.

So for example if I spent fifteen minutes memorising something at the top of the hour, I would attempt to recall it at half-past, then on the hour, then an hour later, then two hours later, then later that afternoon, and then the next morning etc.  I would then use the gaps between these repetitions to start learning other material using the same method. Unsurprisingly I needed to create a detailed timetable of what I was supposed to be working on when. But the advantage was that at any time I wasn’t over rehearsing one particular part over another. I just looked at the timetable to see what to do next.

This method worked for me back then (although my choice of what material to concentrate on was not necessarily so astute) so I have decided to update it for helping me to structure rehearsals for learning a song or dance routine. To start with I simply want to code the sequence for memory recall.

For this exercise I am assuming that I have a sequence that can be broken down into five manageable chunks, labelled A to E. A manageable chunk is one that can be practised a few times in a five minute period. To work out in what order I should work on each section I apply the following rough rules:

  1. Double the length of the gap between repetitions of a particular section every time.
  2. Where there is a clash and two chunks require rehearsing in the same time slot, prioritise the less rehearsed chunk.
  3. When the gaps start to get large between individual practice sessions, group them together for convenience.

Applying these rules the sequence for rehearsing this five chunk section goes something like:

Time mark Chunk Time mark Chunk Time mark Chunk Time mark Chunk
1 a 21 c 41 61
2 a 22 e 42 62
3 b 23 43 d 63
4 a 24 44 64
5 b 25 45 65
6 b 26 e 46 66
7 a 27 d 47 67
8 c 28 a 48 68
9 c 29 49 69
10 b 30 50 e 70 c*
11 c 31 51 71 d*
12 d 32 52 72 e*
13 d 33 b 53
14 a 34 e 54
15 d 35 c 55
16 c 36 56
17 b 37 57
18 d 38 58
19 e 39 59
20 e 40 60 a

This procedure could be thought of as a code for learning sequences. Using the same rules, more chunks can be learned, the chunks can be longer or shorter, and the time increments used for the code can be varied. Note that the final few repetitions, marked with an asterisk, I have pushed together for the sake of practicality. I am sure lots more ‘smoothing out’ could be done to make this procedure more convenient.

Application in a two-hour dance rehearsal

The goal may be to learn a minute-long sequence broken down into five twelve second chunks. If you spend three minutes on each twelve second chunk, then you could get as far as rehearsing each of the five parts four times in a way that doesn’t prioritise one part over another.

Of course the question is then how should the next rehearsal start? One option would be to repeat the process but changing the order of the chunks. Another way would be to run the sequence once, and then choose to work on the parts that didn’t work. Finally, the sequence could be practised in one go, and then new material added using the same technique.

The basis of an app?

Presented as I have done here, the above method doesn’t come across as very user-friendly. What this really needs is a simple app that can simply call out which section to work on next…another project to add to the someday-maybe list.