Do you keep practicing something until you
get it right?
Is that really the best way to practice?
After decades of practicing myself and
teaching other people how to practice, I have discovered that it's not
enough to "keep practicing until you get it right".
Consider this: would you agree that perfect
performance must be achieved habitually?
I do. I believe that you cannot expect
excellent performances if you don't make a habit of playing excellently. I
also believe that this habitual excellence is acquired in the practice
room, not on stage. By the time you are on stage, it's far too late to do
anything about excellence.
The Score Board
Now consider how the concept of "keep
practicing until you get it right" relates to the "habit"
of excellent performance. To explain this relationship to my students, I
use a score board as an example. On one side of the score board we keep
track of how many times we play something correctly. On the other side we
keep track of how many times we make a mistake. So let's look at what
happens to the score board when you "keep practicing until you get it
You try to play the piece but you crater in the third
measure. That's one point on the mistake side.
So you try it again and miss it again.
Second Down - Third Down
You TRY it two more times and both times
you make the same mistake in the third measure. Finally, you play that
measure right and keep going.
A Completed Pass
You play through the third measure, through
the fourth and into the fifth but you make a mistake on the fifth measure.
First Down Again
So you go back to the beginning again to
TRY to get through the fifth measure. Only this time you mess up on the
third measure again.
Ten Yard Penalty
So you start over, get through the third
measure and into the fifth, only to make a mistake there, again.
Quarterback Sneak - Tackled - First Down
Then you try the whole thing again and
finally make it through the fifth measure without messing up. Here's what
the score board looks like at this point:
This same kind of thing goes on for a while
and after sixteen times of TRYING to play it right, you actually make it
through the entire eight measures without making a mistake.
So, you're done now, right? You've played
the eight bars correctly so it's finished.....time to move on to the next
Look Who Won the Game
Remember, excellence is a habit and habits
are formed through repetition. How many times did you make mistakes while
you were working on that eight bars? Thirteen!!! Now look at how many
times you played it correctly. Just three!!!! Which "habit" has
won the game here....the habit of playing it right or the habit of making
mistakes? If habits are formed through repetition then the person who
"keeps practicing until they get it right" is a person who has
formed a habit of making mistakes.
The only hope this person has is to make up
for all of the mistakes by repeating the music correctly at least twice as
many times as the number of times he made mistakes. The problem with this
"hope" is that the habit is already formed. So playing the piece
correctly for twenty-six times is going to be a HUGE struggle. Most
likely, that number is going to grow from twenty-six to something less
reasonable, because the habitual mistakes WILL return.
Habits Are a Mental Momentum
After all, that's what habits are. Habits
are something of a mental momentum. You know, an object in motion wants to
stay in motion. Habits are the same way. Once they get going, it's
difficult to slow them down or stop them.
That's exactly why it's far better to
practice in a way which promotes the habit of correct playing instead
of the habit of making mistakes. You do this by being careful. Even when
you first begin looking at the music you should be careful about playing
it correctly. You can play the music correctly by using a proven practice
system or practice technique instead of just TRYING to play the music
How Practice Techniques Work
Practice techniques simplify the music in
order to reduce the risk of mistakes. This might involve slowing the music
down. It might involve singing the music instead of playing it. It might
involve practicing only a few notes at a time. It might involve slurring
something instead of tonguing it. There are different practice techniques
for different musical and technical situations but all of them serve the
EXACT same purpose. All of them simplify the music to reduce the risk of
When you use proven practice techniques,
you reduce the risk of mistakes. When you reduce the risk of mistakes,
then you reduce the occurrence of mistakes. When you reduce the occurrence
of mistakes, you make a habit out of excellence.
A Winning Team
Knowing that, let's look at a hypothetical
score board for someone who is more careful when they practice and uses a
practice technique to learn the music:
Let's say you have another eight measures
to work on. Instead of tackling the entire piece, recklessly, making
careless mistakes, you use the "working backwards" technique and
decide to play only the last three notes. You play them once and since
it's just three notes (simplified), you get them right:
Then you play those same notes three more
times and get them right all three times.
Three More Touchdowns
Three More Touchdowns
Now you add the entire measure before that.
You play it correctly the first three times but make a mistake on the
Tackled - First Down
Three More Touchdowns
You play it three more times correctly and
decide to add another measure. You play it correctly twice and wrong once.
Two More TDs - Tackled
Three More TDs
You play it right three more times and then
add another measure. You play it right once and wrong once.
One More TD - Tackled Once
Do you see how this works? By using a
proven practice technique, you have practically eliminated the mistakes
and have taken a huge step towards habitual excellence.
Isn't this SO MUCH better than just TRYING
to play it until you get it right?
Believe me, I've lived with this philosophy
for the past twenty years of my life. I've seen the effects this
"habitual excellence" has on not just my playing but that of my
students. I use this "score board" concept in all of my practice
efforts. When I practice anything of importance, I always simplify it
first. I repeat it in it's simplified form at least ten times before I
increase the difficulty. And the bottom line is that I rarely make
mistakes when I practice. I repeat things literally thousands of times and
out of those thousands, less than a hundred of them have mistakes.
Do you think this might make a difference
Count on it!