Piano Lessons for Life: Don’t Correct Mistakes

Don't Correct Mistakes


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.


15 thoughts on “Piano Lessons for Life: Don’t Correct Mistakes

  1. Nice article! That was one thing I really liked and that taught me a lot from my DMA teacher, was that she never corrected wrong notes and rhythms. Unless there would be too many mistakes in which case she would she say “make sure to make it clean,” but she always assumed that correct notes and rhythms and articulations were only a basis. The rest was what mattered.
    I think there’s one more cause that makes many younger students miss spots is lack of mental preparation during a piece. They have to train their brains to think of opening their hand here, or playing on the tip of their finger there, or looking at the left hand while listening to the right hand here. If they have a mental map of what their brain needs to think about before they play, they become in control of the piece.

    • Thank you, and on the one more cause – I do agree!! Choreography (or the failure to choreograph) is one of the biggest sources of error… Hmm, I was going to include a paragraph on that, and didn’t…. (I’d intended extrapolating from the super-fine motor skill of fingering to larger physical movements.) The follow-up post might need writing before the end of the day!!!

  2. I completely agree. One of the things I tell my students is “We don’t care about what we DON’T want.” In other words, identify the issue but focus on the technique/thought (especially in singing, it’s SO mental!) that we want to REPLACE the problem with. I try to always teach in “positive directives” so that we’re always working for what we want rather than trying to fix what’s wrong.

  3. You’ve really got me thinking now Elissa. I would like to bet I mostly teach the ‘correction method’. I think I do some of the other, but not enough. I love what you say. It’s far more positive. I’ll have to think it through in some more depth. Looking forward to the follow-up post!

  4. Excellent article. A big AMEN to the bit about the fingering.

    I particularly liked what you said about the second big source of errors – the failure to notice and imagine. It was brought home to me this afternoon when a relatively new student (bright kid, practices well) insisted she could not hear the difference between a legato line and a line with a “hiccup” in it. She was not being difficult – her ears and imagination hadn’t yet been trained to hear the difference. Students can’t know what they haven’t been taught.

    It was another reminder for me to not simply correct something that is wrong or poorly executed, but to take the time to conscientiously and patiently demonstrate and explain the concept.

  5. Thanks, Elissa. For parents of kids who learn Suzuki piano that was a lovely though provoking piece. Fingering is often a problem, noticing rarely and imagination… hmmm what’s that?! Hopefully that will change a little now… Emma

  6. You’ve an excellent blog here, Elissa. One solution I’ve found that helps students is to think MACRO. Students get into the making of needless errors because of MICRO thinking. One “theme” I often come back to is the fact that a music editor has spent a good amount of time TO HELP YOU in selecting a fingering for their piece. Often, for example, an editor will select a fingering that will avoid the using of the thumb on a black key, which avoids awkwardness. To “prove” this I will have the student play the passage with “their” fingering as opposed to “the editor’s” fingering. After we have positively demonstrated that the editor’s fingering was better I’ve successfully demonstrated to the student that it would have been in their better interest to use the editor’s fingering. I try to reinforce this with other analogous examples, for example, the suggested amount of cookie batter vs the suggested baking time to make a good batch of cookies. BOTH ideas work together to make the ideal cookie. Ignoring the suggestions puts your best efforts in peril. This exercise helps the students understand the “concept of fingering” where it is NOT something that takes him/her unnecessary work to learn their music. Again, MACRO learning beats that natural MICRO thinking that students participate in because of their lack of experience.

    Dan Severino

  7. I like your piece of advice “Don’t correct mistakes, instead find the source of the error.” This is so true in being a great instructor, instead of just a great performer trying to get the student to do what you think they should do. However, I think it is natural human nature to do so and we as teachers need to be aware of what are more effective ways of getting points across. -Theresa

  8. This is some of the best advice on the Internet. The biggest sin that so many piano teachers commit is that of DISCOURAGING their students, when they should be filling them with enthusiasm. We can do that, not with false praise, but partly by striving to be a good role model and partly through our own (contagious?) enthusiasm, but mostly by creating circumstances in which they can succeed and feel good about succeeding.

  9. A very useful article. The best music lessons, like the best practice habits, are about positive learning – learning to do it right – not about error correction. Finding the various root causes of errors and stumbles, instead of just correcting mistakes, is one of the most fascinating aspects of teaching piano.

  10. I promise I’m not trying to be tricky! But isn’t saying “don’t correct mistakes” to a piano teacher actually attempting to correct a mistake? I prefer the language “set your students up for success”, then the mistakes are less likely to happen in the first place (hopefully, but not always…and then they do need to be corrected). I’m also thinking there are different ways to correct mistakes. There’s a big difference between saying “play the F#” and “did you notice your G Major scale sounded unusual, what do you need to change?” Either way a mistake is being corrected, but the second way is helping the student develop independent problem solving strategies.

    • I promise I’m not trying to be tricky, too! “Don’t correct mistakes” doesn’t actually correct a mistake – it’s more like a Stop sign along a road, and when the driver pulls up they have a chance to check the traffic before deciding what to do next. And yes, setting students up for success is by far the best strategy for avoiding mistakes! But students are not tabula rasa – they bring along their own experiences and expectations, and there is not a chance that a teacher can operate in such a way that the student is forever prevented from engaging in mistake-making!

      Asking a student “what do you need to change?” is still a mistake-oriented teaching strategy, however student-empowering it may appear, and it is a strategy that does not engage in “why” but just “what”. Locating the source of the error (“why did the student play their G Major scale with an unusual sound?”) will produce an immediate change, not just in performance but in the mental processes the student experiences in the course of their performance. Focussing on what needs to be different does not address why it’s going wrong in the first place.

      Does a student develop independent problem solving strategies when the teacher and student address the source of the error rather than the mistake that manifests as a result? Absolutely! Students internalise all kinds of insights as to what might be worth examining when errors occur, and as they experience the transformation that comes from dealing with the *source* of the error, they become adept at mindful awareness of their own performative and conceptual processes.

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