Mistakes – some thoughts

Eraser pencil pink on piano 2 (brightness adjusted and comp) - Copy

Mistakes – Some Thoughts

Why do some pupils expect instant success? Why do they value themselves based on what they can / cannot do? Why do some people think when they find something difficult “I’m useless / worthless”  instead of “I find this difficult – if I keep practising / learning / training I can get better at it”?

When somebody at the top of their field shows what they can do, it looks / sounds effortless – for example ballet dancers, ice-skaters,  tennis players, circus performers, musicians etc but it’s an illusion. It looks / sounds easy but what the the viewer / listener doesn’t see is the literally thousands of hours practice, rehearsal and training and effort behind that performance. The performer will have failed many times attempting to learn a certain skill or move but they’ve persisted, they’ve kept on trying and working to improve and eventually they have become able to do it.

A very experienced, highly qualified and very busy private music teacher I knew told me once that you have to “ruin a dozen” pupils to get anywhere with teaching; in other words, to learn to do something through making mistakes in order to get better at it.

I wonder how many people there are in the world (financial reasons aside) who could have been experts at something but aren’t because they gave up too easily? Did they not want to achieve? Did they not believe that they could achieve if they tried?

Why do people feel ashamed / humiliated to make mistakes when learning something? They are a part of learning. It is impossible to learn something or learn to do something and not make mistakes. No mistakes = no learning.  Yes, in a performance when the person wants to show what they can do, it is extremely frustrating to make a mistake especially when the person knows that they can do that performance without mistakes. However, in practice, rehearsal or a lesson, does a mistake really matter? Is it worth getting het up over a mistake, especially if it only happens once? If somebody is trying to master something, a piece of music for example, and they keep on making the same mistake then they need to work out, with their teacher if they have one, why they are making that mistake and try a different approach to correcting it. The same mistakes repeated do ‘stick’ so it’s necessary to correct them as soon as possible so that the brain learns the correct version but it’s human to make mistakes. I was told by someone who’d studied with Frank Merrick (concert pianist, and author of the book ‘Practising The Piano’) that he used to walk down the corridors of practice rooms at the Royal College Of Music where he taught saying “Listen to them all reinforcing their mistakes!” when he could hear people not stopping to correct mistakes but repeating them.

In a recent TV programme, top tennis player Roger Federer said that in his first match he had lost 6-0, 6-0 ie. he didn’t win any games at all. It wasn’t that he was no good, he just needed more training and practice to get to the level where he could win.

In a TV wildlife programme about penguins a large number of them slipped down a ravine with their chicks. One mother penguin simply left her chick to die and climbed out on her own. One very determined mother penguin managed, by a large amount of effort and willpower and using her beak and wings as well, to climb up to safety taking her chick with her. A large number of other penguins were stuck in the ravine and couldn’t get out. [The TV film crew eventually made the decision to dig a ramp in the snow for the penguins and they did use it to climb out.] What made the difference between the penguin who got herself and her chick out, the penguin who got herself out but not her chick and the others left in the ravine? Did the first mother have more determination than the others to get herself and her chick out? Did she want to get out more than the others? Did she believe more than the others that she could get out if she tried? Had she got more skill at climbing?

Does the amount that someone wants to achieve something equate to the amount of effort that they are willing to put in to achieve it? Some people say they want to learn to play an instrument but do little or no practice and then wonder why they’re not making progress.  It’s very frustrating trying to teach someone to play an instrument they say they want to learn to play but they don’t make much effort to do so.

Musicians making recordings in the days of wax cylinders had to record their performances in one ‘take’ as it wasn’t possible to edit them. Nowadays, it is possible to edit recordings so when a musician makes a recording and they, for example, play a wrong note, play out of tune, an aeroplane goes overhead, a chair squeaks, one of the performers comes in at the wrong time etc. somebody makes a note of where on the recording it was and they re-record that little bit. A sound engineer then electronically sticks all the successful parts of the recording together for the CD.  (There was a string quartet concert at the Wigmore Hall some years ago which was being recorded for broadcast on Radio 3. One of the players missed his entry so at the end of the concert the quartet re-recorded that movement for the broadcast.)

We’re humans not robots so it takes time to understand and learn to do something, there’s no magic wand for instant success. If you find yourself thinking “I can’t do this” think “I don’t know how to do this” instead and find out how to do it. Persevere!