When Mistakes Are Good: A Counterintuitive Strategy for Rapidly Fixing Bad Habits in Our Technique

We all have habits. Some good – like eating healthily, exercising regularly, and squeezing toothpaste from the bottom of the tube. And others not so good – like skipping breakfast, “text neck“, and leaving wet bath towels on the floor.

It’s no different when it comes to music – we all have various good and bad technique habits as well. Those bugaboos we keep struggling to rid ourselves of, but stick around like the stray cat we once made the mistake of feeding.

The traditional approach is to try to teach our students (and ourselves) how to do things the right way. To keep reinforcing the correct technical movements, and hope that eventually the good stuff sticks.

But changing bad habits seems to take forever, and they have a tendency to hide and lay dormant until the worst possible moment – like in the middle of a performance.

Recent research suggests that there may be a better way. A more effective and faster way to permanently correct technical issues…reducing our learning time, and improving the effectiveness of our teaching.

Yeah, I know. That all sounds way too good to be true. But let’s take a look.

The traditional way

Traditional teaching methods involve providing external feedback – usually by telling a student what to do or what not to do (i.e. verbal instruction/feedback) or by showing a student what to do or not do (i.e. visual demonstration/feedback).

The problem of course, is that this can be a painfully slow process. Repeatedly correcting an over-learned “mistake” can be demotivating and frustrating to both student and teacher.

It can be tempting to conclude that the student is hopeless and doesn’t have it in them to learn, but actually, the presence of the persistent error is a sign that learning has occurred. That unfortunately, they have inadvertently learned the “wrong” way really, really well!

In situations like this, I had a teacher who would occasionally turn the tables on me by demonstrating what I was doing and asking me to be the teacher for a moment. It always made me cringe, but it was a helpful way of seeing what not to do.

This new strategy takes this idea and kicks it up a few notches.

Learning to long jump

Researchers at the University of Verona conducted a study of thirty 13-yr olds, as they were taught how to perform the standing long jump  in three sessions spread out over a three week period.

Session 1

The main purpose of the first session was to simply gauge their baseline performance. So, the kids didn’t receive much guidance, other than that they should try to jump as far as possible, and they could swing both arms at the same time and jump with both feet to maximize distance.

They were given three chances to jump, and the average distance was their score.

Session 2

Before their second session, the kids were split into three groups – one group to receive instruction using the experimental teaching method called “Method of Amplification of Error” (MAE), another to receive the traditional method of verbal instruction (Direct Instruction), and the third group to receive no instruction at all but practice on their own (control group).

Each training session consisted of 6 jumps, after which the students were told not to practice the jump until they returned for a final test the next week.

Session 3

A week later (to see how well the training would “stick”), the students returned and each performed three jumps, with the average of the three jumps being their final score.

How’d they do?

The students who received no instructions at all did not improve over the course of the three sessions (158.9cm vs. 160.6cm). No surprise there.

On the other hand, the students who received verbal instructions and feedback did exhibit a statistically significant improvement over the three weeks (159.4cm vs. 162.3cm – a gain of 2.9cm).

An improvement of 2.9cm is not so shabby…but was peanuts compared with how the kids in the experimental teaching method did.

The students who were coached using the Method of Amplification of Error improved by an average of 20.4cm (159.5cm vs. 179.9cm). That’s a nearly 7-fold increase!

Wait, what?!

Before we look at the MAE protocol, here’s what Direct Instruction looked like:

Based on whatever mistakes, errors, or inefficiencies in jumping technique the student demonstrated in their first session, the instructor identified the main error most responsible for causing their poor performance and told them how to tweak their technique for better results. For instance, “Jump by extending completely the legs and trunk before taking off.”

Then the student would take a practice jump based on this new prescriptive information.

Next, the student would get a free practice jump, to experiment as they wished, with no instructions given.

After their free jump, the instructor would provide some additional feedback to the student about what they did wrong in their most recent attempt, and repeat what they need to change to improve their technique and perform better the next time.

This pattern was repeated three times, for a total of 6 practice jumps – i.e., feedback+jump, free jump, feedback+jump, free jump, feedback+jump, free jump – and then the session was over.

On the surface, the Method of Ampflication of Error training was actually not hugely different. The only difference was that instead of being instructed to jump with the correct technique, they were told to jump by exaggerating as much as possible the main error that the instructor identified.

The students’ free jump was then used to gauge how effectively student understood the nature of their error, because if the free jump looked pretty much the same as the exaggerated error jump, the instructor would know that they either hadn’t truly identified the main error, or the student wasn’t quite getting it.

Unlearning vs. reteaching

It seems totally counterintuitive to practice doing something the exact wrong way, but the idea is that this deepens our understanding of what not to do and initiates an internal search for the right way to perform the skill. Again, consistent errors are not a sign that we haven’t learned, but rather, that we have learned…how to do it the wrong way consistently, and automatically! As the authors state, this method is more an unlearning strategy than it is a reteaching one.

After all, it gets pretty tiring to keep saying the same thing over and over (never mind hearing the same thing over and over), and seeing no changes. This strategy has the benefit of putting the student more in the driver’s seat, and helping them become more capable of internally searching for and finding a more optimal movement pattern.

Sure – beginners learning the long jump is a far cry from an advanced musician trying to tweak a more intriate or complex movement, and the authors do acknowledge that there is more research in this area yet to do. However, there are other researchers who have found similar results in sports ranging from golf to swimming to track and field, so it seems like a promising approach!

Take action

Have you ever used this sort of approach in your own teaching or practicing?

If you intend on experimenting with this, please do read the full article. There are some key guidelines outlined in the “Discussion” section, that one must understand in order to utilize this technique correctly.

“Amplification of Error”: A Rapidly Effective Method for Motor Performance Improvement

photo credit: Kat Cole via photopin cc

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22 Responses

  1. understanding the nature of error is the most important part of the process of learning!
    I have a student that has been struggling with her bowing technique from the start. she could never use enough pressure on the bow. no matter what we try, the problem persisted!
    a few days ago I decided to try something along the lines of your article. I made her put so much pressure on her bow that it screeched…horribly. that’s when we discovered the nature of the error: she tried to avoid this sound from the start. she avoided it so successfully, that she never make a mistake of screeching/putting too much pressure on the bow – and thus she never learned to balance her arm and hand muscles right. bowing requires experimenting with arm pressure on the bow, and now she has to explore the screeching sounds to find her own.
    she didn’t like the sound, but she was thrilled to finally realise where the mistake was. I was equally thrilled! can’t wait to hear what happens next 🙂

  2. The MAE concept and outcomes are fascinating. I play electric guitar and am consistently unable to correctly play a particular passage in an instrumental piece I am presently learning. If I correctly understand the points raised in the discussion section of the original publication, the MAE approach is only effective when the primary error is amplified and then self-corrected, whereas correcting the compensatory secondary errors does not result in improvement. I have no personal teacher. Thus I wonder whether self-assessment and amplification will be effective because I might focus on something that is a compensatory issue rather than the unrecognized primary error. In my specific case related to continual errors, I have self-assessed that I am able to execute the motor skills correctly when prior anticipation a few bars ahead of time prepares me for the passage in question. This doesn’t seem to be precisely the same issue as motor execution failure. I’d be grateful for any comments from others, particularly teachers who have helped students in similar situations.

    1. This is interesting. One mistake I make a lot and work to correct in my guitar playing is a tendency to bend the bass strings subtly out of pitch with too much pressure. One check has been to listen for it of course, but my teacher has said a couple of times that he can see it happening very clearly sitting across from me. He’s recommended trying to play in front of a mirror or camera to identify it better. I wonder if that’s the kind of skill that could improve with this approach?

      1. Scott,

        I also play electric guitar. Are you in Standard (EADGBe) tuning or something else? You might have really strong hands and when you are at your faster tempo you might not realize the extra pressure you are applying. A change in string gauge might help.

        I used to have a similar problem. I had 11’s on my Gibson V in Standard tuning because I loved the heavy tone I was getting, but my technique sucked. To much pressure on vibratos and not enough on bends. One day I replicated this issue on a Strat of mine that had 9’s. By playing slowly with the metronome I learned to lighten my touch. This helped a lot.

        I would try slowing down for a bit and dial in that correct pressure that gets the tone you want. Once you have that then slowly speed it up. If you experience pain or extreme fatigue, try experimenting with string gauges. I ended up settling on a hybrid set and I really like it. Like with most guitar issues, speed is the enemy. It is hard to notice because when your guitar is in your hand you brain says “Go, go go! Time to rock!”. At least that’s when I start missing those little but very important details. Best of luck to you with your playing.


  3. Noa – This sounds fascinating, though I’m a bit unclear on the methodology. Tried to access the linked article, and apparently it requires an account with an academic or research based e-mail address. (I don’t have that) Perhaps it could be accessed in some other way? Thank You!

  4. Same comment as Bill Alpert (above). I would love to read the entire article, but it locks me out because I do not have an academic email account. Anything you can do to get us access?

  5. I often use error magnification when teaching my students. For example when a clarinetist squeaks I have them immediately stop and alternate repeatedly between squeaking and not squeaking on that note so they can discover and gain control over what is causing the squeak. This method works well for all kinds of problems.

  6. Fascinating research! I have used this idea in my own training and teaching many times, especially with the onset of tone, tongue placement, and soft palate issues for singing. I have also found, though, that many times the reason for a repeated mistake, at least for singers, goes deeper. Often there is an emotional, mental, or even spiritual block manifesting at the physical level that is creating the undesired tension or less effective habit. It’s all interconnected!

    1. Yes this nethod works very well for singing. I agree with reasons for mistakes can go deeper inside the sudent hence an aritcle in the MTAQ years ago stating that music teachers are to use learning music to assisst the student, especailly teens, on a personal level.

  7. I pretty much teach this way already and getting better reslults than before. I learned a long time ago to trust my insincts and have become a good teacher.

  8. I have used this method with my piano students to correct articulation errors. If the student misplaces slurs or staccati, I have them slowly play the version that is accurate to the score, then go back to playing it the way they did in error, on purpose, with gusto, even. I then ask them to do it again correctly, then incorrectly, back-and-forth. This usually results in a clearer realization of the correct articulation. I have also use this technique with dynamics and phrasing, and it works!

  9. This parallels something I learned in engineering school–if you’re trying to get a design right, you have to keep making adjustments until you’ve gone past your design goal, that way you know your limits. If you never mess up opposite of what you’re doing, then you’re always in the unknown!

  10. This reminds me of something my mother said many times while I was learning to play the piano. She never took formal lessons but taught herself how to play the piano. She said that she wanted me to learn how to play the right way from the beginning and if she ever took lessons it would take her longer because she would have to “unlearn” a lot of what she was doing and “relearn” it the right way. This is fascinating and I will have to take a look at the full article as I am interested in experimenting with it in my own teaching. Thank you so much for your insight!!

  11. I am not sure how the error magnification theory applies to flute playing.
    I would welcome suggestions for my instrument.

  12. It was heartening to see how you take mistakes out of “automaticity” so that they can become consciously attended to and altered by the player. Ingenious. So you DO undestand playing with automaticity, Dr. Noa, which is what I had asked you about earlier.
    I now have another question about one of the most important issues with players. A great drummer in town who has played with world-class musicians has little confidence to his playing, yet plays better than any other player in town. I’m not exaggerating. Here’s my question: Can one play with such complete attention on what one has learned to play automatically and that applies to performance can be confidently performed, yet not satisfy the player? That is what seems to be happening with this excellent musician. He is a gifted player; maybe that’s the problem. For him, HOW he plays is never an issue; maybe his issue is simply WHAT he plays; i.e., the CHOICES he makes for how he plays, as perhaps figures, dynamics, phrase-shaping, and all of the many choices a player in an improvised style may be faced with. Any comments?

    1. Hi Jeff,

      Indeed, it is very possible to play at a high level yet be plagued with self-doubt and a lack of confidence. This is actually relatively common in high-level athletes and musicians alike. Often, they get to such a high level, that they are heads and shoulders above the rest of us, but all they can focus on is all the places in which they fall shy of perfection, or even the level that they know they are capable of in practice or rehearsal.

      There’s a great story about Michael Strahan, former All-Pro defensive lineman for the NY Giants, who during one particular year, was having a great statistical season, but because the team was losing, started piling all the blame on his shoulders and focusing on all of his mistakes, blown assignments, shortcomings, flaws, etc., failing to notice all of the positive things he was doing to help the team. It wasn’t until he was able to step back a bit and appreciate both the good and bad to get a more realistic appraisal of where he was really at, that he was able to build back his confidence. Because, at the end of the day, it’s all relative, and no matter how good we get, there’s always so much more we can do.

  13. I find that I am amazed by this article. I never thought deep enough in the fact that there is a proper way of learning. Normally I will do trial and error but now I know a much more better way of doing it. If you look at the statistics of the trials for the 13 year olds and the major changes in their jumps, I can hardly imagine the difference for someone with an instrument.

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