Go on make a mistake... I dare you

By James Dickenson  -  24 June 2015

“ As a performer, student of the violin we should want to make mistakes, that is to say that far from fearing mistakes, we should welcome them.”

Throughout our playing lives and careers we are taught not make mistakes. Inherently mistakes are bad, a sign of weakness, in our technique, musicianship or even constitution. A player that “comes in” at the wrong place is shunned for instance.

Social/ professional life aside, actually we can see that this attitude pervades our whole approach to instrumental playing and learning.

Take example A.

Good student X practices diligently and gets good results. When faced with new music she takes the music and starts to learn it. She studies the part and the music, decides on fingerings and bowings and sets about “practicing” the part. She takes each phrase and attempts to “get it right”, once she has played it “perfectly” she moves on. So and so forth until she has “learnt” the whole piece.

Student has a good feeling about her work and is happy until she performs the piece in her next lesson, at which point although in parts it is fine, in others it falls apart. She is especially disappointed with a very difficult section, which she practiced for many hours, which was worse than ever in the performance.

The important question here is, why?

The answer is best explained by comparing to student B.

Student B is not as talented as student A, but when he practices he takes a different approach. Student B does all the same things student A does, however when he isolates each phrase he places no pressure upon himself to get it “right”. On the contrary he actually wants to get it wrong, as when he gets it wrong he gets another try. There is no time pressure on student B he simply keeps repeating each passage in a relaxed fashion until he has figured out exactly how to do it. At which point he then continues his repetitions, until he reaches a point at which he cannot regardless of how hard he tries get it “wrong”

On closer inspection of student A we can see clearly that what is actually happening is that in her desire to get things right she is not noticing what is actually happening when she plays. The mind does not like discomfort and will always block out information it does not like, consequentially she is not hearing when things are not quite in tune, or in time.

Secondly when she does get something correct she is not allowing herself the time needed for her body to remember how to do it next time.

Everything we do as a performer is done by muscular and neurological memory, our mandate therefore is to train our body to repeat these movements precisely, accurately and crucially reliably. In order to train ourselves we have to repeat these movements a great many times, and mistakes are integral to this process. How we react to these is the key, great strides can be made by merely changing our perceptions of errors, and of course the opposite is also true, many students are paralyzed by fear, and through bad practice will actually reinforce anxiety.

Instead of fearing errors ad inaccuracy, students need to be taught to welcome their mistakes. By looking at this from the opposite direction we can see clearly that if we were never to make mistakes, we would never learn anything. In fact I would go even further and say that the corollary is also true:

We need to make mistakes and it therefore stands to reason that we should not only welcome errors, actually we should want to make them, as when we do, we get to do it all over again reinforcing our muscular memory and therefore improving as player.

“ As a performer, student of the violin we should want to make mistakes, that is to say that far from fearing mistakes, we should welcome them.”

About James Dickenson

London based violinist James is the leader of the Villiers String Quartet and a freelance orchestral and session musician

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