Imagine a person who builds a house making frequent mistakes from beginning to end without even knowing it. The foundation is not level and solidly laid. The supports are not plumb, the walls are not sturdy, all because the builder did not do anything about the mistakes. If the builder would recognize and correct each mistake as it happens, then the house would turn out beautifully. Maybe all that correcting and reworking would take three times as long to complete the house. But which result is better–a rapidly completed house that is flawed and worthless, or a slowly built house that turns out wonderful in the end??
Last night I was out for dinner and some live music with a crew of friends. The topic of practicing guitar came up. We talked about how hard it is to notice mistakes, and then to decide what to do about them. It seems like the whole point of practicing is to improve, but seeing mistakes and fixing them can be tricky when practicing becomes mindless routine and unconscious habit.
Watch yourself as you practice to notice as many mistakes as possible.
Once you find a mistake, then you must decide what to do about it. You can choose to ignore it, because you are intentionally focusing on another part of your playing. Or you can stop and work on the mistake until you are playing the passage correctly. Or you can plan to work on the mistake later. Do you make a deliberate choice with your mistakes, or do you follow a habit or routine without much awareness?
The most obvious choice is to stop and fix a mistake when it happens. How does a musician fix a mistake? By repeating the phrase or passage and trying to play it correctly? By improvising an exercise to focus on the underlying skill needed to correct the mistake? By focusing your mental attention to the trouble spot to clarify the connection between mind and muscles? Identifying the cause of the mistake might point you to the best remedy. If the problem is mental distraction, then you will need to put more focused attention on the problem. If the cause is physical, then you will need to work on muscles and technique. Sometimes a mistake is more stylistic–a weak or forced presentation. In that case you will need to combine your imagination and technique to develop a more effective interpretation for the piece.
Here’s a novel way to make some good use of your practice-time mistakes. Watch for mistakes as you play, and write down a nice long list of them. Do this for fifteen or twenty minutes, and suddenly you have a list that can serve as your practice agenda for the coming weeks and months. If your practice time is boring or uninspired, build your mistake list and get to work.
I once read in a book of Zen sayings that “life is a continuous mistake.” That saying has stuck with me for years. Life is messy, and people make mistakes all the time. Sometimes we don’t see our mistakes, and they just continue to happen. Other times we can recognize them and use them to grow and improve. It works for practicing music, and it works for other areas of life. Look for your mistakes in your relationships, your finances, and the way you spend your time. It’s a good thing we are all so flawed, because we have lots of mistakes to help us learn and grow.