In praise of mistakes (no. 1)

As in life, so with playing the piano, we learn from our mistakes. So I like my students to make mistakes! But whereas in life it’s usually pretty obvious when one makes a mistake, with the piano it’s not always so easy.

Often a student having made a mistake corrects the very point where they stumbled. But this is rarely where the mistake was made. More often it was something they did before they stumbled that caused them to do so. In other words the mistake was made before it was heard!

It could be anything – a missed note, a wrong finger, faulty pedalling, a lapse in concentration – whatever it was, it happened BEFORE the stumble. So correcting the stumble (rather than the mistake) is actually not a lot of help.

The great difficulty for many (adults included) is working out exactly where the mistake originated. It needs an analytical approach, which is much harder work than playing by habit (as most do), endlessly repeating a passage in the vain hope that the problem will magically go away. Statistically it may very well do that – once or twice – but a 1-in-10 success rate is hardly a solid foundation for performance!

At Montemuse we encourage this kind of analytical brain work, particularly in the context of understanding not just that a mistake happened, but why. I won’t say we don’t meet with resistance. Student fingers are just itching to play, even more so with a fine instrument in front of them, and to ask them to take their hands off the keyboard and stop and think … well, it can seem like a waste of time and anyway, it’s exhausting!

The worst culprits are often adult amateurs. With full-time jobs and other responsibilities they can feel they have so little time to give to practise that every moment pressing keys is precious, and just sitting there thinking is not what piano playing is about.

Oh yes it is!

I can easily convince anyone that 10 minutes of brain work will save days or even weeks of repetitive (and often fruitless) finger work – but to instil the discipline in a keen pianist to work that way – now there’s a task!