Don’t Make Mistakes While Practicing – The Million Dollar Challenge

Everyone makes mistakes right? You don’t have to though. Well, at least not while practicing slowly. Once you get a piece up to speed, there are quite a few reasons why mistakes might happen. In Graham Fitch’s recent post he clearly separates mistakes into two categories, careless mistakes and honest mistakes.

In this post we’re going to discuss careless mistakes. These are mistakes that can be avoided with some thought and slow practice. Honest mistakes are mistakes when you were aware of the correct way of playing something, but you were unable to play it that way. This is almost always because of technical deficiencies.

Careless mistakes are made because you didn’t care to pay attention to what was written. For example, if you would have thought for a couple more seconds, you would have known that a measure you’re working on was supposed to be loud, not soft. You can completely avoid careless mistakes with the right approach.

What Would It Be Like If You Never Made a Mistake?

If you could wave a magic wand right now and never make another mistake in practice, never hit another wrong note, never play an incorrect rhythm, always play correct dynamics, how would your playing change?

Practice Makes Permanent

I recently wrote a post about how we should practice correctly from the beginning. That post dealt generally with focusing in on articulations, dynamics, and other musical aspects that we sometimes ignore until after learning the notes. The reason we need to practice everything from the outset is because practice does not necessarily make perfect, it makes permanent. Whatever input you give your brain, sticks.

Muscle memory is a habit, and habits are difficult to break. Actually studies have shown that their impossible to break. We can only replace them. When you practice incorrectly, even if it’s just a wrong note or rhythm once or twice, you’re teaching your brain how to play incorrectly.

The practice you are doing will stick until it’s replaced, and it will likely come back at the worst possible time, your performance. Don’t give your brain incorrect inputs then. Don’t practice mistakes. That may sound like a good idea, but how is this actually accomplished in practice?

How to Never Make a Careless Mistake Again

The default practice speed for most beginners and young students is fast fast fast. When playing fast, you’re going to be making a lot of careless mistakes. Mistakes that are completely unneeded. Did you forget the dynamics? That’s a mistake. Did you miss some articulations or not hold a note long enough? That’s a mistake too.

The Million Dollar No Mistakes Challenge

Ready for some fun? Imagine that someone offered you a million dollars if you were to get through a brand new piece of music with no mistakes. This piece should be difficult enough that it would normally take you a few weeks or months to learn.

The Rules

You can stop between notes for as long as you want. The music can be as slow as you would like. Some sections may be faster or slower than other sections, but whenever you start playing you should have a steady tempo. If you stop, you can then change tempo. Every note and rhythm must be played correctly.

If you do stop, it has to be after you’ve played the correct value of a note. For example, if the music calls for a half note then two quarter notes, you may stop after the half note, but the half note has to be held for it’s full value. When you’re ready, you can move on to the two quarter notes.

Everything written down must be followed. If the music is marked forte, it needs to be loud. If it’s marked piano, it needs to be soft. If the note is marked staccato, it should be played staccato. If you miss one staccato note, you don’t get the million dollar reward.

Let’s throw you a couple of bones though. If it was an honest mistake, we’ll let it slide. For example, if you meant to play a note extremely soft for a pianissimo section, but the note didn’t make a sound, we’ll call that an honest mistake. Your intention was to follow the music, but for whatever reason, technically you were unable to follow the music accurately.

Don’t forget to stop! If a rhythm coming up looks difficult, don’t just play it. Figure it out in your head first. You should clap it, count it, sing it, or whatever you have to do to get it right the first time. If you don’t know what a term written on the music means, look it up before you play it. You can take as long as you want while you stop as long as the other rules are followed.

So that’s the challenge. Work on a new piece from the beginning to the end like this. Can you do it? If you can’t do it, it’s because you’re being impatient. That’s not to say it’s not hard though. It’s very difficult to have enough patience to win at the million dollar challenge!

Practice Making No Mistakes

It’s not easy to stop making mistakes. It’s just not. It’s a test of your patience and willpower to keep the music ridiculously slow. Just like anything else, you need to practice this challenge. Do the million dollar challenge once a week or so, just to remind yourself what it’s like to play perfectly. If an entire piece take too long, try a page or two. The idea is to teach yourself how to practice correctly, not necessarily to learn the piece. For this reason, if you’re doing the challenge, it’s always best to work on a piece you haven’t seen before.

Practice Small Sections, Not the Entire Piece

Now that you went through the million dollar challenge, I’m going to tell you not to practice like that on a regular basis. You still should avoid mistakes, but you shouldn’t play from the beginning to the end of the piece this way for your normal practice. The challenge is to help you feel comfortable with practicing in a new way, free from mistakes.

Apply the same rules in all of your regular practice, but do it over a very small section and repeat that section many times.

You’ll find that as you get more comfortable with small sections, your tempo will gradually increase. Don’t think about speed. Don’t try to speed up. The music will start to get faster organically. You’ll know that you won’t make a mistake even if it’s a little bit faster, so you end up playing it a little bit faster.

Conclusion

Practicing with no mistakes may not be easy, it may not be something you’re used to, but it will make a dramatic difference to the way you play your instrument. When you finally finish the piece of music, after working on small sections over and over again, you’ll find that those sections are learned in a way that you never learned music before. They will be musical, strong, and confident. If you memorize while learning this way (if the music must be memorized, you should be memorizing), then after working on the last section of music you’ll actually be done (with perhaps the exception of technique and speed).

You will have thought deeply about every measure. You’ll have time to digest everything the composer wanted. It really does make a difference, and in the end your music is learned faster because you don’t have to go back to relearn music.

Try it out and let me know what you think in the comments!