Perfect Shmerfect. The Stage of Practicing When More “Mistakes” Is Better for Learning.

I tried to teach my kids how to play Mario Kart when they were 1 and 3. You can probably imagine how it went. They spent most of their time swerving all over the road, falling off the track into water, getting completely turned around and going the wrong direction, or stuck in a corner (which kind of makes me cringe in anticipation of real driving lessons when they’re 16…).

Of course, such errors and mistakes are to be expected anytime we learn a new skill. At first, our performance is highly inconsistent, and we assume that effective practice will smooth out these issues over time.

But in the meantime, all these misses can be disheartening, and even make us worry that the effectiveness of our learning is being compromised. After all, it’s often said that practice doesn’t make perfect, but only “perfect” practice makes perfect.

So do all these mistakes in the early stages of learning mean that we’re developing bad habits that we will have to unlearn later? That we should try to be as consistent as possible from the very beginning?

Or do we not have to worry quite so much?

Songbird learning behaviors

Research has found that young songbirds have more variability (i.e. inconsistency/errors) in their singing than adult songbirds.

And when performing for a potential mate, they reduce the variability of their singing, compared with when they’re alone and practicing. Which sounds super cute, right? And also makes me wonder if perhaps it’s possible that young little songbirds experience some avian version of performance anxiety…

In any case, when researchers have deactivated a certain part of the birds’ brain that promotes variability in motor movement1, the result is more consistent motor movements and less variability – but also a reduction in motor learning ability. 

The idea being, when songbirds want to learn, they engage in more exploratory singing behavior, and when precision is called for, they perform in a narrower range.

Does this apply to people too?

A team of Harvard researchers were curious about these observations, and wondered if motor movement variability in the early stages of learning might help to explain why some people learn faster than others.

To test this, they devised an experiment in which participants had to learn how to copy a curved figure without being able to see their hand. At first, everyone was off target, but some folks’ drawings were more irregular than others.

As they went through hundreds of training trials, everyone’s accuracy improved. However, the people who started off with the most erratic performance, learned how to draw accurate curves more quickly than the folks whose initial performance was more consistent.

Then, the researchers did a follow-up study to deliberately increase variability (or “error”) by nudging their hands off course. Interestingly enough, this forced variability also led to faster learning of the correct motion.

How can it be that more “mistakes” in the early stages of learning a skill seem to predict faster learning?

Remember Battleship?

Battleship board game

I think it’s a bit like playing the classic board game Battleship.

One way to play is to call out coordinates in a very consistent pattern – like in consecutive squares from left to right across the middle of the board. But that’s no good if all of the ships are concentrated along the bottom or top. A more effective, but random-looking strategy is to take a bunch of shots all across the playing grid, and when you get a hit, then focus your efforts in a more concentrated area.

Why it’s so difficult to play something twice in exactly the same way

Part of the challenge of learning and executing any complex motor skill is that much like Starbucks’ 87,000 different drink combinations, there are an almost infinite combination of ways in which we can execute a skill and still get the desired result.

For instance, let’s take a shift from an octave in 1st position to an octave in 5th position. I could probably nail the shift with the scroll of my violin lifted 5 degrees above horizontal. Or 3.2 degrees below horizontal. Angled 30 degrees to the right. Or starting angled 30 degrees to the right but flattening out to 12 degrees as I make the shift. Then there’s finger pressure variations, shape of my hand, position of my elbow, amount of pressure between chin and chinrest, wiggles of vibrato, and the arching of my left eyebrow and scrunching of my nose. And that’s before we even consider what’s going on with the right side of my body. All of which could change depending on the exact tempo I’m playing at, the adjustments necessary because of acoustics, what the pianist is doing, how tight my hands and muscles may be at that moment, the sweatiness or stickiness of my left hand, and the restrictiveness of the shirt/coat I’m wearing.

Of course, some of these combinations are going to be more optimal, and result in more consistently accurate shifts. But if I’ve never had to shift in octaves before, I may not know what combination of ingredients works best.

So it makes sense that in the early stages of learning this tricky shift, exploring a wide range of different combinations of strategies would probably lead me to the best solution faster than only experimenting in a narrow and more restricted range of possible solutions.

Take action

Of course, some of the early inconsistencies in our playing will be regular old errors, mistakes, blunders, and bloopers. But variability and “errors” that are more exploratory in nature – that represents an effort to experiment and test out the full range of ways in which you could accomplish the task – could actually be very productive.

So even if we miss, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we didn’t learn something. We just learned which combination of ingredients don’t work. Allowing us to narrow down the options and get us closer to the exact elements that are most essential, and in what combination they work best.

So especially in the early stages of a skill, don’t worry too much about getting everything exactly right and maximizing consistency from the very first try if that comes at the expense of trying different approaches. Experiment. Explore a full range of possibilities. And give yourself a break if your results are a little more variable at first. So long as you are thinking and trying new things (as opposed to mindlessly hacking away at things on autopilot), you’ll figure it out eventually and likely be better off for having taken the more scenic route.

Footnotes

  1. the lateral magnocellular nucleus of the anterior neostriatum

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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.

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Comments

11 Responses

  1. Reminds me of the legend brought up in National Treasure: Thomas Edison allegedly tried and failed 2,000 times to get the incandescent light bulb right. When asked about it, he said, “I didn’t fail. I simply found 2,000 ways how not to make a light bulb.”

    I think in the end the process is all about learning to depend on your ear and not your movements. If you listen for the right sound to come from yourself, it’s amazing how much your body subconsciously does correctly to make that happen. I think that’s the logical conclusion of posts like these – you learn to depend on your ears alone, and doing things differently every now and again (like you also suggested in “A Practice Strategy That Will Help You Play More Accurately When It Counts”) shakes things up so that your ear is the only constant and, if you train the right way, becomes the thing you rely on most (if not solely – I recon greats like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles were just fine without actually being able to look at their instruments, which is kind of my standard for playing).

    As a guitarist, I’ve taken to studying modes (diatonic modes for the moment, but I’m interested in learning jazz modes @ so forth sooner or later) and, having only started some time in November, I can tell you my sense of musical hearing has increased phenomenally, a change I perceived within two weeks (maybe less!) of starting. I can play some things by ear, I’ve played a riff or two without looking it up ever in my life, and I can go through scale patterns without thinking about it so much. This post comes at the perfect time fro me, though, because I’ve hit a bit of a rough patch – I seem to be backsliding a bit. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, though…

    I can only imagine how much better I’ll be by this time next year.

  2. It strikes me that if more teachers had an approach that encouraged such exploration, performance anxiety and mental health issues in young musicians might be somewhat reduced. The pressure to play things exactly right from the start (at a slow tempo) cramps this learning style, something I experienced and I think I’ms till getting over (at 28). This is a huge moment of realisation and acceptance for me – it explains both my struggles and my successes – and it will certainly influence the way I teach and talk about practice and mistakes from now on. Thank you!

  3. Thank you, Noa – this gives me hope! I started violin two years ago and sometimes it feels like I’m making very little progress. Then suddenly there seems to be a quantum leap and I move on to struggle with the next piece.

  4. Anyone in this forum have an idea about this issue? I play electric bass. Have learned about 25 pieces that I’ve always wanted to tackle. The pieces are mainly jazz and rock. Some I have transcribed and have the written music for, and some I play using chord charts. Now that I have learned them, I don’t want to forget them, so I daily practice five to six of the pieces, just to keep them fresh. So basically every four days I run through my repertoire. Two problems: first, I spend a lot of time just reviewing the pieces as part of my practice session, a fact which impinges on my time to learn new pieces and work on technique, fundamentals, etc. Second, I am concerned that if I don’t review the pieces, I will forget them and all my hard work of learning them will be in vain. I don’t perform them live because the pieces are soloist in nature; they are really more for my own enjoyment. When performing live with my trio, I do what bassists typically do – provide the harmonic and rhythmic support.

    Should I just go ahead and put some or all of the pieces on the shelf? There are new pieces I’d like to tackle…

    Thank you.

    1. Hi John,

      Good question; I’m sure others will have some thoughts too, but I read something recently about this in the context of academics. So while retaining facts and motor skills aren’t necessarily the same thing, I’ll see if I can dig it up again and perhaps write about it…

      Although from a larger perspective, I don’t think any of the work we do is ever in vain. Even fi we don’t remember a piece, if we’ve really put good work into it and learned something from it, we’ve benefited. If nothing else, by helping to make something else easier that we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to tackle.

      1. Thank you, Dr. Kageyama. I enjoy reading each of your blogs and always walk away with at least one more good idea to add to my practice toolbox. By your response you have encouraged me to forge ahead, shelve some of the pieces I have in my repertoire, and concentrate on going deeper with a few of the pieces that I enjoy the most. I imagine each piece is sort of wood carving, which on the surface may look complete, but can yield more beauty and clarity if you carve a little deeper. Thank you again for your response. I hope you and your family are having a great holiday season!

        John Geltmeyer

  5. Wait, “12 Monkeys” had an unsatisfying ending? It was amazing! Granted, with time travel and time loops, there’s complication, but on an emotional level so much is tied up and so much is explained in an artful way. I agree the “Usual Suspects” ending is awesome. “Sixth Sense” is kind of gimmicky, but fun. Both of them do the annoying extended flashback sequence at the end, which I think is a huge cop out. It’s like, “Hey, look how clever we were.” And they were, but it would be cooler to have let the ending stand on it’s own and then folks could go back and watch again if they want to have the “flashback” experience.

  6. Cooking is somehow like that. You cannot repeat the same recipe having the exact same taste. It’s not just about the measurement or the ingredients. It’s also what’s inside the person who cooks, what he/she thinks, what he/she feels. But in the end, his/her cooking is better because of the many mistakes learned from practicing.

    http://instrumentees.com/

  7. Thanks for a very interesting article. This makes me think that the way I approached bass playing may have a bearing on why I picked it up so quick. I’d played guitar for 30+ years and was playing ukulele with a local group of people when the U-bass player left town. They asked me to play bass as I was the most experienced musically in general. I threw myself into it and didn’t care too much about making mistakes as most of the group were very new to music (despite an average age of around 50) and most of the time they had no idea when I made a mistake anyway. On the odd occasion that we performed I would keep things a bit simpler to avoid mistakes but in general I tried many different ways of moving from chord to chord and playing fills.

    Once I started playing in another band with much better musicians I was much more reserved and less likely to be experimental as any mistakes were obvious to me and the rest of the group. This, however, helped me tighten up what I had already learned and again made me a better player.

    I feel if I had started out playing with the much better musicians I would not have progressed nearly as quickly in learning the chord patterns, scales, what worked rhythmically, when to add flair and when to hold back. Now, I love playing with really talented groups as it makes me focus on the basics and keeping it tight. I still jam occasionally with the Uke group and another group of friends and this is still where I find I can experiment more, and hence make the mistakes I need to make in order to learn what works and what doesn’t.

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