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Stop! Don’t Practice a Mistake…

Stop! Don’t Practice a Mistake…

Here are some tips on how to improve faster

A typical scenario:

Let’s say you are practicing a bass line to a tune and you play the first 5 bars correctly, then you stumble.

Arrgh, you think, back up a few notes and play it again, this time correctly. Cool, I got this.

So you move on.

  • Next day, same thing. First five bars awesome, bar 6 hiccup, “arrgh”, back up, redo, “Cool, I got it”, move on.
  • Next day, same thing….Lesson day, what do you guess? Well, same thing!

“But I did it correctly just yesterday!”

I do know – also from my own experience – that it is easy to think that. But the truth is, you didn’t really know the passage.

You only knew it after playing it wrong first. You practiced ineffectively in that you somehow needed that wrong note to get it right.

In essence, what happened is that you practiced the mistake! You practiced the sequence of “stumble – arrgh! – back up – go on”. This is not really knowing it. And while you hope that next time you play it you will just get it right without the stumble, experience and probability suggest that this won’t really happen; because you somehow needed to stumble first to then get it “right”.

This is problematic because we…

  • have to at some point break that pattern and stare that somewhat uncomfortable realization in the face  that you don’t really have it yet;
  • go through the process of unlearning the wrong way – which is harder than getting it right the first time!
  • and then get it right and eventually move on.

I am not the type of teacher who wags a finger at a wrong note. By all means: welcome errors, there are many reasons to do so (creative reasons, learning reasons…). What I do want to point out, though, is that this is a bad practicing habit. Once you fix habits like this you become much more effective in your practicing.

How do you fix it?

When the error happens more than twice (three times max!) – stop. Turn off the metronome or track if you are using one and take a breath. It is time to evaluate!

  • Is it a mental issue, meaning you don’t really know the right notes in the right order?

If it is a notes issue, slow things down. Play the right notes in the right order, maybe with a simplified rhythm or without a click.

  • Is it a rhythm issue?

If it is a rhythmic issue, eliminate the pitches and just examine the rhythm (tap it, clap it, count it out to figure it out, then, chant it. Get it in your system!) Then add pitches back in.

  • Is it a technique issue, meaning your fingers cannot keep up?

There are many ways how to get your tempo up to speed. I have a great program that I do with my students on how to break the speed barrier. More to come on the blog as well. In short, slowing down may not be helpful here because the mechanics of a fast run are different from the mechanics of a slower run. In order to get the hands ready, we can use targeted speed methods. Classical musicians provide some great inspiration here, too. In essence, staying relaxed is key! More on that to follow, but for now: do your permutation exercisesThey really pay off! (In our Course, Music Theory for the Bass Player, we do numerous variations on tougher and tougher permutations. Just pop in the video and play along).

  • Is it a detail, such as a phrasing issue, an articulation you can’t quite get, a slide, tap, pop or cool thing that just eludes you and in your playing you are sort of glazing over it?

I find those types of challenges the most fun. Slowing things down can really help crack the code here. Also observe yourself closely and clarify your concept of how the passage should sound. Hear it internally in as much detail as possible. Don’t glance over blind spots – you will always learn a lot when you go deeper here.

In Summary:

Don’t practice mistakes! Stop! Listen to yourself and evaluate. Isolate and break down the trouble spots.

Channel your inner Sherlock and remember that you can break down complex elements into smaller bits. And that is the ticket!

So, instead of moving on, break down the problem spot and a couple of beats before it and a couple of beats after it and isolate that section.

  • Slow it down, so you can better observe and understand the section.
  • Practice speed using targeted speed methods, so you get it up to tempo. Relax, no tension.
  • Go deep into the music, the phrasing, how you want it to sound and what you are hearing. This way you get into the nooks and crannies of technique, articulation and the groove.

Maybe at this juncture, you need a teacher to tell you exactly what is going on and how exactly to fix it – ask for help if you need it, because continuing the same error over and over while expecting a different result is obviously not working.

And by the way, if you are experiencing something similar in a band situation, do the exact same thing at rehearsal: stop, identify the trouble spot and loop the section, correctly. “Let’s just play it again” without a plan is not very effective. Cuts down rehearsal times to a fraction!

Have a look at this great blog post by Performance Psychologist and violinist Noa Kageyama, PhD.: he tells us about a scientific research that details the 8 things top practicers do differently. There is hard evidence for the above! Check out #3 through #8 and there it is

All that said, there is one place where you should not stop: and that is during the performance. That’s why I like to distinguish between “practice mode” and “performance mode”. Both are important. The above tip is for practicing mode.

Happy evaluating!

To learn how to learn in this vein, check out this course:

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

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5 Replies to “Stop! Don’t Practice a Mistake…”

  1. Brilliant article Ari. I’ve definitely been guilty of this in past. Now I break things down into 2 or 3 bars at most for complex items.Well items I find complex anyway …. 🙂

  2. Ari, I love your course and the permutation exercises. I am sure you have read “Peak” by Anderson Ericsson. It is about deliberate practice. it really fits in to what you are saying. You are the best. Doc Savage

    1. Thank you 🙂 I have not read Peak, but I know the term deliberate Practice from The Talent Code by Dan Coleman. Great stuff. Will check out Peak. It is on the pile (which is toppling over)

  3. Great advice. As a little kid my classical piano teacher essentially taught me to do the same thing. In the case of the piano it was slow it down and play each hand separately, then together, then eventually bring it up to tempo. Could be boring and painful and in the end, it works beautifully and I always enjoy the results!

  4. Thank you for teaching these insights they are so helpful.Putting more thought into practice helps master that technique,speed, song that I’m trying to achieve. I realized that learning this instrument is both a physical and mental activity. I realized that my stumbling blocks were not physical but mental ..that my brain needed time to process what I was trying to learn before I could perform it.

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