The problem isn’t that you’re being too hard on yourself. The problem is that you’re being hard on yourself at the wrong time. You’re practicing with no real concern, and then afterward being concerned about the poor result. In essence, you’ve got things backward.
So here’s a single bit of advice with the greatest potential to change things for the better: Zero tolerance for mistakes during practice.
I’m serious. Zero mistakes. Here’s why.
The bottom line for players is how we do when the pressure is on. For concert artists, that’s when they step onstage to play for a paying audience. But even amateurs face pressure. Playing for friends and family. Making a recording. Even imagining yourself at Carnegie Hall. These are the times in which you want to do well.
Now think about how that usually works. During practice, mistakes don’t bother us terribly. Yes, we don’t like them, and we might even get angry. But we can stop, cool down, and think. After that, we can set to work at fixing mistakes. So really, a mistake during practice is the proverbial tree falling in the forest. Since no one else hears it, it’s not emotionally devastating.
In performance, however, it’s different. Now others hear every mistake. And unlike practice, we can’t stop and work the problem. We have to keep going. So every mistake is now a knife in the gut. The thing we never replicated in the practice room—a “one and done” performance—is suddenly an intense and emotionally fraught imperative.
Look at this deeply, and you start to understand why so many of us fold under the pressure of performance. We fail because of a flawed dichotomy between practice and performance:
- During practice, mistakes are tolerable.
- During performance, mistakes are intolerable.
Every good player has had this epiphany. John Williams wasn’t an accurate performer merely because he was talented. He was an accurate performer because he tolerated nothing less than accuracy in the practice room. He learned to perform under pressure by practicing under pressure. The practice room is the best place to do this—not the stage.
This is a fundamental truth of effective practice. We ignore it at our peril. And I’m not saying that adopting a zero tolerance attitude toward mistakes will immediately improve things. Indeed, at first it’ll probably make things worse. But an enduring commitment to mistake-free practice gradually creates its own solutions. We learn things about performance, memorization, technique—really, everything—that we can’t learn any other way.
If you’re serious about practicing well, this is your first step. The choice is yours.
South Euclid, OH