Are you practicing your mistakes?

Now then, as the most wonderfully conscientious students of the guitar that I’m sure you all are, with your classical guitar practice schedule all mapped out, practicing on a daily basis, scales, technical exercises, repertoire and so on, do you ever stop to ask yourself the following question: am I practicing my mistakes?

It can be so very tempting to play through a piece and just skip over those same little niggles. Next time, you say and hope, nay know, that they will turn out differently that next time. But do they? You kind of hope that by playing through you will miraculously be able to nail that phrase or that chord change. Probably not, eh?

By playing through those mistakes, repeatedly playing them in the same way you’re actually embedding those mistakes even further. You’re telling your brain, your muscles “yes, this is how it goes”.  By doing this you’re practicing in your mistakes! Why would the brain perceive that it should be doing anything different if you’re not actively doing something differently?

Taking the time to tease out that technical knot will pay MASSIVE dividends with your playing. Firstly, you’ll undo the knot – yay! Secondly, you’ll understand what it was that wasn’t working correctly so you’ll understand your mechanics a little better. Thirdly, by taking the time to look closely at what you’re doing and at the music you’ll get to know the music that little bit better. Also, whenever the same or similar movement occurs in another piece of music you’ll be much better equipped to get on top of more rapidly, thus speeding up your learning.

So, I recommend the following steps:

  1. Pull out the “offending” mistake from the rest of the music, isolate it. Don’t play the bit before it. Certainly don’t play through the rest of the phase and so on. This is a waste of your time at this stage.
  2. Be aware of exactly how you want that particular section to sound so you know what you’re aiming for in that respect.
  3. Be aware of what you fingers, hands and arms are doing at present, that are contributing to the non-successful or less successful execution of the section.
  4. Then decide what might be a more successful way of executing this – are the left hand fingerings correct? Are you tripping up with your right hand fingerings? Are the left and right hands coordinated? Are you phrasing it how you’d like? Are the voicings clear? How does the melody sound? Can you sing it? Where’s it going musically?
  5. And then once you’ve figured out exactly how you want that particular phrase or change or whatever it might be to sound, or to feel like, and you create that with your physical movements, THEN practice that in. And do it very, very slowly at first.  Very slowly. Very purposefully. Get it really embedded into the ol’ noggin. Send the message very clearly to the brain that this is how you want it to sound, this is how you need to move your fingers, your hands, your arms and so on.
  6. Then, and only when you feel more solid with this, you can begin to speed it up a little. And then slot it back into context in the piece.
  7. But don’t spend hours and hours and hours, or even more than a few minutes on one knot at a time. Apparently changing to a different problem after a few minutes can help keep the brain more alert and engaged (we’re going for the “ooh this is new and a bit different” rather than the “blah blah yep seen that”), so take a look at which knots you untie and mix it up.
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6 thoughts on “Are you practicing your mistakes?

  1. I couldn’t agree more. In and of itself, the concept of isolating problem areas seems simple, yet every time I feel that I understand how best to do it, another idea pops into my head and allows a further refinement of the process.

    What amazes me the most though is my own tendency to just ‘play through’ stuff despite the fact that I know and have experienced that that is not the best way to work (I guess what I’m really practising is how to fool myself, but I’m fairly proficient at that already!).

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