How Making Mistakes Can Accelerate Learning


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.

Decisions, decisions…

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

Researchers at the University of Sheffield (Stafford & Dewar, 2013) studied player data from an online game called Axon.

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.

Bonus finding

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.

Take action

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:

bulletproofmusician.com/educators.

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!

Footnotes

  1. Hear It Before You Play It: Leon Fleisher Workshop @YouTube

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

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Click the red button below to learn more about the course and get the holiday buy-one-get-one-free offer.

Comments

23 Responses

  1. THANK YOU for this. I am an oboist, and recently there was a book published by a fairly prominent oboe pedagogue that is supposed to be a comprehensive guide to playing the oboe. In the chapter on practicing, the message that he keeps on saying and reinforcing, over and over, is that if you want to play well, “Never Do It Wrong.” I was horrified to read this, for all the reasons that you mention above (and so many others, such as that if you are focused on never doing it wrong, every time you do it wrong you immediately feel that you have shot yourself in the foot and created a bad neural pathway that can never be eradicated), and I have been arguing against it ever since it came out. This post clearly articulates why making mistakes and “doing it wrong” can lead to much better and faster growth. Thanks again!

    1. Hi Graham,

      There was a time when I got really neurotic about avoiding mistakes. Probably what I needed at the time, but it wasn’t much fun. Yes, it is indeed a big relief to know that making “mistakes” in the name of experimenting and exploring can be a good thing – and not as harmful as we sometimes fear it might be!

      1. With Super Bowl Sunday fast approaching I would say you would not be at a loss for finding nacho recipes. My suggestion would be as you find out your recipes, find elements of each one that you like and then create your own. I do that very often with recipes of any type.
        Other than that thanks again for another great article on practicing. I read every single one that comes in every week. And they are usually very helpful.

  2. Perfect practice does make perfect. But the perfection comes not from not making mistakes (excuse the double negative), but rather from focused, concentrated practice. Trying different approaches, techniques, phrasing, fingering etc. is the road we take to ultimately achieve, or at least get close to, the perfection we pursue.

  3. Yes, absolutely. This sort of advice is changing the way
    people (young and old) approach authentic music making. And it’s
    part of why I set up a facebook page called Keep Music Wrong in
    2011 (http://www.facebook.com/keepmusicwrong) – not to laugh at
    ‘funny’ videos of disastrous failures or feel superior to those
    whose mistakes are more woeful than ours, but to celebrate the art
    of discovery through risk taking, trial and error and a sense of
    ‘commitment to express’. Learning and broadening a skill is an
    iterative process, which inherently involves imperfection and
    re-examination. Ultimately, our mistakes are fertile soil from
    which to grow. Artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh put it superbly:
    “There is hope in honest error. None in the icy perfections of the
    mere stylist.” Thank you – and for everyone’s sake, keep music
    wrong..

  4. I agree with the principle, though it may manifest in a variety of ways. In advanced classical guitar one may discover multiple ways of designing and fingering passages. So which one is “right,” which one “wrong?” Personally I encourage students to ALWAYS question an editor’s fingering marks and design what makes sense to them. Inevitably this produces multiple solutions. ALL of them should be given an honest practice. THEN, in a subsequent practice session, “play” the piece and observe which fingering the intuitive physical response favors. Which one tends to flow in the hand without forcing a choice. (May differ based on the size of one’s hands & fingers.) This is not so much “doing it wrong,” as experiencing the options, and ultimately choosing.
    – Another thought: Sometimes to get a particular technical point across, I ask a student to assume a ridiculously extreme hand position, then follow up with a correct (better) one. “Which one sounded better? Which one was easier?” – The more efficient method then becomes THEIR choice, not a case of trying, trying, trying to understand and do the “correct” technique a teacher is trying to convey.
    – Actually a very interesting topic for musicians. Thanks Noa

  5. I struggle with inconsistent practice when it comes to tempo. I short change notes or hesitate on harder sections. This is not good. IT may sound like I’m experimenting but I am really trying to get it right without relying on a metronome. These tempo issues are holding me back! I understand the problem, but have not figured out a different method out to solve this issue.

    Any suggestions on what I could experiment with that might help? Maybe someone will be able to suggest something I haven’t tried yet.

    1. Hi Heidi. Try this, very difficult, but forces good rythmic practice. Say your working on a piece that has running 16th notes in a 4/4 passage. Practice so that the metronome ticks on the 4th note (like triplets) and try to stay in the meter. You’ll “synch” up every three measures, but you’ll be be spot on. If this is not clear let me know and I’ll try and clarify.

        1. The click on the metronome will be on the first note of the semi-quaver. A good piece to try this with would be the Chopin Etude in C major, Op 10 No. 1 which is just runnng arpeggiated 16th notes.

    2. I’m wondering if you mean difficulty with rhythm and not tempo? My problem is keeping rhythm no matter the tempo I set on my metronome (whom I call “The Tiny General” or “Ninja” since I tend to go at a turtle’s pace most of the time esp. when learning a piece)). I find too many writing on the topic interchange these words. Last week I had to ask my piano teacher to explain (I’m only into 1.5 yrs of senior adult piano lessons and not a genius student by any means!).

      What I discovered myself this week, before spending an entire upcoming lesson I requested on keeping rhythm while playing with my metronome, is this. I start out my 16th notes (4/4) on the first click and land hard on that first note with force, then on the first note of the second set of the 16th notes I land hard with force, and continue all the way thru a piece. If I emphasize the main clicks by playing with force, no matter the tempo chosen, I get the rhythm better now and hit the clicks spot on most of the time. I had no clue how to do this before but this works for me. Somehow my ear and then my hand picks up the clicks better this way.

  6. If inconsistency leads to better performance, I should be a virtuoso by now…

    Thank you, Dr. Kageyama, for posting your episodes, week after week. It cannot be easy, and I appreciate your willingness and consistency in sharing what you have discovered.

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