We tend to think when we are practicing that we are not being successful if we make mistakes. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Even if you know your pieces well, mistakes can and will happen, just as they can in performance. The fact that they do occur in performance is the key element here  – because when we practice what we need to be doing is practicing how we will handle  our msitakes. If you practice enough, it’s probable that over time every possible mistake you can make will be experienced. That’s good. It gives you the chance to purposely become aware of how it happened, where it happened, and how you can avoid it, play through it, or improvise with it next time.

I find that if, during practice, I keep my mind open to hearing my mistakes and never ignoring them, I can analyze, respond, fix and/or camouflage errors. If I don’t practice enough I won’t have that opportunity, and then during a performance I will be unable to handle them; if during practice I am simply going back and re-playing without any analysis or effort to deal with what went wrong, there will be no improvement.

Let’s look at the kinds of errors you need to be aware of:

  • Simple wrong notes. Your fingers went to the wrong place.
  • You played the note but it didn’t sound.
  • You made a noise that wasn’t part of the music (buzzing, rattling, squawking, etc.).
  • You played a sour note (fretless instruments).
  • You forgot how the piece went (either briefly or the whole thing).

What are the possible causes?

  • Lack of focus/wandering mind
  • Unexpected distraction
  • Poor fingering
  • Eyes not looking ahead (if you play an instrument you have to look at)
  • Poor lighting/can’t see (if you play an instrument you have to look at)
  • Not breathing/holding your breath
  • stress
  • Poor technique
  • You don’t really know your piece well yet

There have been a few reports of studies on musicians’ practice habits that have recently shown up on Facebook. I found two of them particularly interesting: one was about what kind of practice habits are most effective, and another claiming that the much-touted 10,ooo hours or practice is not what makes a musician good. I have some opinions about both of these so-called studies.

First of all, one cannot do a truly scientific study on something as esoteric as how musicians practice, because there are too many variables to consider or to eliminate. Every musician is different in background, attitude, and aptitude.  One simply cannot make blanket statements about what makes us good musicians or not. And it always amuses me that such “studies” are often done to acquire information that could have been obtained by just asking musicians how they gained their skills. (Sort of like the anthropologists who study indigenous petroglyphs in an effort to discover their meanings. Why not ask the indigenous people who still live in the areas where the petroglyphs are found? They have passed the knowledge through generations of their own people. They know what they mean.)

The study debunking the 10,000-hour rule hints that you’re born with talent or you’re not, and that if you’re not, no amount of practice will help. Worse, it suggests that if you are talented you don’t have to practice. Both of these ideas are proven wrong by millions of musicians very day. As a professional musician, I can definitively say that if you don’t practice you can’t play well, no matter what talent you were born with. Yes, some people have an affinity, but that’s not enough. An incredible amount of practice is necessary to become truly proficient at your instrument. And I can also tell you from a lifetime of careful observation that many people with talent who don’t work really hard can be bypassed by those with minimal talent but who work harder. (A very few people cannot learn music, but they are rare. You’re probably not one of them.)

Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at New York University, states in his book Guitar Zero, “Hundreds of thousands of people took music lessons when they were young and remember little or nothing.” Well, yeah. I took a number of courses in school about which I remember nothing. Why? Because they didn’t interest me. Any kid forced to take music lessons without wanting to is not likely to remember much. That’s not a significant way to look at the effectiveness of practice.

Another study stated that the difference between ineffective and effective practice, which leads to the difference between mediocrity and mastery, is practicing deliberately. This I agree with. It’s not how long you practice, it’s how you practice. Your practice habits make the most difference. Without self-evaluation and constantly correcting weaknesses, progress is not possible. Simply playing what you play best is fun and necessary, but that’s not the same as striving to reach a new level. You have to push yourself and focus on what you don’t yet know, or can’t yet do, if you are to make progress.  We have a tendency to be self-congratulatory about our progress much sooner than perhaps we ought to be.

Also, just reading through tunes on a page doesn’t do a lot for one’s skills unless the music is also used as a tool for focus, analysis, and deliberate skill enhancement.

What are good practice habits? There are three necessary kinds of practice: that which you do when learning a piece, playing for your own enjoyment, and that which you do in preparation for a performance. These three habits are very different.

When learning a piece, it’s a good idea to get it committed to memory and kinesthetic sense, thusly:

  • Learn by playing every tune slowly and deliberately.
  • Learn a phrase at a time (don’t just read through an entire piece; that is not productive).
  • When you make an error, don’t just correct it and go on –  that is practicing the error! Figure out why you made it.  (Is it poor fingering, poor eye planning, a technique you don’t know?)
  • Correct the fingering, eye movement or technique.
  • Address the error by making the phrase into an exercise and repeating it many times slowly until it feels natural and is easy to do right.
  • Then play the phrase in context.
  • Always remember to breathe, especially while playing the hard parts.
  • Play the piece with a metronome to increase accuracy.

Never shirk on any of this. These steps are absolutely necessary.

Above all, play music you love. Otherwise, why play at all? Enjoy it!