Browsing the internet one day, I came across an article by performance psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama who serves on the faculty of The Juilliard School and the New World Symphony, titled "8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently."
I highly recommend you read the original article (which can be found on the Creativity Post), but for those on a time crunch, the gist of the article is this:
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin conducted a study a few years ago observing pianists learning and performing a passage of music in a controlled environment with a limited time frame. They ultimately discovered 8 practice strategies that were common to the top pianists in their experiment, and were less frequent in the practice sessions of the other pianists. They are:
1. Playing was hands-together early in practice.
2. Practice was with inflection early on; the initial conceptualization of the music was with inflection.
3. Practice was thoughtful, as evidenced by silent pauses while looking at the music, singing/humming, making notes on the page, or expressing verbal “ah-ha”s.
4. Errors were preempted by stopping in anticipation of mistakes.
5. Errors were addressed immediately when they appeared.
6. The precise location and source of each error was identified accurately, rehearsed, and corrected.
7. Tempo of individual performance trials was varied systematically; logically understandable changes in tempo occurred between trials (e.g. slowed things down to get tricky sections correct).
8. Target passages were repeated until the error was corrected and the passage was stabilized, as evidenced by the error’s absence in subsequent trials.
Of these 8 strategies, numbers 6, 7, and 8 were the most significant (used ONLY by the top three pianists in the researchers' experiment).
As Dr. Kageyama pointed out in his article, "the researchers note that the most striking difference between the top three pianists and the rest, was how they handled mistakes. It’s not that the top pianists made fewer mistakes in the beginning and simply had an easier time learning the passage. The top pianists made mistakes too, but they managed to correct their errors in such a way that helped them avoid making the same mistakes over and over."
And the top strategy that seemed to have the most impact? Strategically slowing things down. "After making a mistake, the top performers would play the passage again, but slow down or hesitate – without stopping – right before the place where they made a mistake the previous time."
Focusing on difficult passages, creating mini goals within the lesson to both correct errors and create a sense of accomplishment (your goal is to play these four measures three times in a row correctly, for example), using what I call the "Tempo Timeline" to slow playing down until mistakes are fixed, etc -- these are all strategies we use every week during lessons to correct errors and work through challenging pieces. It is important to remember, however, that these same strategies can and should be applied during practice sessions at home.
It is very easy for people to spend their practice sessions playing through their songs from start to finish over and over and over again. Unfortunately, this likely means the same mistakes are being played over and over and over again as well, embedding the incorrect notes/rhythms/details/etc into the pianist's muscle memory. Sometimes students go home and ignore difficult passages entirely, playing only the sections the like or the sections they know well. In these moments, mistakes aren't being played during practice time, but they also aren't being fixed. Although the student is practicing regularly, these habits don't improve songs. Progress will absolutely be slower.
So whether you are an older/more advanced student looking to make the most of your practice time, or you are the parent of a younger/beginning pianist looking to establish good practicing habits early on, I highly recommend incorporating the following:
Correct Mistakes When They Happen During Practice Time
1. Focus on the difficult passage (figure out the notes, rhythm, details, etc).
2. Play slowly until the error has been fixed.
3. Repeat the section until it can be played three times perfectly (at a slower tempo).
4. Build speed using the "Tempo Timeline."
5. Reintroduce the once challenging passage back into the song by utilizing "Line-By-Line Practicing."
Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. Happy Practicing!