Violin Miscellany and Other Tangents

April 30, 2008

I posted today’s stuff yesterday. So today, I’m posting what I meant to post yesterday.

Here’s the link to the follow-up article to which I’m referring in this post:

As I mentioned last week, I love it when there are follow-ups to articles I read that explain a little more about what I was reading, even though the context might be slightly different. Just such a thing happened last week when two articles appeared on the MSNBC website. The first was about mistakes. The follow-up was about…you guessed it…mistakes. The gist of the article attempts to shed some light on the question “why do we make the same mistakes persistently, or why/how do we ‘learn’ to make mistakes?” In a nutshell, we learn to make mistakes from making mistakes. The article mentions that music teachers have known this for a long time, and that avoidance of mistakes is why we caution students to practice slowly and carefully. Unfortunately, too many students (especially middle- and high-school students) think that progress is measured by how many pieces they can play (even badly), not by how well they master techniques and ideas in the pieces they’re learning.

Mistakes breed mistakes. And if you make a mistake enough times, it not only becomes a habit, but you actually substitute the mistake in your long-term memory as the “correct” version. And the really bad news is that it can take an excruciatingly long time to fix the mistake, which definitely contributes to the numbers of students who quit. One of the most frustrating things about teaching is that I have occasionally had students who work ahead in the repertoire because they seem to think I’ll be impressed by their initiative, but then get upset with me when we have to spend weeks or months correcting the mistakes they “learned” into the pieces. Warning, begging and pleading does not work with students like that. They pay me to teach them to play, but are offended when I insist on teaching them how to do it right. (I know, imagine the nerve I have — wanting my students to play to the best of their ability. Geez!)

Mistakes are one of the most fruitful paths to learning, but they can be avoided and minimized with slow, careful, thoughtful practice. I’m not necessarily saying that pieces should be played at a snail’s pace. The tempo, or pace of a piece, can be slowed dramatically for practice, but the motions remain the same as they would be if you were playing at performance tempo. I’ll talk about this process on Thursday.