So far, we have examined the concepts of repetition and reinforcement, which make learning possible by imprinting the knowledge and making it “stick.”
The third element of this triangle involves testing and experimenting with the things we have practiced. Learning the limits of our preparation is how we make our learning stronger and more useful. I call it Evaluation.
The Good Side of Failure
If we needed to know what load a wooden beam could support, we would put weights on it to see what load it could carry; but we really wouldn’t know for sure what its limits were until we caused it to break. In other words, we gain information by testing to failure. This is why automobile companies crash-test their models; the only way to really know what something can do is by pushing it to its limits. Without this information, we have no idea when disaster will strike, forcing us to play it very safe.
In our practice, evaluation means to force a mistake in order to learn the limits of our learning, show us what to work on, and give us confidence.
Sleeping with the Enemy
This view of mistakes and failure as information requires a paradigm shift in our viewpoint; without mistakes we wouldn’t be able to practice effectively, and we would never be sure if our preparation was adequate. The main issue here is that we all have a deep-seated idea that mistakes are bad, and that they are to be avoided; when we make one, we see it as unfortunate and frustrating. Many of my students visibly become annoyed when they make an error, and some become downright angry. The answer to this is to use our problem-solving abilities to directly address a mistake, diagnose the cause, and make a plan to correct it. If we can’t see mistakes as our friends, at least we can see them as puzzles to solve.
Collection and Correction
Once we have identified a weak spot in our playing, we must trace it back to its roots. Often a mistake is caused by something earlier in the passage that sets up the failure; this could be a poor fingering or the lack of preparation for a shift or hand position change. No matter what the cause, once a mistake has been made, we need to stop and figure out what needs to be done; otherwise, the element of chance, rather than intention, governs our progress. All errors happen for a reason, and those reasons can make us much better musicians, when we become aware of them.
When we make a mistake, something in our practice needs to change.
Lowering the Bar
After a mistake has been detected and diagnosed, our practice needs to reflect this new awareness. There are three ways we can strengthen our practice of this problem area:
1. Slower; at some point we will find a pace that allows us to correct the error.
2. Less of the passage; reducing the amount of music we are working on will allow us to focus on the problem without distraction from what comes after.
3. Isolation; removing anything but the element in question can allow us to notice details we wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. This might involve using one hand on keyboard, focusing on embouchure, picking etc.
Methods of Testing
1. The first attempt to play a passage after an overnight break can tell us how well-prepared we are. This only works once per day; after this the reinforcement process of re-learning has begun. In real performance, we only get one chance to play our music, so this is a valuable test.
2. Playing with a metronome should be a routine part of all practice; this applies pressure to us to “keep going” and creates the need to anticipate the next thing. It is human nature to pause or slow down during difficult sections; the tempo should be set at the rate that reflects the most challenging part.
3. Ultra slow playing puts enough space between notes to allow for distraction. It also can put an awkwardness into the performance that “draws out” impurities in our preparation, and flaws in our time-sense. 60 beats/min is my suggestion for a perennially uncomfortable tempo for this type of practice.
4. Look away from your hands. this one is obvious; we will not always be able to look at what we are doing, and this brings out valuable mistakes. I don’t suggest closing your eyes, because in my experience we still visualize our hands in our “minds eye” when we do this. Instead, try looking up at something on the ceiling or off to the side. We find it difficult to visualize one thing while looking at another, so we are forced to use our sense of touch instead. This may require us to re-think some sloppy fingerings and technique.
5. Start in the middle of a segment. Often we have difficulty with this if we have always played from the beginning, but in performance, we need to be able to resume anywhere. I’m sure we have all witnessed recitals where the performer had to start over from the beginning after a small error.
6. Alter the rhythm: As an example: when learning a pattern that is in groups of four notes, practice in triplets. Swing the eighth-notes of a passage. Accent the “ands” of the beats. Any change in the way the notes are accented can “throw us off” and give us an opportunity to make our playing stronger.
7. Use different accompaniment patterns. When playing Latin piano patterns, I found that playing them with a clave pattern on my drum machine made them much harder to play than with simple quarter-notes. This is because it is difficult to conceive of two syncopated rhythms at the same time.
8. Repeat the passage ten times in a row without a mistake. This classic technique is a test of our powers of concentration; invariably, the as the last repeat comes up, we are thinking, “this is it… I’ve got it” which distracts us. Iron-clad focus will result.
9. Record your practice sessions; no critic will be as discerning as you will be. Knowing you will have to listen to your playing will definitely apply pressure and test your playing.
10. Perform. In the long run, this is what matters. Any opportunity to try out our stuff in front of others gives us the chance to see what kind of pressure our playing can take. This is what recitals do for students.
The Triangle is Complete
These are the three elements of practice:
Repetition: Very small segments practiced many times in a short period.
Reinforcement: Forgetting and re-learning until the knowledge is deeply imprinted.
Evaluation: finding the weak points through testing and diagnosis. Using mistakes as information.
Next: Loose Ends.
Question: How do you evaluate your playing? Do you have ways of “forcing” mistakes?