The Problem with “Perfect” Practice

Mistakes aren’t all bad.
Don’t be afraid to make them –
just don’t ignore them!

(Why the haiku? TMQ)

We know that practice doesn’t make perfect.

(And while we’re on the subject, we might as well admit to ourselves that 100% flawlessness is impossible, and that most of us don’t have what it takes to be a true perfectionist anyhow.)

So that leaves us with a phrase often used in place of the classic aphorism “Practice makes perfect” – namely, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” (often credited to the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi).

Thing is, that phrase “perfect practice” too often seems to give people the wrong impression.

How so?

Perfect practice

It’s easy to interpret the word “perfect” in this context to mean that we should avoid errors and mistakes in the practice room. After all, it stands to reason that if we have a habit of making mistakes in the practice room, we’re likely to make mistakes on stage too, right?

Ok, well avoiding mistakes in the practice room would necessitate practicing very carefully and methodically (which isn’t all bad).

It might also mean playing things slowly, and working up to speed gradually (again, not always such a bad thing – though there might also be something to be said for getting the tempo up first, and working on accuracy second on some occasions).

When perfect practice is bad

But then there are times when this no-mistakes-allowed definition of perfect practice makes us afraid to try a new way of doing things – something that might help us take our playing to a new level in the long term, but make us sound worse in the short term.

Or times when we are afraid to stretch ourselves. Reluctant to explore the edges of our current technical ability to see what cool things we might be capable of. Unwilling to really take some risks and go for broke in such a way that might lead us to fall on our face – but could also produce something very compelling to listen to. Far too many students I’ve spoken with are afraid to experiment and risk sounding bad even in the practice room, fearing the judgment of students who may be passing by or eavesdropping.

And then there are times where it manifests in avoidance – such as spending a disproportionate amount of time working on things you already do well at the expense of skills or passages that are comparatively weak. I am a big believer in cultivating and maximizing our strengths, rather than spending all of our energy shoring up weaknesses (as Tom Rath advocates in Strengthsfinder 2.0), but we mustn’t neglect and avoid our weaknesses to protect our ego either. This will only stunt our growth as musicians, artists, and people in the long run. And limiting our growth in order to protect our ego doesn’t do much to advance the performing arts or make the world a more interesting place to live.

What “perfect” practice really means

I’d argue that “perfect” practice is just another name for deliberate practice. Mistakes aren’t the problem. The problem is not taking the time to articulate the specifics of the mistake, the cause of the mistake, and the potential solutions, so you can avoid making that same mistake over and over.

Take action

Don’t worry – you don’t have to be afraid of making mistakes in the practice room. Feel free to practice going for broke. Work on things you struggle with. Try new ways of doing things. Experiment freely. Don’t be afraid to sound like crap as long as you know why.

Tired of sounding bad and need an ego boost? No problem. Go ahead and start a practice session by playing something you play well and feel good about. Just don’t let yourself get stuck working on this at the expense of neglecting weaker areas of your repertoire or skill set.

Bonus reading

My old childhood Suzuki classmate, the acclaimed jazz violinist Christian Howes, has a noteworthy post on “perfect” practice.  It has a bit more of a jazz angle of course, but classical folks will find some important takeaways too.

The one-sentence summary

“If you always sound good in the practice room, you’re probably not doing it right.”  ~Unknown

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  1. Mary Titus says

    I guess you really can’t discuss practice habits too much. This is a great angle to look at things. As a jazz musician ( classically trained ) , I can appreciate shaking the fear of mistakes. I would wager that mordents, trills,grace notes, modulations exist because of mistakes. In jazz, we like to say that there is no such thing as mistakes and really there isn’t. What counts is how you follow through with a “regrettable judgement” by making it a part of the music. Be like a caveman when you practice and don’t waste anything, which includes a perfectly good “regrettable judgement “

  2. says

    Did you see Dan Coyle’s post on making mistakes over at:

    I’ve found this useful to share when rehearsing choirs to help people manage their anxiety with mistakes. I tell them that if they’re making mistakes that they are able to correct themselves, this means we’re stretching everyone appropriately, but if they feel like they’re flailing round and not able to find their way back on when they fall out, they need to ask for help. And while it’s good for our egos when it all sounds fab, if the whole rehearsal is like that, then we haven’t learned enough!

    • says

      Ah, that’s a great post, thanks for the link. Reminds me a bit of the goal-setting literature in sport psych where athletes are encouraged to set goals at the upper edges of their ability. Set them too high and you’re setting them up for failure, and giving them a goal that isn’t very motivating. Set them too low, and they’re likewise not very motivating because there’s not as much personal satisfaction in achieving a goal that’s obviously and easily achievable.

      Thanks for the choir example, that’s very illustrative. Have you read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset? There’s a line in there where she quotes a sociologist, I believe, which is something to the effect that there are two kinds of people in the world – learners and non-learners. Being a non-learner is comfortable, but being a learner is where all the good stuff is at. Sounds like you’re encouraging the learning (growth) mindset; nice!

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