Events: Deconstructing a Mistake
We make mistakes. Hopefully they occur in practice, not in performance.
For most people that means repeating a given passage until we get it right. There’s not much thought, just repetition. We get it wrong a few times, then slow down, get it wrong a few more times, then finally get it right.
Then we’re done. After all, we just got it right!
That’s an incorrect practice method. In fact, chances are we’ve just spent 90% of our practice time playing the mistakes.
Time to deconstruct the mistake, and build it back up.
Defining an Event
By event, I mean Technical Event. An event is anything that requires a movement of either hand. In short, it’s whenever we’re doing something.
Most of us internalize miniscule events quickly. These are little things like correct right hand finger movement, or putting a finger down on the left hand.
We go through hundreds of little events every time we play. Because we’ve internalized them so much, they take place largely in the unconscious mind. We just command our hand to move and the correct movement is built it. It doesn’t take conscious though to control it anymore.
I’m less concerned with the little things (unless these events are ingrained incorrectly); I’m more concerned with those complex movements that throw us off. These are things like a big shift. Or a strange stretch. Or a unfamiliar chord shape.
A mistake happens when a technical event goes awry. More likely, it’s a combination of very easy events piled on top of each other that goes awry. The complexity of the resulting movement throws us off.
Many of the events which give us trouble are a combination of seemingly basic skills. I remember playing El Decameron Negro and have a lot of trouble in the second movement. A big shift, the use of a guide finger all combined with crazy right hand speed made for a technical disaster! In reality, the issue was two events: the right hand movement which was not ingrained yet, and the left hand shift. My error was a result of these two events going wrong. I wish I had known how to practice them.
Back to the example above: when we spend our time doing repetitions of a passage with conscious though it’s unproductive. The 90% of practice time spent screwing it up means that we’re pretty much going to make mistakes in performance.
Smart practicers isolate one event at a time. They isolate where the mistake occurs, break it down into individual events and practice each event separately. After deconstructing the mistake, they build it back up again.
In a passage from Preludios Epigrammaticos No. 2 I had to play a fast run. The movement my left and right hand fingers was not difficult. What was difficult was a shift from an angled left hand position to a more parallel position combined with a shift along the fretboard and strings. Each of the little events (shift across the strings, shift along the fretboard, change in hand position) were no problem on their own. All together the presented an issue. The combination of the three was my technical event to practice, which I did by using a stop/go technique. Because I isolated the issue, I was able to play it well in practice. Unfortunately, as you’ll hear in the video, stuff can still go wrong!
One problem, one event. Isolating issues takes experience and honest self-assessment. Teachers are often our best friends in breaking down technical issues in a given passage. This past weekend, I highlighted a problem area with a student and hand him isolate the event giving him the most trouble, then walked him through put it all back together. We fixed what would have taken him hours of repetition in five minutes.
Isolating an event makes a seeming impossible problem a small issue with a small solution, and finding quite a few small solutions can add up to some big results.
Got a passage you’re struggling with? Post about it in the comments! I’d like to do a follow up where I work with a few more specific issues.
Just to follow up on the point about 90% of practice time being spent on mistakes. I couldn’t agree more – 9 times wrong and 1 time right does not mean the problem is fixed. Others have referred to the ‘magic number’. This means the number of times you need to play something correctly before you can consider it learnt. For my students I suggest this number be at least 20. For myself if I have a professional engagement it will be in the hundreds – I need to be convinced that it can’t go wrong.