A few years ago, my wife and kids spent the year living abroad. So, finding myself with a little extra time on my hands, I decided to take a page out of Indiana Jones’s playbook and embark on a quest.
Not for anything especially noble or worthy, I’m afraid… But for the best nachos in my neighborhood. 😅
Yep. Every Saturday evening, over the span of a few months, I ordered nachos from a different place.
Chili nachos. Chicken ranchero nachos. Nachos texanos. Nachos el grande deluxe.
And every weekend, I was faced with a dilemma. Should I end my quest and settle for the nachos that I’ve enjoyed the most so far? Or should I continue to search for better nachos?
Every Saturday, I was forced to decide between a sure thing and some uncertain nacho contender. If I gave up my search too soon, I might never discover the truly satisfying nachos that I believed were out there. But keep at it too long, and I could be wasting many weekends eating subpar nachos that leave me feeling a little sad and empty inside.
Err…and what does this have to do with practicing?
Well, it turns out we face a similar dilemma in the practice room.
Have you ever heard the saying “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect”?
Turns out this is a little misleading, and trying too hard to avoid mistakes can actually lead to less effective practice that slows down our progress. In other words, sometimes we have to eat our way through a lot of mediocre (and terrible) nachos in order to find the good stuff. 😋
The problem with perfect practice
Called the “exploration-exploitation trade-off,” whenever we engage in skill development, we have a choice.
We can choose the sure thing that will probably give us results close to what we want (e.g. the fingering that works ok, but maybe isn’t great = exploitation). Or, we could try something new that may or may not work, but will ultimately teach us more (e.g. try a new fingering that may be worse…or may be totally awesome = exploration).
Put another way, we can stick with what we know and stay in our comfort zone, or we can go exploring and try a range of other things. Sure, most of our experiments and exploratory attempts will probably fail to get us the results we are looking for, and end up looking like a “mistake” or error.
However, exploring a greater range of the possible techniques and motor movements available to us will lead to a much clearer understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
It’s like taking the same route to work every day vs. trying out many different routes. Sure, you may get lost sometimes, or get stuck in a dead end, but ultimately you will develop a much deeper understanding of the layout of your neighborhood, be able to optimize your drive to work, and enjoy more efficient commutes in the long run.
But isn’t inconsistency bad? Aren’t making mistakes, missing shifts, and cracking notes bad for our confidence? And won’t these lead to bad and difficult-to-unlearn habits?
The benefits of inconsistent performance
Their study generated a number of interesting findings about the learning process, but one of the more intriguing findings was that greater variation or inconsistency in a player’s early scores was associated with higher scores later on.
This reinforces a similar finding in one of the author’s previous studies (Stafford et al., 2012), where the participants whose scores were the most inconsistent in the early going, performed best at the end of the learning period.
The authors also found that spacing practice out over a longer period of time improved scores. Participants who played their first 10 games over 24-plus hours averaged scores 7.3% greater than those who played their first 10 games within the first 24 hours.
So rather than studying and practicing in one big cram session, distributing the same work across multiple study or practice sessions seems to increase our rate of learning.
Pianist Leon Fleisher once encouraged a group of young musicians to “experiment…do outrageous things when you’re in the privacy of your studio.”1
I think the results of these studies are aligned with the spirit of what Fleisher was suggesting, and speak to the value of experimenting more freely in the practice room (and even on stage to some degree). Where we needn’t feel pressure to restrict our curiosities and creativity out of fear of reinforcing bad habits and making “mistakes.”
So when you begin working on a new piece, see what happens when you try the same passage “wrong.” Where you take too much time, or take too little. Use too much articulation or not enough. Move your pinky finger more, or move it less.
Enjoy experimenting with the full range of options you have, as you enhance your “map” of what works and what doesn’t. Pay no mind to what others outside your practice room might think about the questionable noises emanating from within, and you may just stumble across a mini breakthrough or two along the way!
As Einstein(?) once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
The myth of “no pain, no gain”
I spent most of my childhood years assuming that practicing, by definition, had to feel like work. Which made me a very reluctant practicer, to put it mildly.
But as today’s studies suggest, practice doesn’t actually have to feel like a chore. In fact, much of the research centered around effective learning involves practice methods that actually make practicing a more positive experience. More rewarding. Empowering, even.
So if you do any teaching, and have students who struggle with finding motivation to practice, experience a lot of anxiety around performing, and get frustrated and discouraged by how they sound on stage, it could be that motivation is not actually the problem.
It may just be that practicing and performing makes them feel kind of crappy.
So if adding a few new tools to your toolbox, while connecting with a community of thoughtful, curious, like-minded educators from around the world to share notes on how to make these techniques work for students at all ages and levels of ability sounds like a fun thing to do this summer, you might be interested in the live online 5-session class that begins this week.
In addition to live Zoom sessions where we’ll explore effective practice skills and strategies for managing nerves and getting into the zone, there will be worksheets and activities to try, small and large group sessions, and Q&A’s – all spread out in a manageable sort of way, so it doesn’t get too overwhelming.
Previous participants have reported seeing some really gratifying changes in their students. If you’re a tiny bit intrigued, you can see what they’re saying, and get all the dates and details at:
Registration ends TONIGHT (July 17, 2022) at midnight Pacific.
Feel free to email me if you have any questions, and if I don’t hear from you, I hope to see you in class!