An Anatomy of Errors

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One of my favourite phrases when rehearsing or coaching is ‘if nobody is making mistakes, nobody is learning’. Of course, it’s not the making of mistakes per se that constitutes the learning process, it’s the process of putting them right. Another phrase I over-use is ‘self-correction is my favourite sound in rehearsal’.

Anyhow, as I have mentioned periodically, I’m practising the piano regularly these days for the first time in years (decades) and as such am making a shed-load of mistakes of my own. They fall into a number of discrete and identifiable categories, and it would help my learning to enumerate them. And as this blog is where I do my learning in public, you can join in. You may recognise some as ones you make, or perhaps you make other, different types that I should aspire to.

(Another over-used phrase: ‘The goal is to avoid making the same old mistakes, but to strive to make new, more interesting ones.’)

  1. Errors resulting from physical tension. This is the biggy for me as a pianist, accounting for the lion’s share of my mistakes, and consequently the greater part of my attention at the piano. Some of the tension is in my right shoulder, but most is in my lower body: glutes, legs, lower back, core. It might sound from the outside that I’m practising a twiddly bit with my fingers, but I’m mostly practising keeping my bum relaxed while my fingers twiddle.
  2. Sloppy proprioception. Sometimes I’ll throw my hand at the piano expecting e.g. an octave to sound, and it comes out all splashy. I think this results from the fact that in the 1990s I was practising regularly enough that I could trust my muscle memory, but it’s got fuzzy through disuse. The wrong notes are telling me the kind of practice I need to do to sharpen it up again.
  3. Unclear thinking (and/or listening). Sometimes I throw my hands at the piano with only a generalised idea of what should come out, and it comes out all splashy. This is the brain equivalent of sloppy proprioception; I need to conceptualise the music with greater clarity for it to sound with greater clarity. Sometimes I’m not sure if it’s my thinking or my listening that’s out of focus – there’s a weird ambiguity between the operation of outer and inner ears. Either way, slowing things down and listening carefully helps clarify the concept, so the two seem to be bound up together in the solution as well as in the problem.
  4. Distraction/Concentration lapse. Things that divert cognitive resources away from the act of playing tend to result in the playing going to pot. There are a number of sub-types, with different sources of distraction, but the consequences are largely the same:
    • External distraction, e.g. someone walking past the window. My neighbours must all think I’m a terrible player, because any time I see one of them reflected in the surface of my piano I immediately mess something up!
    • Internal distraction/inattention. Something sparks a tangential thought about something other than the music immediately in hand, and the playing continues on autopilot while my mind wanders. I might get away with this for a page or so (tangential thoughts arise more often in bits where I’m reasonably fluent and can spare some attention), but if I’m not back on task by the next tricky bit, it’s not going to come out intact
    • Intra-musical distraction (negative). If I make a small slip, or even just have a near miss, the distraction of noticing it is quite liable to lead to a significantly more egregious error about 4 bars later. The latter will probably sound like an unforced error, but it has its origins in the reduction of cognitive resources when processing the one that probably wasn’t itself very obvious.
    • Intra-musical distraction (positive). Annoyingly, the same thing can happen if I play something particularly well. It takes brain-space to be pleasantly surprised, brain-space I needed for playing the next bit accurately. Oh well, at least I’ll probably be able to recreate the good bit on further practice, so it’s a net gain.

    This is probably the second-biggest sources of my errors, and also contributes to the first as twitching/tightening muscles can be one of the responses to making these kinds of mistakes. One of the things I’m working on specifically is not responding with irritation to these kinds of mistakes, as the psychological ‘ugh’ pulls both body and mind out of shape.

  5. Random Erros That was a genuine typo, and I’m leaving it in as it quite brilliantly exemplifies my final category. Sometimes I just make a new, unforced error I’ve never made before. I don’t mind these so much as they feel like a by-product of having a creative relationship with the instrument. Also I tend to think: I’ve got that one out of my system now, so it’s less likely to appear at random in performance.

Talking of errors, mistakes, call them what you like, at Cottontown Chorus we encourage each singer to make at least one mistake - or more if they want - during a contest performance. Shoving a missed choreographed move into a performance, or a slightly late cut-off or pick-up has two advantages: They show to the audience that our singers are human but more importantly, the encouragement to err means we can immediately move on in the song and not spend the rest of the performance hung up on the mistake which will often lead the singer to the next mistake and then the next, and so it increases the mistakes and the associated anxiety.
All of this leads to a far less nervous singer who might (or might not) make a mistake but if they did, move on, it never really mattered anyway!

I can remember David McEachern talking about a similar strategy at Toronto Northern Lights, it's very good Inner Game work for freeing performers up.

One way to measure skill is how few mistakes you make, another is how interesting your mistakes were :-) :-)

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