Practicing Out Built-In Mistakes

November 22, 2017, 1:03 PM · "Practice makes perfect."

The saying is meant to inspire us to practice more; unfortunately, it's a lie. A whopper!

"Practice makes permanent," a piano teacher once admonished my son, followed by: "...only 'perfect practice' makes perfect!"

One must practice, but one must practice with care. A mistake practiced many times over is a well-learned mistake, and un-learning it can be very difficult. But how can one avoid mistakes?

One cannot avoid all mistakes, but one can avoid practicing them.

The problem is that mistakes can be deceptive. One might think, "I'm correcting my mistakes as I practice."

I very often see a phenomenon in students that I call the "Built-in Boo-Boo." A student will be playing a piece, then he or she arrives at a certain difficult note, perhaps a note that requires a shift. The student misses the note, stops, plays it once or twice more until it is correct, and then moves on.

Mozart mistakes

If the student were to play the entire passage again, the student would do the exact same thing the next time: play the wrong note, stop, play the right note, move on. It can happen in a flash. In the student's mind, the note has been corrected. In reality, the student has formed a strong habit of playing the note incorrectly, interrupting the music, noodling around a little, then playing the right note. It's a built-in mistake that will remain, unless the student's strategy changes.

Why? Because the strategy of "correcting mistakes" does not work. Certainly, one will make mistakes, and one will need to correct them. But you only need to make the mistake once to know you have a problem that needs solving. Here are a few effective steps to truly correct a mistake, instead of continuing to repeat it:

  1. Note the mistake: What exactly was it, and where did it happen?
  2. Identify the reason for the mistake. Why did it happen? There is almost always a reason: Possibilities include: a difficult fingering; missing a shift; a page turn or problem with reading the music; a key change; an unexpected change in the music; a break in the pattern; a bowing not executed correctly; etc.
  3. Solve the problem: plan what you need to do differently to succeed the very next time you play it. This could be as easy as acknowledging, "I need to shift earlier here," or "This is a low 2, not a high 2." Or, you may need to change a fingering, shift somewhere else, etc.
  4. Play it correctly, with no mistakes. You may need to slow it down or add stop signs into the music in order to do this, but find a way to play every note correctly, without backing up, repeating, or adding mistakes. Note: it is better to stop and organize yourself before a tricky note than it is to just play it wrong. If you stop and get organized, you will eventually spend less and less time "stopped" because you will learn how to be organized for that note. The "stop" will get shorter and short until it is no longer there.
  5. Once the mistake is worked out, try adding it back into a larger context. Play the entire phrase correctly, with no mistakes. Then the entire passage, the entire page...eventually, the entire piece!

This way of practicing will require more thought and investigation. It will require being aware of what you are doing, and you may even need to record yourself in order to find those habitual mistakes. But once you start truly solving your mistakes, your overall practice will be far more effective.

Please feel free to share your strategies for correcting mistakes and practicing effectively.

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November 22, 2017 at 08:14 PM · Golden words, Laurie.

Errare umanum est, perseverare est diabolicum!

November 22, 2017 at 08:17 PM · LOL Dimitri, to persist in playing the violin is indeed diabolical, we all can attest!

November 22, 2017 at 08:26 PM · Oh, how true this is! Practice it more times right than wrong.

November 23, 2017 at 03:07 PM · If you're playing in an orchestra or other ensemble and make a mistake you can't just stop, correct it, and carry on. You ignore it and continue, doubtless making a mental note to something about it in your next home practice session.

Last weekend I found myself sight-reading in the 1sts in an orchestral rehearsal where we were going through Dvorak's Carnival Overture and Brahms 2 at performance speed. Needless to say, I made mistakes by the dozen, but the crucial point is I didn't let them interfere with the flow of the music.

November 23, 2017 at 10:00 PM · In a performance, if you make a small(ish) mistake try to keep any change of expression off your face, because such a change of expression will be a signal to the audience that something unintended has happened. If you keep a poker face then the chances are very high that 99% of the audience won't notice a glitch, and the other 1%, if they do notice, will understand (probably having been there themselves).

Hilary Hahn's advice about taking a deep breath before a difficult passage, so as to get more oxygen into the blood stream and into the muscles, is useful to bear in mind.

November 25, 2017 at 01:34 PM · I find that isolating the passage; playing it slowly but correctly 10 times (if I make the same mistake I have to start over); then backing up a measure or two tto get the feel of the entrance to the passage before replaying it from the beginning is the most eeffective way to correct errors. If I play it the passage just once it I find that I'm likely to make the same mistake again.

Anyway, thats what works for me.

November 25, 2017 at 07:48 PM · I think "10 times" works for a lot of people, as long as they are 10 correct times!

November 25, 2017 at 08:18 PM · Actually, I do exactly that. I've been trying to re-work the practice as you suggest, and I'm making headway I think. But every now and then I catch myself falling on bad habits... since I am a stubborn sort, I'm sure I'll get past that silliness sooner or later- hopefully sooner.

November 26, 2017 at 06:21 AM · The ideal is to practice not just 'until one gets it right', but until one cannot get it wrong.

November 27, 2017 at 06:18 PM · Well said, Ramón! And Jim - stubbornness can work to your advantage if you can harness it in the right direction!

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