Expertise and mistakes: how many mistakes does it take to become really good?

How many mistakes does it take to become an expert at something?

Millennium Stadium in Cardiff full of people - what if the number of people represented how many mistakes you make to become an expert.

I recently went to speak to a group of primary school students in Bristol about what it is like to be a musician. The Year 5 students were brilliant. I played this piece for them, and then asked them what they thought a person would need to do to be able to play a piece like that. What does it take to become really proficient at playing an instrument.

Passion, Practice…

First, the Year 5 children said, you would need to really love what you were doing. Then, they correctly identified practice as one of the primary things a person would need to do to become really proficient at anything. When asked what good practice would look and sound like, they even talked about:

  • Little bits every day
  • Working most on the hard bits
  • Working in sections
  • Playing things really slowly

And then one of them said, “you would need to look at the mistakes you were making and see if you could find out why you were making them, because then you could stop them.”

… And Mistakes

Realising that I was in the presence of true geniuses of growth mindset thinking, I asked them about mistakes. They all told me that mistakes are actually really good, because they tell you the things that you don’t know yet, or can’t completely do yet.

At this point I was strongly reminded of FM Alexander’s words about his struggles and experimentations to find a solution to his vocal problems. At one point he says:

I practised patiently month after month, as I had been doing hitherto, with varying experiences of success and failure, but without much enlightenment. In time, however, I profited by these experiences… [1]

And again later in his investigation:

I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to ‘do’ them, and the experience I gained in giving these directions proved of great value when the time came for me to consider how to put them into practice. [2]

Alexander here very clearly views his mistakes and his experiments as valuable, even when they don’t work. Not only that, but he was prepared to persevere with them even for months without knowing if he was having any success!

How many mistakes?

The children in this Bristol school were impressing me with their attitude towards experimentation and mistakes. So I decided to test them. “Do you think I made any mistakes in that piece I played today?” I asked them. The majority correctly guessed that yes, I had.

And then I asked them, “How many mistakes do you think I’ve made over my playing career, since I picked up a recorder for the first time?”

One of the children put his hand in the air immediately. I called on him. “A whole STADIUM of mistakes!” he said.

What a great image. A whole stadium of mistakes. I instantly thought of Wembley, or Twickenham. I thought about the stadium in Cardiff, which I walk past every time I go to Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to teach. Imagine every seat full, and every person in those seats representing a mistake. Every seat an opportunity to interact. A whole stadium of opportunities to learn and grow.

Is your stadium full yet?

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.32.

[2] ibid., p.41.

Image: Wikimedia Commons. No machine-readable author provided. Whoelse~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain]

Making mistakes in musical performance: should we aim for perfection?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?I worked with a student recently who has been having problems with mistakes onstage, even in music the student knows really well. My student described the mistakes as coming out of nowhere, and creating a sudden loss of focus that resulted in further errors. The student wanted help from me to eliminate the mistakes.

Would you have asked for the same thing? It is an understandable desire: I mean, nobody likes making mistakes while performing, especially when they lead to further loss of focus. Dealing with the mistakes would cause the other problems (loss of focus) to disappear on their own. Surely that seems like a great idea…

But what if the mistakes aren’t really the problem? What if we are really suffering from a completely different problem: a mindset issue?

Musical mistakes and perfectionism

Last month I attended a training day run by BAPAM[1] on anxiety and heard a great talk on perfectionism by psychologist Dr Radha Kothari. One of the markers suggested by Dr Kothari for an unhealthy perfectionism was a performer’s attitude towards mistakes: are they something to learn from, or something to be avoided? If we believe that mistakes are something to avoid, then we are likely to engage in behaviours that are unhelpful: we will get unduly nervous before performing out of fear of the mistakes occurring; we may start avoiding practice sessions; we may notice physical tension building when we are coming up to the passages where we think we are most likely to ‘fall off’.

Mistakes matter when we hold the belief we are aiming for perfection; that is to say, when we believe that it is possible to give a perfect performance. Mistakes are clearly not included in anything perfect, so logically, mistakes take us away from perfection and towards failure.

Except… perfection isn’t really possible. As an example, just think of how many recordings have been made and performances given of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Many of them will have been good; some will have been great; a number will have been excellent. But can we really label any one performance as perfect? Does that even make sense as a concept?!

Perfectionism as a habit of thought

There are lots of different (and helpful) models out there to describe this kind of thinking. Carol Dweck made the idea of ‘mindset’ famous, and even my son’s high school hands out material about the difference between a ‘fixed’ and a ‘growth’ mindset. There are a lot of good posts out on the web about self-limiting beliefs (here’s one from life coach Tim Brownson). Back in 1910 FM Alexander dealt with the topic, and didn’t mince his words. he called this kind of thinking ‘trifling habits of thought’ and said:

the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of thought quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence. [2]

The implication of his statement is that our beliefs, if they are merely ‘trifling’ and ‘mechanical’, are utterly changeable. They aren’t giant pits or bear traps; they are potholes. If we can fall into them, we can lift ourselves back up out of them and keep walking. We can notice the belief, and then change it.

My student’s attitude towards mistakes was an indicator of a mindset – a belief about perfection – that I suspected was not helpful. So I asked a question that suggested a change of mindset: “Which would you rather: perfection or excellence?” My student’s face lit up instantly. One change of word, and everything changed. My student reported a vastly increased fluency and enjoyment while playing, which was still evident (and increasing) weeks later.

If you strive for excellence, mistakes are expected. They are something to learn from. They are a source of information, and an occasional bump in the road. Nothing more significant than that.

So how will you view your mistakes today?

 

[1] British Association for Performing Arts Medicine. They’re fantastic.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.52.

Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.net