Why do I Keep Making Random Mistakes?
Have you ever sat down to practice something you’ve played dozens of times before only to hear yourself make a bunch of random mistakes that you may not have made previously? Or maybe you've found yourself making frequent mistakes on sections you thought you fixed the day or week before?
I’m 99% sure the answer is a giant (and slightly annoyed?) “YES!” to both of these questions. This happens to just about everybody at the beginner to intermediate level (and it happened to me for much longer than I’d like to admit ).
So, why does this happen? Well, the biggest reasons (in my experience) can be attributed mostly to 2 things: 1) too much practice & 2) too little success in the practice room.
Less is More!
In the learning stage of a new musical passage, it's common practice to repeat that phrase until you reach a baseline level of proficiency. We can define baseline proficiency (BP) as the ability to play a new phrase very slowly, with minimal physical effort, good tone, and rhythmic accuracy (ideally from memory) ONCE.
Unfortunately, it is also common practice to keep repeating that same phrase way past BP to try to get the phrase closer to mastery. Repeating up to BP is a great strategy for learning and memorization, but once you repeat more than needed for BP you end up using too much blocked practice. This can inadvertently increase your probability of encoding the new information into short-term memory rather than long-term memory.
Most people intuitively use blocked practice to learn & improve a new skill, but according to plenty of research on skill development, blocked practice isn't necessarily the best strategy for either goa once you've reached BP (e.g., Suzuki & Yokosawa, 2020). After reaching proficiency, a more effective strategy is interleaved practice.
With this strategy, you organize your new phrases or challenge spots into groups and work on them in sets. For example, instead of repeating phrase A fifty times until you can play it extremely well, repeat it only until you reach your baseline proficiency. This should only take you around 4-7 repetitions if you keep your tempo way down and really focus on improving or correcting every single repetition.
Once you reach your baseline for phrase A, move on to phrase B and use the same approach. Then do the same for phrase C. You can accumulate only as many phrases as you can comfortably hold in working memory -- for me, it's usually 3-5 phrases. Then repeat the same process from the top for a total of 2-3 sets (e.g., ABC, ABC, ABC). Naturally, the second and third times you go through each phrase, reaching baseline proficiency will happen much faster and you'll feel that the phrase becomes much easier to execute. At this point, you can vary your tempo and dynamics just a tiny bit to add a slight challenge to your phrases and then work the phrase up to your new proficiency level. You can think of your new goal as "level 2 proficiency."
The most important thing to keep in mind is that your goal should always be to uncover errors and make a slight improvement on each repetition and to keep your total number of repetitions for each set fairly low. Remember that the more repetitions you accumulate per set, the higher your chances are of forgetting your corrections and improvements the next day. Personally, I aim for 4-7 repetitions per phrase, per set as a flexible limit.
Success in Practice
The best performers in the world have an extremely high success rate in the practice room. But this doesn't just mean they get things right all the time. What they actually do is approach practice as if they were working on a complex puzzle. They celebrate uncovering errors and regard them as clues to help them solve that puzzle. Once an error is uncovered, they concentrate very hard on correcting it and then look for another error ("clue") to correct in order to continue improving. At the end of the day, they have a high success rate because they correct every error and, consequently, end up with more correct than incorrect repetitions.
Consider these two practice examples and see which one sounds more familiar:
• Attempt 1: error
• Attempt 2: almost got it
• Attempt 3: fixed one thing but got another wrong.
• Attempt 4: nope
• Attempt 5: better but still not good.
• Attempt 6: a little better
• Attempt 7: same
• Attempt 8: Ok, I got it this time!
• Move on to the next phrase.
• Attempt 1: error
• Attempt 2: correction
• Attempt 3: same
• Attempt 4: same -- feels easier
• Attempt 5: a little faster to add a challenge --> error.
• Attempt 6: correction
• Attempt 7: repeat correction
• Attempt 8: repeat correction
• Move on to the next phrase.
In the first example, Student 1 ended up with only a 12.5% success rate which also means an 87.5% error rate 😳. Next time Student 1 sits down to practice he/she will start the practice session with an 87.5% chance of making an error on the same phrase! And if student 1 continues to practice this way, he/she will end up with diminishing returns. If your practice sounds anything like student 1, this could explain a big portion of your random errors in practice. (My own practice looked like this at the beginning so don't feel bad if you can relate. It's not too late to fix it!).
Student 2, on the other hand, had 1 more error than student 1 but still ended up with a 75% success rate (or a 25% error rate). And if he/she continues this strategy, student 2 will eventually end up with a 95%+ success rate fairly quickly! This is the model that we should all follow for our own practice.
The trick is to be very focused on problem-solving and remain extremely patient with your progress. Wait to increase your tempo until you've reached your baseline proficiency. And if you do make a mistake (even a tiny one), first remind yourself that mistakes are fundamentally important for improvement so long as they are corrected. Then stop to correct the error and repeat the correction a few times before moving forward.
For improvement, your ideal goal should be to finish with roughly an 85% correct repetition rate and about a 15% error rate. If you are getting more than a 30% error rate, you're going too fast or working on something too hard and, as a result, improvement will be difficult. If you're getting less than a 10% error rate, then the material is too easy for you and you won't improve much either since it won't be challenging enough. Over time you'll increase your probability of success beyond 95% which is perfect for maintenance and performance.
Try these two strategies this week and let me know how they work for you!
(PS: Anxiety or stage fright is also a big reason we make mistakes but I'll save this topic for another post because it's quite complex and involves a very nuanced practice approach).