One of the most profound life lessons I’ve learned as a piano teacher is to not correct mistakes.
Correcting mistakes can take up whole piano lessons, whole terms of piano lessons, whole lifetimes of piano lessons. It’s no fun for the teacher, even less so for the student, and what’s more it simply doesn’t do any good.
Correcting mistakes means that all the attention is drawn to what is being done wrong, rather than to what one should be aiming to do right. This is not a good tactic in improving performance (on the piano, on the tennis court, and keep extrapolating as suits your own activities); the performer’s focus is drawn inward to the mistake rather than outward to communicating clearly.
But correcting mistakes is an easy habit to fall into. A what-not-to-do list looks like ‘instruction’, and is much simpler to compile than a strategy for success, and that’s because at the piano (as in life) it’s often easier to articulate what we don’t want than what we do. And it’s easier to articulate what we don’t want because what we do want can change from one day or moment to the next. The right thing to do changes according to context: much easier to list forbidden behaviours than to inculcate the wisdom to select judicious courses of action.
For those of you unfamiliar with piano lessons, or for those of you whose piano lessons days are far behind you, here’s the rundown of a lesson where correcting mistakes is the means of ‘teaching’. Let’s say the student plays a scale, and stumbles on a particular note. The teacher usually has two options: one is to name the note the student should be playing, the other is to name the finger the student should be using. This results in piano lessons where the teacher wearily calls out “F sharp” whenever the student reaches that part of the scale, or where the teacher forcefully suggests “4” when the student goes to use a third finger.
The same kind of thing happens with students presenting repertoire they’ve been practising during the week: a wrong note, muffled articulation, or inappropriate dynamic expression. A teacher focussed on correcting mistakes will say things like “it’s a G“, “play staccato!”, “LOUD!!“. All piano teachers reading this: I know you will agree that you have certainly engaged in this kind of in-lesson communication at some point in your careers, maybe even this afternoon. And while each of these exhortations does focus on the preferred activity of the student (play a G instead of whatever fool note you are playing/those dots really do mean a short and detached sound so do it/play loudly because that’s what forte means, hello), they are responsive to a ‘mistake’, not to a vision of what the performance should or could be.
One of the best lines I’ve ever come across about piano teaching is this: Don’t correct mistakes, instead find the source of the error.
It doesn’t take too many years of teaching before you realise that a huge percentage of ‘mistakes’ come down to fingering. A student keeps hitting a wrong note? Check the fingering. A student struggles to play a passage legato? Check the fingering. And by check the fingering I don’t mean that the teacher should check that the student is playing the fingering as written in the book; I mean that the teacher should check that the fingering being used by the student actually facilitates the performance of the correct notes, articulations, rhythms, and so forth.
Of the many other possible sources of error there are two that account for nearly everything else that goes ‘wrong’: a failure to notice and a failure to imagine. Rather than, for instance, inserting micromanaged dynamic instructions throughout a piece (and then rote-teaching these dynamics to students) a teacher can create learning experiences that strengthen a student’s interest in and ability to notice and to imagine, thus developing a performer who finds logical and emotionally engaging ways to present performances.
But the lesson for life here is both simple and profound: don’t correct mistakes, locate the source of the error.
Say you have a bill from your telco where you are being charged the wrong amount. You can call the company every month to dispute the bill and hopefully have it corrected, or you can find out why you are being charged the wrong amount and resolve the fundamental error that is leading to the mistaken total being billed to you. Finding (and resolving) the cause of the error will save you time (and probably money), not just in your piano practice but in your whole life.
Say you are setting your alarm for 7am but you are still running late for work/class/the bus each day. Rather than just trying to get ready faster, find out what the cause of the delay actually is: is your clock running five minute late? are you allowing 2 minutes for 4 minute walk to the bus stop? have you not factored time in for breakfast? Taking time to find the cause of the error (in piano practice as in life) allows you to make a good decision as to how to create effective change.
Say someone gossips about you, telling untruths in the process; in 21st century terms it could be talking about you on a facebook page or some other kind of (social or other) media. Protesting that things said about you are not true would be exactly like a piano teacher calling out “Don’t play quietly!” – all you are doing is drawing attention to the thing that is wrong! If you take the time to locate the source of the error in these social aspects of your life you’ll avoid making mistakes of your own, just as you will in your piano practice, but until the source of the error is discovered you will find new mistakes cropping up time and time again (in life as in piano). Deal with the source of the error and it is unlikely that mistakes will reappear.
To be continued.