The word “mistake” is hard to define, and I think this is because it is a matter of perspective. Whether something is a “mistake” or not requires having a measure of “correctness”, and this measure has to be relative to the one doing the measuring.

For the purposes of this article, I am assuming that a mistake is anything you wish to correct. I urge you to think beyond simply discrepancies between what you are playing and what is written in the score. Those could be mistakes, but they could also be deliberate, or they could be desirable, in any case. Mistakes can include:

  • Wrong notes
  • Misunderstanding of what is written in the score
  • Distractions
  • Physical movement that does not work for playing the music
  • Approaches to practicing that are not effective

What causes mistakes?

I would first ask: “are you sure that this is a mistake?”

Sometimes, we assume we are doing things wrong, because we have an unpleasant feeling, or because someone told us it was wrong, or because we have been accustomed to making the mistake in the past.

If you know you are definitely making a mistake, you could then ask: “am I sure I can fix this?”

If you know exactly how to fix it, great. Just do it, and stop reading here. If you know exactly how to fix it, but the fix doesn’t work, then I must hesitantly inform you that you actually don’t know how to fix it.

If you don’t know exactly how to fix it, the approach I would suggest is to try to understand exactly what is causing it, rather than trying to understand how to fix it. These causes may include:

  • Not understanding the music: Do you understand the structure of the piece? Do you get the purpose of each note, each harmony? Do you know where the phrases are? Do you follow the counterpoint? Do you know where the beats are?
  • Not understanding the movement: If you fully understand the music, are you expressing this understanding physically? If so, and it’s still not working, you need to look further into what exactly it is about the relationship between your body and the piano that you are not seeing. Repeating the wrong thing over and over will not fix it. Only insight will. (However, often repetition is necessary in order to let the mind calm down to the point where insight can present itself.)
  • Distractions: Human beings are not robots. The mere fact that we told ourselves to complete a task is no guarantee that we will be directed toward that task without interruption. Distractions can come from the external world, in the form of unfamiliar pianos, noise from the audience, movements that catch our eye, etc. And they can come from the internal world as well, in the form of thoughts about our performance, our self-concept, what we had for dinner last night, how much we like this piece, or how much we are worried about the passage coming up, etc.

Do mistakes have to be corrected?

That’s for you to decide. Let me ask a few questions:

  • Why play the piano?
  • Why correct mistakes?
  • Why play well?
  • Why not play badly?
  • Can you enjoy playing the piano if you are making mistakes?

Ask yourself these questions and see what your mind tells you.

Long-term vs. Short-term practicing

If I wished to learn Chinese within the next ten years, I would practice very differently than if I had an upcoming trip to China next week. In the former case, I would immerse myself in the language, listening to spoken dialogue and reading texts that I comprehended very little. Eventually, I would understand more, and within 10 years, given enough practice, I would be fluent in Chinese. In the latter case, however, I would not have time for this, and would instead probably concentrate on memorizing specific phrases that I anticipate needing for my trip.

In music, the same thing happens. Ideally, I want my practicing to be oriented long-term. My aim is to work on things to the point where mistakes simply don’t happen, because the correct way is completely obvious. In long-term mode, I would not care about a specific performance, or a specific mistake.

However, if I need to learn a piece by next week, my priorities would change. In short-term mode, I would be more interested in fixing specific mistakes, so that a given performance is successful.

These are two very different ways of practicing. One does not lead to the other. However, it may be worthwhile to develop strategies for each.

Practicing long-term

In terms of long-term practicing, the following will reduce mistakes over time:

  • Sight-reading a lot of music.
  • Listening to a lot of music.
  • Analyzing a lot of music.
  • Paying close attention to your performance habits and working on eliminating the harmful ones, and increasing the helpful ones.
  • Finding an approach to practicing that encourages you to face whatever you are consciously avoiding. I believe the waterfall technique can be useful in this regard.

Short-term performance

When you have a performance coming up, the objective may not be only to “play well”, but also to “avoid playing badly”. This will require hunting down specific mistakes and taking steps to reduce the chances of their occurrence.

Let me stress that I don’t believe piano practice must include this mindset. If you are not performing, is it necessary to spend time fixing mistakes that are of little interest, when that time might be better spent on working through a new piece? I have never “corrected” many of the mistakes I made in pieces I played as a beginner, but I guarantee I would not make those same mistakes again.

That said, if you want to hunt down specific mistakes, try the following strategy:

  1. Play through the piece. Do not stop when you make a mistake.
  2. After you have played the piece, make note of one mistake.
  3. Play again.
  4. If the mistake is still present, great. What we want to do now is zoom in on it. We want to capture it so that we can study it more closely. We could:
    • Reduce the size of the section you are playing so that it includes just the mistake.
    • Slow down the tempo to a point where the mistake still occurs but you can understand it better.

    The object here is not to eliminate the mistake. It is to find out what we need to do to make the mistake.

  5. If the mistake disappears, try to bring it back. For example, you could:
    • Increase the tempo.
    • Expand the section you are playing.
    • Play for someone else, or record yourself.
  6. If you aren’t sure if there was a mistake, assume there wasn’t. Always focus on that which you do see.

There are some mind-traps to be aware of:

  • You may think you erased the mistake. The truth is, the mistake will never go away. Under the right conditions, it will come back. Your job is not to eliminate it, but rather to understand it, so that you know exactly which conditions will cause it, and can adjust accordingly. Many musicians get horribly frustrated when a mistake that they believed to have been eradicated suddenly reappears. If this happens, understand that it only means you don’t fully grasp the situation, not that you did anything “wrong”.
  • You may try to correct the mistake. Do not try to correct it. Simply observe it. Get to know it in its natural habitat. If it doesn’t disappear, you probably haven’t gotten to know it well enough!
  • You may think you understand the mistake and move on prematurely. You may recall your teacher saying “play that note with your 4th finger”, and assume that because you didn’t use your 4th finger, you “get” why the mistake happened. But, do you understand why you didn’t use the 4th finger? Is your teacher even right about this? Stick around and watch the mistake until you really see what’s going on. Only then will you have a chance at correcting it naturally. If you are relying on mental rules to tell you what to do, you don’t get it yet. It’s like reaching out for a glass of water. You don’t need to recall a teacher’s advice to know how far to reach. If it is not automatic, it’s not yet a part of you.
  • You may not truly attempt to bring the mistake back. It is natural not to want mistakes to occur, and to try to prevent them. This may, however, get in your way. I’m serious when I say you should try to bring the mistakes back. When you increase the tempo, don’t do it by one click. Double the tempo. If you play from memory, don’t stop when you aren’t sure of the next note. Let your hands play and watch what they do.

Setting realistic expectations

The danger in practicing for short-term performance is that we often tend to fixate on mistakes that we cannot possibly fix within the given time-frame. It is thus crucial to set realistic expectations. If Instead of correcting mistakes, we can often increase our chances of success in other ways:

  • Play a piece that is easy enough that you are likely to play without mistakes.
  • Simplify the piece to the point where it is easier to play correctly.
  • Learn how to make peace with any mistakes that you make during the performance, and the fact that you are a fallible human being.
  • Reduce factors that are likely to lead to mistakes (get a good night’s sleep, spend time on the piano you will be performing on).
  • Refuse to play altogether.

These options are often available to you, and often they are not. For example, you may not have control over what piece you are permitted to play, or how well you sleep, or how much time you have to practice. Always, it is better to focus on what you have control over, and accept what you don’t.

Acceptance vs Correction

Many pianists assume that if a mistake occurs, it must be “corrected” immediately. There are, however, dangers in “correcting mistakes”:

  • Fixation on problems that you don’t know how to solve: We often assume that because we played a wrong note, we must circle the note and pay extra attention to it. Does this solution work to fix the mistake? If it does, great. Often, however, the solutions that come to mind don’t work, and we keep doing them anyway. If you are unsure if a solution is solving your problem, is it possible to find something that you do know how to solve?
  • Lack of commitment in practicing: Effective practicing requires repeating the same thing multiple times with slight variations. When we make a mistake, it can suddenly divert our attention away from whatever it was that we were practicing when the mistake occurred. It is important to bring the attention back, rather than letting it change our course completely. Make note of the mistake if you’d like, but view it as a future problem to work on.
  • Reinforcing anxiety: Students will often stop before or after a mistake because they feel anxious about it. Working to solve the problem then gives a sense of accomplishment, or of at least feeling like they are doing something productive. These rewards can serve to reinforce the feelings of anxiety. A better response is often to simply allow the anxiety to occur, and stick to the task at hand.
  • Reinforcing distraction: Even if the student is not experiencing full-blown anxiety, correcting mistakes can prevent the training of attention on a single task. Do not stop when a mistake occurs. Keep going. Come back later and fix it. This is the most important point I can make.
  • Diverting attention away from the music: When you play, your attention needs to be on the performance, not on potential errors. If you approach performance from a place of correcting mistakes, it will be impossible to fully experience the music itself. When you perform, perform. Let the mistakes inform how you plan your practice sessions, not how you play.

It’s hard to fix things when you aren’t OK with them first. Work on accepting the mistakes. Make friends with them and see them for what they are. Then, when you really get to know them, you can decide if you want to keep them around.

A few objections

“What you are saying is obvious. Of course, you shouldn’t fixate on mistakes, but merely take steps to correct them. Why make a big deal out of this?”

This may seem obvious, but watching the way most musicians practice, you would never know it. We obsess over our mistakes in many subtle ways, and we continue to repeat strategies that have no hope of working. Everyone does this. This is why I place so much emphasis on learning how to let go of things. When we are free of these traps, we have much more energy and time left over to pursue what we are actually interested in doing. When fixing mistakes is approached from a place of playful curiosity, we have a much better chance of being successful, and of enjoying the process.

“How will mistakes be corrected if I don’t correct them?”

If you don’t take the time to identify each of your mistakes and understand its cause, it will never be corrected.

On the other hand, if you correct your mistakes, you will be constantly chasing yourself in circles, and never build a strong foundation upon which to base anything.

This is a paradox.

The way to resolve it is to commit to doing one thing at a time, observe the results dispassionately, and adjust your course as needed, based only on results, and not on your level of worry.

“Are you saying I should just ignore my mistakes?”

No, I’m saying you should work on one thing at a time. By all means, notice them. Write them down. But when you practice, work on one thing at a time.

Some of those mistakes will be fixed simply by noticing them. Some, you will not know how to fix anytime soon.

“If I keep repeating mistakes, won’t it become impossible to eliminate them?”

I will say a few things in response to this:

  • If you don’t know exactly how to fix the mistake, you are already repeating whatever behaviors led to the mistake in the first place. Those behaviors may even be present in everything you play, whether the notes are right or wrong.
  • Do you know why you are making the mistake? Do you know what reward you are getting from it? We don’t do things simply because we have repeated them, but rather because those things have been reinforced. Habits can be learned in a single repetition.
  • As I mentioned above, you will never eliminate it from your brain. Your only hope is to build something new.
  • This may be something you have done thousands of times in the past. A few more will not make a difference.

Do not worry about this problem. Worry only about understanding the mistake, not about eliminating it.