First, before we do anything else—

Let’s have some Mozart.

There are four errors in the 20 minutes of music I just shared with you. Two of those errors were small enough that you might not even notice them (mere wobbles, as it were); the other two were a bit more obvious, though neither of them were the kind of thing that would ruin a performance. That said, If I had been practicing instead of performing, I would have stopped after each error and started over again.

Iterating my way towards error-free performance—by starting each movement from the beginning, playing until I made an error, working the error if necessary, and immediately beginning the movement from the beginning again—yielded better results in a shorter amount of time than any other practice method I’ve tried so far.

Yes, it probably helps that I have been working this piece for a year already—but I’m already excited to try this iteration method with a piece I haven’t fully learned (like the Bach Ricercar a 6) or a new piece of music I’ve never tried playing before.

I’m currently testing the iteration method on Ravel’s La Valse (the Garban four-hand duet arrangement, prima part), which is yielding similar results—faster learning, better recall, more secure performance.


The simple answer might be that working towards error-free performance leads to error-free performance. We don’t often tell people that they can in fact play something perfectly. We tell them that people make mistakes.

But the “people make mistakes” argument gives you an out, if you would rather make the mistake than do the work of correcting it.

For the past two weeks I have been working within a system that forces me to not only correct my mistakes, but also create positive controls that help prevent future mistakes.

I had my first error-free runthrough on Monday. It was just the first movement (since then, I’ve had error-free runs of both the first and second movements); but it was enough to make me see exactly what this kind of practice could do.

It was also enough to make me see how this kind of practice could change me, as a pianist. Look at how relaxed I am. My mind, as I play, is equally relaxed; in fact, it almost feels the way it does when I do epsom-salt floats at the local sensory deprivation center. It would be meditative, if I didn’t also have the hugest smile on my face the entire time—knowing, in this case, gives me the ability to devote my entire energy to loving. Loving the piece, loving what I’m doing with it, and loving that I get to share it with you.

You might be wondering whether this kind of practice regimen is more tedious or frustrating than the way I’d been previously working the music. It hasn’t been; not for a minute—in fact, it’s much less tedious and much more engaging. I hate to throw around the word gamify, but there’s a certain old-school sidescroller element to it; the idea that you start at the beginning, go until you accidentally fall off a cliff or run into a Koopa, and immediately begin again. It’s a full-brain, full-body challenge—how can I play this in such a way that allows me to keep playing? Where do my hands need to go, what does my breath need to do, what mental cues can I put in place to help me remember what needs to happen next?

It also makes the process of finding and fixing errors feel joyful, instead of frustrating. My practice has gone from “euugh, I just made that mistake again” to “here comes a new problem to permanently solve.” Errors, essentially, have gone from weaknesses to opportunities.

On the subject of gamification: I did not get as far on my chess study this week as I did on my piano study. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know that L and I played a nearly-three-hour game of chess this weekend (he was astonished by my progress, he didn’t expect it to take three hours to beat me when it usually takes 30 minutes, he still won); other than that, I haven’t had more than 15 minutes in a row to devote to chess study this entire week.

And sure, at first I thought I could progress just as well with a bunch of teeny-weeny practice sessions—but it doesn’t look like the iterative system works that way. My biggest chess breakthroughs, in terms of understanding structure and seeing patterns, came when I had three hours in one evening to do nothing but start new games and play until I made an orange or a red move.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that iterative learning requires a long-enough chunk of time to see the results of the iteration? Like, you wouldn’t practice until you made a mistake, look at the clock, and say “well, I messed up, I don’t have time to start another runthrough right now, but I’ll try again tomorrow.” Playing chess against the Grandmaster Robot until I made a mistake, looking at the clock, and saying “well, I don’t have time to start another game right now, but I’ll try again tomorrow” hasn’t led to much progress.

But I’ll have an entire evening next week to devote to chess study, if I want to.

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