Mistakes are an inevitable, even essential, part of life and learning. Think about the way a baby learns to walk. Was anyone there to point out incorrect technique? When babies learn to walk they don’t care about all the rules of gravity and balance and posture. They simply one day decide they are going to try walking, and, after some falls and stumbles, they get it!
If a piano student can keep that same healthy attitude of being OK with making mistakes, he or she will progress much faster at the piano–and at any skill.
What can teachers and parents do to help children not be afraid of making mistakes? Read on for some ideas:
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Maintain your own child-like curiosity for learning and trying new things
Any time you try something new you open yourself to making mistakes. That takes courage. Sometimes, trying something new doesn’t work out, but you wouldn’t know that unless you had tried! When our children and students see us try new things, that will help inspire them to have the courage to try new things too. When I was a piano student, my own teacher was taking piano lessons from a professional concert pianist. The person who was teaching me still thought she had more to learn. What an amazing example that was!
Develop and practice a healthy attitude towards mistakes
The way you react when your child or piano student makes a mistake teaches them how to feel about mistakes.
In her book, “Mindset,” Dr. Carol Dweck shares research that shows performance is linked to a healthy attitude about mistakes. When children believe that a mistake means they are unable to do something, they get stuck. They think that they’ll never be able to do more than what they can do now. Instead, if children understand that a mistake means they might have more to learn or need a little more practice, then a mistake is a challenge to keep trying. Believing that you can change, grow, learn, and get better at things is essential for progress in any skill, and especially in piano.
If a student gets stuck on a single mistake they keep making, let them know its okay to take a break from working on that and find something easier to to work on for a while. It takes our brains some time, could be days, weeks, or even longer, to sort out a complex task and be able to execute it well. A lot of this is done without conscious effort. Ask your brain to do something, give it a few tries, and it will keep working on it while you’re doing other things, and especially when you’re asleep! I’ve been amazed by how many times I’ve tried to learn a difficult passage of music seemingly without success, but then after setting it aside for a few days and coming back to it I find I can play it.
Don’t be too quick to correct mistakes
When trying to learn a new skill, it can be very discouraging when someone is hovering over you, pointing out everything you’re doing wrong. While timely feedback is important when learning a new skill, one great thing about the piano is that the instrument itself gives instant feedback. Most of the time, a piano student can tell if they’ve played a wrong note.
Instead of correcting mistakes, look for things that are being done right. Whatever you focus on gets stronger. When a mistake is being made consistently to the point that it might become a habit, that might be a good time to suggest reviewing the way the song should sound. Rather than pointing out the mistake, see if you can guide the student to find it for themselves. Play a recording of the song and ask them to listen carefully, then compare their own playing. If the mistake is something having to do with piano posture, review the elements of good posture and have the student check themselves. What we want is for students to learn to identify their own mistakes and work to correct them.
In this process, make sure to let students know to be gentle with themselves as well and not be hyper-focused on finding mistakes. It’s hard to play a piece with enjoyment and emotion if you’re constantly watching out for errors. There’s a healthy balance between demanding accurate piano playing from ourselves and simply enjoying making music.
Avoid scolding and negative emotions around mistakes
When trying to learn a new skill, mistakes are a natural part of the process. Mistakes are not something to be avoided, but simply observed. A mistake when playing the piano can mean all sorts of different things. Sometimes it means we need more practice. Sometimes it means we didn’t understand something about the music. Sometimes it means we need to pay more attention to our playing. Sometimes it means we’re tired, or hungry, or upset about something completely unrelated to piano. It never means we need a scolding.
Maintain a positive and light-hearted spirit
If you’ve always felt bad about making mistakes then it can be a challenge to learn to think positively about the experience. Fortunately, we all get lots of practice making mistakes!
When a mistake occurs, just think, “Ah! How interesting!” Then move on. No judgment, no worries. Just get up and try again. If we can learn to do this ourselves, and then in turn help the children we love do this, what a powerful tool for life we will be giving!