How Making Mistakes Can Accelerate Learning

A few months ago, I decided to take a page out of Indiana Jones’s playbook, and embarked on a quest.

Not for the holy grail, or some noble intellectual pursuit…

But for the best nachos in my neighborhood.

Yep. Every Saturday evening, for the last couple months, I’ve ordered nachos from a different place.

Chili nachos. Chicken ranchero nachos. Nachos texanos. Nachos el grande deluxe.

But every weekend, I’m faced with a dilemma. Do I order the nachos I’ve enjoyed the most so far (chicken ranchero nachos from Burrito Box), or keep searching for better nachos?

Each time, I am forced to decide between a sure thing, and an unknown nacho contender. If I give up my search too soon, I may never discover the awesomely satisfying nachos that I believe are out there. But keep at it too long, and I may be wasting many weekends eating nachos that make me feel kind of sad and disappointed inside.

What does this have to do with practicing?

Well, we actually face a similar dilemma in the practice room.

Bird in the hand, or two in the bush?

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.

But then again, exploring a greater range of the possible techniques and motor movements available will give us 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 the commute to work, and enjoy much more efficient drives in the long run.

But didn’t someone once say that “Perfect practice makes perfect”?

And isn’t inconsistency bad? Aren’t making mistakes, missing shifts, and cracking notes bad for our confidence, and won’t they lead to the reinforcement of bad habits?

The benefits of inconsistent performance

Researchers at the University of Sheffield studied player data from an online game called Axon (play the game here or watch a short video if you want to avoid getting hooked).

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, where the participants whose scores were 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. Folks 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

I think these results speak to the value of experimenting in the practice room (and even on stage to some degree), which to the observer may look like inconsistent performance in the early going, but is really something quite different.

Indeed, we don’t have to play things “perfectly” every single time. It’s ok to try new approaches, and make mistakes along the way. We needn’t restrict our curiosities and creativity out of fear of reinforcing bad habits and doing it “wrong.”

So when you begin working on a new piece, explore. Try the same passage “wrong.” Take too much time, take too little. Use less tension, use more. Move your pinky finger more, move it less. Experiment with the full range of options you have, and enhance your “map” of what works and what doesn’t.

Disregard what others outside your practice room might be thinking about the embarrassing noises emanating from within, and you might just stumble across a mini breakthrough or two and have the last laugh.

As Einstein* once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

photo credit: mikebaird via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


17 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 ( – 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

  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.

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