As you’re learning the basics of a song (rhythm, pitch, harmony, articulation, dynamics, etc.) it is often useful to take a small section of the song and repeat it numerous times. This gives your mind and body a chance to build the habits which will ultimately make it possible to play music that is too complex for the brain to think about every aspect while you’re playing it. (That goes for pretty much all music!) In order to build desirable habits, you must play your section the way you want it over and over again in relatively quick succession. If you play it another way, you will develop that habit, so it’s important you think pretty intently while developing your habit, and play it as slowly as you need to to get it just right.
My students and I use a system I created called a “Practice Path” to keep track of progress and remind ourselves of the importance of thinking while practicing. It’s pretty simple- first you choose a number to start on, corresponding with the amount of repetitions you think your section needs. For example, if it’s pretty short and seems the good habits are almost formed, you might choose to play it “3 times with the Practice Path.” You put your marker on 3, think, and then play your section. If you played it perfectly, you move your marker to the right. If you messed up, move your marker to the left. Occasionally we’ll let the marker stay in one place- if it’s correct but too slow to develop a habit, if you make a small mistake that you fix right away, if it’s correct but you don’t finish it. And of course, when we get to 0 we usually hold a bit of a celebration!