A few months ago, I decided to take a page out of Indiana Jones’s playbook, and embarked on a quest.

Not for the holy grail, or some noble intellectual pursuit…

But for the best nachos in my neighborhood.

Yep. Every Saturday evening, for the last couple months, I’ve ordered nachos from a different place.

Chili nachos. Chicken ranchero nachos. Nachos texanos. Nachos el grande deluxe.

But every weekend, I’m faced with a dilemma. Do I order the nachos I’ve enjoyed the most so far (chicken ranchero nachos from Burrito Box), or keep searching for better nachos?

Each time, I am forced to decide between a sure thing, and an unknown nacho contender. If I give up my search too soon, I may never discover the awesomely satisfying nachos that I believe are out there. But keep at it too long, and I may be wasting many weekends eating nachos that make me feel kind of sad and disappointed inside.

What does this have to do with practicing?

Well, we actually face a similar dilemma in the practice room.

Bird in the hand, or two in the bush?

Called the “exploration-exploitation trade-off,” whenever we engage in skill development, we have a choice.

We can choose the sure thing that will probably give us results close to what we want (e.g. the fingering that works ok, but maybe isn’t great = exploitation). Or, we could try something new that may or may not work, but will ultimately teach us more (e.g. try a new fingering that may be worse…or may be totally awesome = exploration).

Put another way, we can stick with what we know and stay in our comfort zone, or we can go exploring and try a range of other things. Sure, most of our experiments and exploratory attempts will probably fail to get us the results we are looking for, and end up looking like a “mistake” or error.

But then again, exploring a greater range of the possible techniques and motor movements available will give us a much clearer understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

It’s like taking the same route to work every day vs. trying out many different routes. Sure, you may get lost sometimes, or get stuck in a dead end, but ultimately you will develop a much deeper understanding of the layout of your neighborhood, be able to optimize the commute to work, and enjoy much more efficient drives in the long run.

But didn’t someone once say that “Perfect practice makes perfect”?

And isn’t inconsistency bad? Aren’t making mistakes, missing shifts, and cracking notes bad for our confidence, and won’t they lead to the reinforcement of bad habits?

The benefits of inconsistent performance

Researchers at the University of Sheffield studied player data from an online game called Axon (play the game here or watch a short video if you want to avoid getting hooked).

Their study generated a number of interesting findings about the learning process, but one of the more intriguing findings was that greater variation or inconsistency in a player’s early scores was associated with higher scores later on.

This reinforces a similar finding in one of the author’s previous studies, where the participants whose scores were most inconsistent in the early going, performed best at the end of the learning period.

*Bonus finding: The authors also found that spacing practice out over a longer period of time improved scores. Folks who played their first 10 games over 24-plus hours averaged scores 7.3% greater than those who played their first 10 games within the first 24 hours.

So rather than studying and practicing in one big cram session, distributing the same work across multiple study or practice sessions seems to increase our rate of learning.

Take action

I think these results speak to the value of experimenting in the practice room (and even on stage to some degree), which to the observer may look like inconsistent performance in the early going, but is really something quite different.

Indeed, we don’t have to play things “perfectly” every single time. It’s ok to try new approaches, and make mistakes along the way. We needn’t restrict our curiosities and creativity out of fear of reinforcing bad habits and doing it “wrong.”

So when you begin working on a new piece, explore. Try the same passage “wrong.” Take too much time, take too little. Use less tension, use more. Move your pinky finger more, move it less. Experiment with the full range of options you have, and enhance your “map” of what works and what doesn’t.

Disregard what others outside your practice room might be thinking about the embarrassing noises emanating from within, and you might just stumble across a mini breakthrough or two and have the last laugh.

As Einstein* once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

photo credit: mikebaird via photopin cc


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About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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